Against the Wind / by Erin Wade

Life on the open prairie is often a windy affair. This is a year-round phenomenon, to some degree, which is why, when I look out any window of my house I see giant white turbines. But there is some considerable variation across the seasons out here. Mid-summer and, to a lesser degree, mid-winter can have extended periods of relative calm, while spring and autumn kick things into high gear, perhaps feeling the need to make up for the laziness of their seasonal predecessors.

Any cyclist who has ridden for any length of time knows the wind can be a formidable foe, and it can absolutely be a factor in deciding whether one wants to ride at all. This is what I was contemplating this past Black Friday - I wanted to get out there and work off some of the turkey and gravy, but the 20+ mph winds were weighing in against that notion. Still, if one waits for the perfect conditions to do a thing, one will never get to do that thing, so I geared up myself and got out my Catrike Pocket. It also occurred to me that this might be a good opportunity to see what the actual effects of the wind are on riding.

To do this, I stopped and took screenshots of my Cyclemeter readings at three key points in the ride - at the end of the first section, riding into the wind, and the end of the second section, mostly with the wind, and again at the very end of the ride.

I selected my route so that I would be riding into (or against) the wind for the first five-ish miles of the ride. I try to do this in general so that the hardest part of the trip presents early on, when my energy level is at its highest. In this case I would be riding directly against the wind - straight south against southerly winds. Cyclemeter indicates the wind speed for the ride was 26mph.

The Numbers

This is how that came out:

Riding against the wind

The average and top speeds are really the primary areas where the impact can be seen. I’ve ridden this particular route four times prior on the Pocket, and my speed across those rides on the route averages out to 12.22 mph. Here, for the first five miles I’m down to 11.36. Cyclemeter also lets you break down your rides into mile splits, so I can compare the first five miles on this against previous rides, and looking back it’s clear that I’m at least a little bit slower, and in some cases dramatically slower, than on previous rides over this section:

breakdown by mile

Both my average speeds and my top speeds are down from the prior rides. In some cases I have weather data for the other rides to compare against for wind speed and direction:

  • On the 11/19/17 ride Cyclemeter indicates the wind was out of the West by Northwest (WNW) at 14mph, so I would have had a partial tailwind for that section.
  • On 11/11/17 it was South by Southeast (SSE) at 8mph, meaning I was riding partially against the wind, although a much slower wind.
  • On 10/20/17 the wind was out of the south at 8mph - a direct headwind.

The 19th - with the partial tailwind at 14mph - is definitely my fastest ride over this section, suggesting some benefit from having the wind behind you (unsurprisingly). These numbers also suggest a bit of a threshold effect - the 8mph winds (which feel like a relatively still day out here) don’t seem to have much of an impact.

And what about getting the wind behind you?

I took the next measurement 6.48 miles later (these were each taken at convenient stopping points). This segment consisted of approximately two miles heading east, and and four going straight north (the rural roads here are mostly laid out in a grid pattern - makes for ride maps that look like Tetris blocks), putting the wind to my right for 1/3 of the segment, and directly behind me for 2/3. That 26mph tailwind does make a bit of a difference:

With the wind at my back

As you can see, the average speed is up by a couple of mph, and the top speed is way up. In the interest of full disclosure I’ll note that this is (of course) a downhill speed (yes, we do have hills in Illinois). This is actually not far off of my highest speed on the Pocket, which was 31.72mph, and that on a much bigger hill during the 2017 Farmondo put on by the Tempo Velo Cycling Club in Sterling IL.

The wind at your back - at least when it’s a big wind - would appear to make a considerable difference.

The remaining couple of miles of the ride were mostly westward, with the very last half-mile going north (with the wind). My average dropped a scosche, but otherwise the numbers look similar to the prior measurement:

the final results

The Takeaway

It’s not terribly surprising to find that the wind against you will slow you down, and that the wind with you will speed you up. With respect to that we pretty much have confirmation of what would be the expected hypothesis. But looking at this over time does show a few other things that I found interesting:

  • While the headwind slowed me down, it didn’t slow me down as much as I expected. An average of ~11 mph on the Pocket is not awful - scanning back over the year my speeds on similar roads range between ~11.5 and ~14.5 mph. I’m at the slower end here, but not so much so as to make it unreasonable to consider riding.
  • There seems to be a threshold effect - an 8mph wind doesn’t seem to have much of an impact, but higher winds look like they do.
  • A good tailwind clearly does have an impact. This always felt like it was the case, but I am a little surprised about the degree of impact.

An additional observation here for me is the subjective difference offered by the recumbent trike. I’ve loved riding for a long time, but riding on windy days, against the wind, on my road bike, has always felt like a slog. The Catrike was different. Yes, it was more work, and I was riding in lower gears, spinning much more than usual, but it didn’t feel like work the way that it does on my Cannondale. Some of this may be due to the aerodynamic advantage of the recumbent - you are simply not up in the wind in the way that you are on an upright bike. Some of it may also be due to not having to maintain balance in addition to pedaling for forward motion. It’s also possible that there is a difference due to gearing. My Cannondale is old - it’s an ‘87 - and only a 12-speed. The Catrike has 27 gears to choose from, and many of them much lower than those on the Cannondale. It might not be as different if I could grind less and spin more on the upright. Regardless, while I still love my Cannondale, I really love my Catrike.

Ultimately, for me this shows that it’s really worth it to get out even when the wind seems to be working furiously against you. And, since most of it is for exercise, I suppose one could say that the wind is ultimately working with you...