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Riding in the wind.

Rating: 7 votes, 5.00 average.
Tomorrow I am heading to Laigueglia for another UCI 1.1 on Saturday. It's going to be a tough one I think with plenty of climbs, fortunately the weather is looking a little more accommodating. This is just a mid week blog post, if you want to know how Calabria went, then click here. The following post is something that has been brewing in my head for a while, I wrote/drew it all very quickly between stages last weekend however. It would be good to get a discussion going, corrections or more advice added by readers. Leave a comment (see below) if you have something to add. If you aren't a member of the ERRL forum it may take a day or two before I approve your comment.

If this doesn't interest you then look at these photos of underwater dogs instead:

It occurred to me that many cyclists know at least something about riding in the wind but definitely not everything, and there are many bicyclists (*cough* triathletes *cough*) that have no idea what to do at all. It also occurred to me a long time ago that there is a culture amongst racing cyclists of not teaching each other what the conventions are for cycling behaviour in general. Often when a rider does something wrong (like go through too hard on the chaingang) instead of being told what to do they are just shouted at until one day they get it right (they know this because they arenít shouted at). Sometimes weíre just a secret gang of smug, know-it-all cycling snobs. You have to undergo the humiliation of being wrong and not knowing why until you work it out for yourself, then you can be a smug git, too and join the club. In a race itís worse, not knowing all the tricks for cheating the wind (of which I am sure there are too many to learn them all) results in wasted energy, which is a sin in road racing.

So now I am going to relate as much as I can remember about riding in the wind, which definitely wonít be a complete knowledge, perhaps others can add their own comments (see below).

Normally at this point lots of diagrams start to be drawn, since I always end up explaining how to do this at the tea stop I usually demonstrate with as many teaspoons as I can find. For this reason I am about to do the same again. A teaspoon represents a cyclist (viewed from above, travelling in a handle to ladel direction), an arrow represents the wind direction and the picture of the road is a picture of the road.

What I write now will be intuitively obvious to some more experienced cyclists, I would still like you to read it so you can add to it if possible.


The first principles are fairly obvious; if youíre riding along and want to make it easier for yourself you should ride behind another cyclist so as to shelter from the wind and spend less energy. If it is a direct headwind, tailwind or no wind at all then riding directly behind another cyclist is the best place to be. Ride as close as you dare, you can get even closer if you ride slightly to one side so that the tyres misalign, which will give you some manoeuvre room in case the rider in front brakes. The distance you keep to the rider in front should be a function of your trust in them and your trust in yourself. In UCI cat 1 races it might be a few centimetres, on the Wednesday ride itís more like 50 for me. The closer you are the easier it is, the faster you are going the more effective drafting is. As the speed rises the difference in power is greater both literally and taken as a percentage of the power you would produce had you not been drafting. For the team pursuit on the track the second rider in the line produces around 40% less power than the rider on the front. In a peloton that percentage can at times be much higher again.

If there is a side wind things change slightly, youíll want to ride diagonally behind the rider you wish to draft on the other side of the wind direction. At this point a bit of feel comes into it, there is always a sweet spot where the draft is at its minimum. The most un-aero part of a cyclist, the thing thatís causing the most drag is the cyclistís torso. Make your torso hide behind theirs and youíll usually be pretty close to that sweet spot. On days with a strong side wind that sweet spot can be such that you are almost riding next to each other, only the drafting rider is a wheel circumference behind. Again, proximity is key; in UCI races weíll often be close enough that we regularly bump into each other as the wind buffets us. This might involve the odd light brake-lever-to-the-buttock jab or mild elbow-to-the-ribs depending on the wind strength.

Another thing to note is that if you have a choice, choose the largest or least aerodynamic looking cyclist (i.e. a bolt upright one) you can find to ride behind, they will present the best draft.

Where is the wind coming from? Sounds like a silly question to an experienced roadieÖ After a while you get a feel for it. Looking at the direction the grass is waving at the side of the rode provides a good clue.

Now Iím going to talk about bunch racing, if you want to know how to draft better on the club run just read this article on my coachís website instead:
Group riding is about being considerate and sharing your draft, bunch racing is something else altogether.

