Riding in Strong Winds

I can’t believe how stressful the last month has been, or that it’s nearly a month since I passed my CBT. It’s taken quite a long time to choose a bike model and find a suitable example. I put the deposit down on mine last Saturday, and it’s now Friday, which was when I was going to pick it up. In the interim I’ve got my insurance and I’m ready, but I already phoned to put it off.

It was quite windy yesterday, and I checked the Met Office website for a forecast: the last thing I wanted to do was ride my new bike away from the shop in a gale. Winds, especially blustery ones, are about the worst conditions for a bike, particularly because there is almost nothing you can do to compensate. There are a few things you can do, which I’ll relate below, but unlike rain, cold or snow, high winds can just make it impossible – or extremely dangerous – to ride at all, perhaps even more than patches of ice on the road. Bikers are a little like ancient mariners then – we have to wait for a favourable wind – although in our case it’s better if it’s dead calm or a steady light wind (and, of course, from behind). Like the captains of sailing ships, we’re stuck in port if it gets too violent out there.

So how do you cope with high winds on a bike? Well, the first thing to note is the big difference between a steady wind and a blustery wind. A strong wind can be relatively easy to cope with, though it requires some care: the greater danger comes when that wind suddenly changes, either faster or slower than the average. Changes in wind direction can also happen suddenly. Both these kinds of sudden change tend to throw you off balance. In a steady sidewind, even quite a powerful one, you would lean the bike towards it and that would be that – you’d hardly have any trouble at all. Unfortunately, real winds are seldom like that.

It hardly needs saying that in high winds you should reduce your speed and proceed with extreme caution. You should also pay even more attention than usual to owning your lane – all of it – the full width of which you might need to occupy at any moment. Do not ride along close to the kerb, even if you’re going very slowly, or you may end up mounting it, or being overtaken dangerously close. Also be aware that pedestrians and their belongings could be blown into your path. Everything needs a wider berth – someone getting into or out of a car might have the door pulled out of their hand by the wind; a child’s buggy could easily be tugged or tipped over; umbrellas, bin bags and other litter could come at you at any time.

As a biker facing a windy ride, you need to be aware of all these different, constantly changing, conditions. From even before you set off, you need to feel the wind on your body and watch its effects on the landscape around you. As you begin to ride you have to gradually (but as quickly as possible) gain some understanding of the conditions this particular wind is going to throw at you. You might ride for a few minutes in relatively steady wind, and it is easy as a novice to become complacent. A gust can come from nowhere and change your direction and balance in an instant. Your direction of travel relative to the wind is important, and this will change as you turn corners and as the wind itself changes.

The wind suddenly dropping is just as dangerous as it suddenly rising. As well as happening naturally from the general motion of the air over the land, this can happen due to the immediate landscape around you, including buildings and other traffic. If, for instance, you’re riding along in a steady sidewind on an open road and pass a large building, you may suddenly find yourself in a calmer patch of air and have to compensate. Worse still, the wind often reverses, or changes direction in unexpected ways behind such obstructions. It can also change when the obstruction is on the leaward side of you, although it’s not usually as dramatic. Conversely, beware the open spaces at the ends of roads and other gaps. Sometimes in a town you can be riding in almost total calm and forget the wind, only to be hit by a massive blast from a road end, the entrance to a courtyard or similar hole in the protective wall of buildings, where it can be funnelled and reach even greater speeds than elsewhere.

The same can happen if you overtake or are overtaken, and as traffic passes in the opposite direction. Large lorries and buses can be particularly dangerous, and the wind round bridges and tunnels can be very turbulent.

So, as a general rule, you must be ready for the unexpected. However, the trick to this, somewhat counterintuitively, is to remain relaxed and fluid, not tighten up. You may, of course, have to tighten your grip a little on the bars, and it might also help to grip the bike between your legs, but you need to keep your body relaxed so that you can respond quickly and automatically to any sudden push. It’s a bit like the Aikido principle of moving with a blow from an opponent instead of trying to stay solidly opposed to it, which just hurts more: be like the willow rather than the oak, Glasshopper.

If the windspeed or direction hitting you changes suddenly, there is no doubt that it will result in a different natural direction of travel, and you will have to move to compensate in some way to avoid weaving too much across your lane. If this all sounds rather difficult, don’t worry – we’re talking about adjustments that your brain computes and your body makes without you having to think about them, just as you compensate automatically if you’re standing on a train and it suddenly brakes. The trick, in fact, is not to try to think your way through the movements – trust your body to do that – but keep thinking: about the traffic, your speed and position, watching for obstacles, road ends, etc.

Many a time, a strong wind will involve gusts that last for less than a second, after which the wind returns to how it was before, a fairly steady speed. With experience you may find that you can ride through these momentary changes, not adjusting your balance at all. You will be buffetted slightly off course, then come back to your line again, without any particular hazard being caused. Other times, that change will persist, and you may have to adjust your course.

Riding in winds becomes easier and more natural, but there are always going to be limits. Side-winds, of course, are more dangerous, tail winds can be advantageous in terms of your progress and petrol consumption, and headwinds can slow you down to a crawl or make riding very uncomfortable, depending on the engine size and fairing cover of your bike. Crouching down is helpful in a headwind, of course. Crouching may be of some use in balancing in a side-wind, but staying relaxed and responsive is more important, and crouching might interfere with that.

A further tip that can make a big difference is to tighten your clothing in any way possible, as well as securing any flappy bits of luggage. Specialist motorcycle clothing should be quite close-fitted anyway, depending on the purpose it’s designed for, and even at 40 mph you begin to see why – the headwind you create even on a still day grabs at any loose clothing and makes it flap, causing turbulence, reducing your speed and increasing your fuel consumption. It also tires you out on longer journeys. Many jackets have adjusters on sleeves and at the waist or hem: tighten them as much as is comfortable.

If you’re wearing looser clothing that can’t be adjusted, a few rubber bands round the arms might help. It might sound strange (and look a bit odd), but it’s amazing the amount of drag caused by loose bits of clothing. The wind will pull at you less, you’ll feel much safer and more confident, and therefore relax more.

If it’s dry, keep your visor down as much as possible to avoid dust and other debris being blown into your face (if it’s raining, you’ll probably have it down anyway).

Experience – gained always with an emphasis on caution and riding well within your abilities – is a great teacher. If you live on a housing estate or have somewhere safe you can get to easily, it’s worth practising in more severe conditions than you would normally, to learn more about and extend your limits, but be very wary if you’re still on the public highway, keep your speed down and watch out for pedestrians.

Finally – something I’ve just realised from doing it myself – if you spend a bit of time checking the windspeed forecasts online, for instance at the Met Office, and compare the current conditions with the numbers, you’ll have a good idea what to expect from forecasts at a later time, perhaps when you’re planning a longer trip.

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