Wind or hills? Pick your poison

It’s a fun debate among cyclists. Which is worse, wind or hills?

The bright side of a hill is that you can see the end. It’s true that they don’t go on forever but personally, I prefer the wind.

I’m what other cyclists call a “strong rider.” That’s not a compliment in every respect. I’m not a particularly smooth or graceful rider and I don’t spin that well but in the wind, all that’s forgiven. When we hit a head wind, I tend to do more than my fair share of turns at the front. It’s partly size and power, partly it’s a good attitude.  Into the wind, I can be tough and resilient.  That’s an attitude I lack on hills. I’m not a hill climber. I weigh far too much to ever be a strong climber. And of course, it’s also psychology. I look at the heart rate data and I don’t work nearly as hard on hills as I know I can. I reach some great spikes sprinting but just trudge along climbing.  That’s partly because the gains from the extra effort are so small. And now I’m whinging, so I’ll stop here.

After enduring an incredibly windy ride on Sunday (wind steady at 30 km/hr with gusts to 50 km/hr) I, of course, posted the news to Facebook. The weather was pretty miserable. Sleet touched my good road bike! (I washed it after.) And all variety of athletic friends were posting about having run, practiced football etc in these conditions. A friend, a fellow cyclist and a serious distance rider, commented, “Wind. Hills without character; hills without soul. The breath of a demon and the delight of Satan. Wind. Best reason for pacelines ever!”

What’s so bad about wind?

“A headwind will significantly increase your pedaling effort and affect your cycling performance (particularly if you are riding at competitive speeds). Why? The relationship between your effective air speed (ground speed plus head wind speed) and the resistance to pedaling (energy needs to overcome this resistance) is an exponential one. This means that doubling your air speed will MORE THAN double the Calories expended per mile traveled.(This graph visually demonstrates that relationship.) And the graph also shows us that adding a 5 mile per hour headwind to a ground speed of 20 miles per hour has a much greater affect on you total energy requirements per mile than if you are riding at a recreational pace of 10 mph. Are there any secrets to dealing with a headwind? A good attitude is probably the best. You can’t do anything about it till the road turns, so welcome the wind as an aid to becoming a better rider. Think of it as a form of hill climbing (at slower speeds, each 5 mph of wind speed equals ~1% of grade i.e. a 20-mph headwind would equal a 4% hill). Then it becomes a challenge rather than something to hate for part of your ride.”

Read the rest of this, including Cycling Performance Tips on Riding into a Headwind here. See also How to cycle your best in a strong wind and How To Ride Your Bike Into WIND!.

Of course the best part of a windy ride are the tailwind stretches. So fast, so effortless, and you can talk.  Of course, if you have enough cycling experience that love of fast quiet is tinged with apprehension about what’s ahead.

All cyclists have a story of being deceived by a strong tail wind. I once headed out from the university at lunch with my friend and training partner, a young German mathematician named Martin. We met in a triathlon training group and while he was a faster runner, on the bike were pretty evenly matched. We got talking about work and we were making great time. Wow. Zoom. I think we both thought that were finally getting seriously fit. Such speed, such little effort, we were talking while going fast. And then it dawned on us.  But by then we were a good 25 km from campus and had to teach in an hour. Of course, zooming had been courtesy of a very strong tail wind. We ought to have known better.

Turning around we could barely make 20 km/hr into the wind. But we did it. Made it back in time. But there was no more talk of fitness or speed. We suffered silently, heads down, working hard, taking turns the front.

I like this quote: “You never have the wind with you – either it is against you or you’re having a good day.” It’s from Daniel Behrman, The Man Who Loved Bicycles.

When I was riding lots in Canberra, Australia a few years ago I noticed the absence of wind and the presence of serious hills. Mostly the riding there was in every way superior–more women, more racing, more group/bunch riding, more hills. I was out on training rides three or four mornings a week and racing at least twice a week. But people at my level didn’t ride as close and didn’t ride rotating pace lines the way we do here. Without the wind it just wasn’t essential.

I felt, at the end of the ride on Sunday, like these windswept trees from Slope Point on the South Island of New Zealand. You can read more about them here.

Here’s my photo of these same trees:


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