I’ve got a set of those funny curly handlebars on my bicycle, you know the ones which were all the craze in the ‘70s, if you go back that far, but which very much fell from grace in the 80s and 90s. Well, they’re all about wind. Stand, or walk into the teeth of a gale and you hear it loud in your ears, it can slow you down or even blow you backwards. You walk huddled over, sheltering the best you can. If, in a moment of child like gay abandon, you poke your head through the open window of a moving car, it’s deafening, but liberating and fun; open your mouth and the wind takes your breath and pushes it back down your throat, your hair blows and you struggle to hold your head still against its strength.
On a bike, to a lesser extent, that’s what a cyclist is riding into, that’s why we have those curly bars, so we can get down low and present a far smaller target for the wind, which will find it harder to slow us down.
Wind is the cyclist’s sworn enemy.
An awful lot of cycling is about avoiding the wind; you thought all that tight clothing was some sort of truss, straining to hold back middle-aged spread but, whatever it reveals, it’s better than clothes flapping in the wind, slowing us down. If you’re thinking of buying a helmet, all the advertising blurb will boast the aerodynamic properties of each model. There are now aerodynamic frames, wheels, and even ‘aero-bars,’ not chocolate, but contraptions which let you get really narrow and really low to cheat that wind.
It’s not just the kit that’s aero. Less obviously, but more importantly, riding behind another rider will significantly reduce the wind resistance you experience, so you can keep up with the rider in front whilst using less energy than him. I’ve read vastly varying estimates of how much energy this really saves but, riding in the middle of a group probably saves about 30% of your effort, so the poor bloke on the front gasps away, as the wise ones sit in the middle of the group extolling the virtues of the cake at the next café stop.
So, that’s just the act of going along. What happens when the wind is blowing against you? That’s when it gets really tough. When cyclists’ chins are closest to the handlebars, when their legs burn, unspeakable fluids drip down their faces, hearts beat fastest and they suffer most. Good God, how I hate the wind. Groups of cyclists can mitigate the wind by using different formations, though those used for a headwind are the same for normal riding in a group, when each rider takes a turn out front in the wind, however short that turn might be. Side winds pose different problems as, if you are directly behind the front man, you’re still getting a mighty battering, so some other tactic is required. Here, the second rider will hide slightly behind and on the lee-side of the front, forming a diagonal arrowhead. In a large group this formation, called an echelon, will spread across the road in a massive colourful triangle, so is only seen in its glory during closed road races.
|An echelon at work|
When you’re out riding on your own though, there’s nothing to do but put up with the wind or, as they say in cycle racing circles, suffer. For suffering it is. The gusting wind will take your wheels and launch your heart into your mouth. Nervous knuckles grip white on the bars. A gap in a hedge can slow reasonable progress to near standstill in a trice. Teeth gritted, you try to relax and fight all at once, though there is nothing for it but grunting, sweating, swearing hard work. Buildings and trees conspire with it to batter you, channelling the mocking gale into your face when you least expect it.
Until the next junction, a change of direction and the blessed relief of a tail wind. Where all noise but your breath and the whoosh of tyres on the road, is gone. Where your bike computer informs you you're quicker and you find yourself clicking up, gear to gear, legs spinning faster. Now you’re flying. This is freedom for your soul; you’re at the head of the race with the others straining to catch you. Working hard still but speed is your reward, you fool yourself that it’s all your own work, but you don’t care if it’s not, for you’ve earned this. Those hours of groveling into the wind were all worth it. This is glorious, pure, unadulterated cycling heaven.
The wind is now my friend.