Riding With the Old Woman: Wind and the Cyclist by Tamia Nelson

Climbing hills, especially long steep ones, is no cake walk for cyclists. But hills have one trait that makes them tolerable—sooner or later they crest and come to an end. The wind is another matter. If you have a headwind and you must ride into it, there’s no letup. You can’t see the wind, you can just see its effects. Flapping flags, smoke blowing in a horizontal line out of a chimney, leaves skittering toward you on the pavement. But the wind—the Old Woman—is a presence, nonetheless.

The voyageurs of the Fur Trade called her La Vieille, or the Old Woman. She was mean-spirited, capricious, and could be terribly vicious. Cyclists, like canoeists, are susceptible to her tantrums, and if you cycle for more than the occasional pleasure ride, you’ll likely do battle with her. When you’re riding deaf, with only the roar of the wind in your ears, you’ll have her in your face, but you’ll know well enough that she’s going to push you around, because it will seem as if you’re dragging a ton of bricks. When the roar in your ears isn’t so bad, then she’s on the beam, coming in at you from the side. And when you can hear your heartbeat in your ears while feeling as if you’re putting no effort into your cycling, then the Old Woman is behind you. Enjoy it while you can, it doesn’t happen often.

Is there any way to cope with the wind? Sure. Battling a headwind is like climbing a long hill. Just shift down into a lower gear and spin along, putting just the amount of effort into making forward progress without spending one erg more energy than necessary to do so. You can make yourself more aerodynamic, too. Wear clothes that fit closely against your body and don’t flap. Go into a tuck when you’re on gentle terrain. Panniers and other bags on your bike will act as drogues in a headwind, and in a side-wind they can give the wind a grip on your steed, shoving you sideways and possibly even toppling you. There’s little you can do about the bags if you’re shopping or on tour, but you should be aware that they will affect stability and speed.

There are dangers in cycling in strong winds, especially when they’re gusty and capricious, and when you’re going down steep hills. Concentrate on holding your line, and keep an eye open for signs of the wind’s shifting. Leaves and debris blowing on the pavement give clues of what’s going on ahead, and riding over debris should be avoided. Be alert to things falling on you or into your path, too, such as limbs and cones. When riding down hills in a strong wind, sit more upright to offer more resistance, making yourself into a drag chute that can help you maintain control.

Don’t give up on a ride just because the wind’s blowing, but respect the Old Woman’s power and be careful. But if the tops of the trees are swaying while powerlines are humming and swinging, perhaps it’s a better idea to bag the ride unless you have no choice. Sometimes, La Vieille gets the last word.

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For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.