The Wind in the Willows

This is about wind. A very particular type of wind — the cross-wind. Any other sort of wind is your problem, not mine, OK? Winter is coming, and I’ve heard and seen a lot of comment to the effect that riding in cross-winds worries people. Not unreasonably, as there’s little more unsettling than suddenly and unexpectedly being propelled sideways across a couple of lanes of highway. Or across one lane of highway and into a hedge. But there are things that can be done to make life that little bit easier and more predictable.

Firstly, watch out for the signs of where cross-winds might lurk. Look for open road junctions, for bridges, elevated sections and the ends of embankments — anywhere you might suddenly be exposed to a side-blast. More prosaically, look for cross-wind warning signs. Don’t look too hard at trees — it’s remarkably hard to see swaying branches when you’re travelling at speed. Do look at trucks on the road ahead — are they moving around the road? Are birds flying backwards across the road? If so, there’s probably a wind about. But what to do about it?

Several things but, above all prepare yourself mentally, relax and allow it to happen — and start by trusting your bike. It’s a Zen thing — more problems in windy conditions are caused by rider over-reaction than by the wind itself. When the gust hits, don’t try to stop the bike moving at all – if you try to control every single minor movement of the bike in the wind, you’ll a) exhaust yourself very quickly, b) be unable to do so anyway and c) the resultant death-grip on the bars will hamper your machine control. Relax and let the bike move initially, then apply firm but unhurried counter-steering to compensate — if the gust hits you from the left, you’ll be pushing the left-hand bar, and vice versa. OK, so if you suddenly find yourself going head-to-head with an articulated lorry, you might want a little more Gorilla, a little less Zen, but you get the picture…

The other part of this is counter-intuitive — while simply slowing down in cross-winds might seem like the obvious idea, it does however reduce the beneft you get from one of the greatest aids to stability you have — your wheels: those two damn great gyroscopes beneath you which will be doing their best to keep the bike upright and in a straight line. And the faster those gyroscopes are spinning, the more stable the bike is. The logical extension of that is that the stronger the wind, the faster you should go. Which would be a counter-intuition too far — When there’s a gust of wind strong enough to deflect the bike from its course at a given speed, the rate at which it departs from its former course needs to low enough for you to react within your comfort zone. So there’s a sweet spot for riding in cross-winds: fast enough to use the speed-given stability of your bike, and slow enough to be able to react to gusts that do knock you off course. There’s no fixed equation for that speed – windspeed, wind direction, how much it’s gusting, bike load, weight and luggage and the nature and width of the road all play a rôle in determining that. The best thing is to have a play and see how it works for you. It does though — I’ve found by experimentation in a couple of French Atlantic coastal storms (where the cross-winds have had 2500 miles of ocean to get focussed on the task at hand) that, two-up, with panniers and in a nearly 90 degree cross-gale, I found that 55-60mph worked very nicely — above that and I was running too close to the limits of my concentration for comfort and, much below that, the bike was being deflected from its course much more often and to a greater degree.

As ever with these articles, I’m writing about what works, for me and others. If you want to you try any of this, please always do so within what you find safe and comfortable. And enjoy yourself, whatever the weather.

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