You could easily be fooled into thinking that hills are what make bike races and training bashes fall apart at the seams, forcing the strongest riders to the front. That’s true, but only to an extent. In everyday riding conditions the cyclist’s worst enemy is the wind.
It doesn’t generally crop up just once or twice in a ride to shake things up, it’s there all the time. Like hills, sometimes it’s stronger and tougher than at other times, and there’s no escaping it. Some of the toughest bike races in the world are held on the flat, open roads of Northern Europe, and Belgium in particular. Time and again we see the wind-strewn Spring Classics blasted to bits in the fields of Flanders – we see vistas of weaving line after line of echeloned riders gritting their teeth and fighting through the wind, dropping off one by one until only the elite are left.
When it comes to riding and profiting when the wind blows, it’s the Belgians who rule the roost. Riding in these gritty conditions day after day forces you to learn, and learn fast, how to ride in the wind. It’s a tough game, and one where experience is key.
Being in the right place at the right time is all-important, because when the pressure’s on into the wind you ain’t going nowhere but backwards
We caught up with Hendrik Redant, a man with more than his fair share of experience as a pro rider and these days directeur sportif of the Belgian Lotto Silence team. He took us through the key elements of survival in the wind, and showed us how his team handles situations to make sure they stay up front when the going gets tough.
These principles can be learned from, and adapted into, almost any cycling situation to help make your life that much easier.
In windy conditions you need to think well ahead, and be prepared for the conditions. The changes in wind and terrain will often determine the outcome of a race. If you’re familiar with certain areas and roads then you’ll have some idea of the direction the wind generally comes from. If you don’t, you need to find out from other riders and then take a look at the map and be aware of where turns are likely to force a change in wind direction. Also be aware of where you turn on to a minor road, because this will cause a bottleneck and thin down the echelon. To take advantage of these changes, you’ll need to be well prepared and close to the front of the pack.”
Read the race
“Keep an eye on the riders around you. Those with the most experience in such conditions, or those who you know to be strong in the wind, should be noted, and you should aim to stay close to them. When you see riders of the same team massing together and heading for the front then you really need to be moving up with them, because they’re probably going to put the pressure on and make it tough for the other riders.”
Find the right wheel
“Take note of the riders you’re with and how they ride. This applies in training as well as racing. Look out for those who hammer through and are very strong – they’re not the best riders to follow in the wind, so find someone who isn’t quite so strong. That way you don’t have to go over your limit just to get through. Also, try to find a rider who’s a little bigger than you so that you get the best protection.
“An experienced rider won’t make life easy for you when the wind’s blowing, so try to follow riders with a little less experience. They will usually allow that extra 5-6cm of a gap that will let you in and keep you out of the wind.”
Fight for your rights
“In the wind you really need to be aggressive and focused on keeping your position, because once you lapse and lose it you’re going to find it hard to stay with the group. Keep it very tight and hold that position, even if it does mean pushing and forcing out another rider to get there – it’s a case of every man for himself, and you cannot allow yourself to get ousted from the line of an echelon.
“When things get tough you’ll be on your limit, and even if you don’t want or have to, you should ride through and do your turn – this will help keep your position. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself suffering in the gutter, and there’s nowhere to go when you’re there and the pressure’s on.
“If you find yourself out of the echelon then you must force your way back. If the race is at 70kph then you’re not going to be able to go anywhere, but if there’s a lapse in pace or the opportunity arises, go all out. This could mean hell for 200m or so, but it’s the only way to get back into the race.”
Survival of the fittest
“The most experienced riders are the ones who’ll profit most in the wind, generally from holding their position and forcing out those who don’t contribute to the race. When it gets tough you need to work with those who are pulling turns with you. Often this means either making it very difficult for those not working to stay with you or to force them into action. Close up the gaps, make no room at the edge of the road. If you see they’re struggling add a little pace and don’t allow them in anywhere. This is the best way to whittle down a group.”
Where to ride
“Exactly where you ride to best avoid the wind is really down to feel. If you think logically and move around when riding in the wind, it will eventually become natural to find the easiest path. But the wind moves around a lot as the road twists and the hills change.
In general, the key factor is to shelter yourself as much as possible and to keep a chain rolling smoothly and efficiently, moving and moulding with the wind conditions.
“Keeping as tightly packed as possible is important, reducing the wind damage as much as you can. If it’s a dead headwind then as tight on to the back wheel in front as possible is important, but generally the wind isn’t fully head-on, hence you ride as much to the side of that wheel as is necessary to reduce its effect. The more side-on the wind, the more to the inside of that rider you need to be. You must always stay tightly packed in, though, because even in a dead sidewind you’ll be going in to the wind by the fact that you’re going forwards, so it’s never a case of riding side by side.”
Take your turn
“As I said, in tough conditions it’s important to roll through with the group in order to hold your position. If it’s not so tough or it’s a big group and not a string of echelons then this isn’t so important. But in windy conditions it’s always advisable to try and stay close enough to the front so that you stay out of trouble and can react if things change. The wind may pick up, there may be a crash or an attack, and these aren’t easy to react to riding into the wind.
“When you’re working with a group into the wind you must try and keep things steady; it does no good to force your way through for a turn and to hammer so much that you find it difficult to get back into the group and recover. If you find that you’re having to force through just to make your turn, then try and get on to a wheel where you don’t have to do this, and let that rider fry some more at the front.
“If you find yourself strong enough to make it hard for the riders behind then think about whether or not you need to do that; if it’s a small group and you’re at the front then it could be a good opportunity to get rid of your opponents. But if you have 100km to go and 30 riders behind you then you shouldn’t be wasting your energy.”
“If you find that you’re in a group and it’s getting to a point where you’re stronger than the combined group, and you think that the odds would be in your favour to go it alone, then do it – but be sure that this is feasible. Assess the group and the conditions, and decide when to attack. If you’re strong, make it tough for the others before you do, and attack either just before or after your turn. If you’re strong enough to ride them off your wheel then all the better.
“Try to make attacks in conditions where you’ll be out of sight for a while, preferably on narrow or twisty roads. Wide, open roads can be demoralising, and make it easier for chasers to get back to you. Once out there keep tucked and aero, and keep your focus on staying smooth.
“In general, staying close to the edge of the road is slightly more sheltered, thanks to trees and buildings. It’s also the best way to stay out of sight.”