More than two cyclists

Head wind

Itís getting complicated now a >2 body problem! Assuming the road is closed to traffic, the wind isnít blowing and you have 200 similar riders following the advice I set above (but occasionally taking turns on the front) you would get something akin to a normal peloton, with normal peloton behaviour Ė just without the actual racing part. Wind resistance and drafting are the only reasons pelotons exist at all, if we couldnít draft off each other it would be like a running race or a time trial and we lose the entire tactical element of racing. We would just set a steady pace for ourselves and arrive at the finish at different times. Drafting doesnít make cycling boring, it makes it interesting. When riders pack closely together it is still quite fluid, the riders tend to almost tessellate, most riders will find a draft by inserting their front wheel roughly level with two riders in front of them, either side. If everyone does this you get a sort of hexagonal pattern when viewed from above, with the riders all extremely close together:

Next time you watch a sprint finish on the TV, look at the helicopter shots in the last few kilometres. Everyone is massing at the front, riding as close together as possible. There are always gaps to be filled however and riders moving up around the sides to fill them, the more tense and nervous everyone is the more frantic the movement and the fewer the gaps.

Here is a video of a little blob of riders at the front of a race coming close to the finish. Look how close they are together and how fluid the movement is of the riders:

Side wind

With a side wind we get one rider hiding behind another who is behind another and another until suddenly the road isnít wide enough. In a desperate attempt to get some draft the riders continue to ride behind each other in a line along the edge of the road. This is called riding in the gutter and it isnít fun. In UK road races the cyclists stay about 30cm away from the edge of the road, in Europe (and in particular Belgium) you usually ride a couple of cm away, the road edge isnít always that straight and so occasionally riders will go off the edge into the dirt and back on again, losing precious speed. In order to ride as close to the edge as possible itís important to be able to see past the rider in front. This is difficult when he is also 2cm from the edge of the road. The trick is to learn to ride with your head hanging over to the side so you can see a couple of places ahead. This I find is the only way to ride close to the edge, close to the rider in front and have some sort of chance of not going off the road. Occasionally there will be a layby and you can quickly grab a proper draft for a few metres before moving back into the gutter again.

Here is a video of a team riding on the front, forming an echelon:

Here is a paceline, also sometimes called an echelon. The riders in the breakaway are all sharing their turn on the front and drafting each other in the sidewind: more about riding constructively together in a group in my coach's article:


There isnít a whole lot you can do on your own with a side wind unless you are already way stronger than everyone else. The main thing you can do is attack in the gutter, this means that if anyone is to respond and follow your attack then they will have to work just as hard as you, rather than sit in your draft. A tail-side wind is more effective to attack in than a head-side wind. The wind doesnít need to be strong at all in order to be an effective weapon, the lightest wind will force everyone in the gutter no matter what. Waiting until everyone is already in the gutter before you attack is also a sensible thing to do.

Here is a video of someone attacking in the tour of Qatar, because he doesn't move straight into the gutter he makes it easier for the guy following him to jump him for the intermediate sprint:

Team tactics

This is where it gets fun. A well drilled team can do real damage with a crosswind. The best thing to do is have a little meeting before the start of the race, look at the map and wind direction and make a plan. The main way to split the race up is by massing (as surreptitiously as possible) near the front just before the crucial corner at which the side wind begins. Enter the corner on the front as a team time trial, sprint out the other side and create an echelon wide enough for you and your teammates but no one else. Now you have to ride at top speed together as a team, something that may require practice. If everything is going to plan you and your team will all be drafting each other at full speed whilst everyone else is struggling in the gutter. For the attack to be effective it isnít enough to split the peloton (which may take a while as it is), you have to make a gap and keep it until the riders behind start to give up. It never happens that you have a clean split, you will sometimes lose some of your own riders and keep some of your rivals. They will be unwilling to work with you but thatís OK, you should have a pretty decent numerical advantage once you have established a gap.

HTC Highroad did it in stage 3 of the 2009 tour, I'm having trouble finding decent video footage of it happening but this is better than nothing: Please leave a comment if you find better footage.

Another video, this time Sky in Qatar, note how they are quite persistent, leave just enough space for them and their team mates and by no means drop everyone: They end up not winning the stage but succeed in whittling the bunch down considerably. Perhaps the element of surprise wasnt quite there like it was in the Highroad video.

Another good location to split the bunch in a crosswind is to ride your team echelon up and over the top of a hill with everyone in the gutter. When you are all flying down the hill there will be still be plenty of riders going up the other side a fair bit slower, hopefully making a split. Rolling Essex countryside is great for doing this (although I have never seen it happen successfully there).


Itís all well and good talking about attacking but learning about side winds has always been a question of survival more than anything else for me. In addition to the basic stuff from the start of this treatise (yes, it appears to have become that long) the other main piece of advice I can offer is the first rule of road racing, which is to stay near the front.

What tends to happen when all the riders are in the gutter is that someone in the line will decide that itís all too hard and let the wheel in front go (you can see this starting to happen in the previous video). If that person is 50 (or even 5) places in front then you are probably in trouble. You will have to rely on other people to close the gap for you, or you will have to sprint around and close the gap yourself. Once the gap opens and accelerates closed again itís like being attached to a giant rubber band. The variance in speed at the back of a line of riders is far bigger than at the front. At the back of a 200 man line itís possible for the front riders to go round a corner at 25mph and accelerate up to 30mph and for the riders at the back to go round the same corner at 10mph and sprint up to 40 just to average the same speed. If you are at the back of a 200 man line your fate is no longer in your own hands, it is only a matter of time before you are either cut off from the front of the race (with 150 others) or the riders at the front decide to slow down again so you can get back on. Itís this whip cracking effect thatís good to take advantage of when you are at the front but donít want to get caught out with if youíre at the back.

Being too far back whilst in the gutter in a pro race isnít so bad, there is a pretty good chance the line wonít break (although it is still preferable not to be there) unless it is later on in the race and people are getting tired. In an amateur race there is a real risk you will be dropped with other riders and not get back on again, or at the very least you will give yourself plenty of extra work to do to get back into contention. There isnít much you can do whilst in the gutter other than stay there and follow the wheel in front, being quick to close gaps that form in front of you. If you find riding in the gutter easy then you are in the wrong category of race: attack, win and get your license upgraded.

Make sure you arenít the one that loses the wheel in front when youíre in the gutter, you wonít be popular. In a Belgian Kermis itís often customary to give a Madison style hand sling to the rider behind to help him close the gap. Dropping the wheel in front is often terminal, no one further back will let you back in again. Attempting to barge your way back into the line again is called gutter-sniping and is frowned upon. If you are tall like me you might get let in, if you are small (and present no draft) you can forget it: straight to the back.

When you spot a rider in front losing the wheel in front itís important to react as quickly as possible, otherwise it might be too late and the gap will never close again, much to the annoyance of those behind you.

Team survival

Iíve only seen this once before but if you and your team mates are all stuck in the gutter just make your own echelon In the middle of the line. That way you can share the draft together and at least survive where you are, however far back you are. Sometimes you can even move up to the front of the race together as a group (something you see more often). Sharing the draft together as a team at the front is a common sight in pro races, normally because there is a protected rider, leadout train or captain.

Strong head and tail winds

If there is a strong headwind then bigger, more powerful riders have the advantage. This feels pretty intuitively obvious, perhaps counter intuitively in a strong tailwind (and it has to be very strong) it is better to be a lightweight. Once you are going faster than the tailwind it becomes a headwind again (in a relative way) and so the advantage swings in the favour of the bigger rider again. Not sure if that makes sense or not.

And there you have it, in a single blog post you now know what to do when itís windy in a road race. It took me many years of being shouted at to learn all that and all you had to do was read it. Please leave a comment if you have any questions or you think Iíve left something out or you disagree.

Updated 20-02-2012 at 02:32 PM by David Mclean

2012 - Meridiana Kamen


  1. Lee's Avatar
    Thanks for that, really useful