Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.
– Mahatma Gandhi
There’s a reason why our part of Texas is one of the largest wind-energy producing regions in the country. The area around Abilene is dotted with magnificent and expansive farms of enormous windmills. They are here because the wind is nearly always blowing–and blowing strong enough to turn the massive blades and turbines.
As cyclists, the wind can be our greatest ally or our worst adversary. While riding this morning in preparation for our upcoming ride across Texas, the wind was mostly an adversary. With rides that begin and end in the same place, you experience the wind from all directions–whether they are out-and-back rides or circuit-type routes.
I remember advice received from a more experienced rider as I was beginning my obsession with cycling. He said that he’d much rather ride hills than ride into a headwind. Hills, he said, are eventually conquered. Headwinds, on the other hand, are relentless. Unless you turn around and catch a tailwind, you don’t receive a reprieve like you do with downhills that often accompany big uphills. Headwinds don’t give way and they don’t end like long uphills. And headwinds don’t give you a chance to coast or relax.
For the most part, winds tend to be the lightest early in the day and just before sunset. When I ride in the morning, the earlier is better. Almost without fail, the winds pick up on me during my morning rides and the end of the ride tends to be the most challenging. On cold mornings, there is a trade off in getting started early versus waiting for temps to warm up. By waiting, you almost always invite stronger winds. I prefer cold over winds. You can dress for cold.
The key to riding into headwinds is to ride with others like geese that fly in V formations with different individuals taking turns in the front. On a training ride for BRAT2, four members of our team completed a 100 kilometer (approximately 61 miles) charity ride that began and ended in Ballinger, Texas. The first half of the ride was into a strong headwind. The four of us lined up right behind each other in a line and took turns in the front for 1-2 miles each. The ride back to Ballinger was wonderful!
While on BRAT2, we had a line of storms blow through in the night while in Uvalde, Texas. When the storm came through, the wind changed from the south to the north. What had been easy riding for the first two days with the wind behind us, suddenly changed into a struggle. It was very demoralizing to remember riding 18-20 mph over similar roads the previous two days and then struggling to maintain 10-11 mph with the headwind. It got to a point where we had our support car ride in front of us to allow for a slight reprieve from the full force of the wind. It was a tough day.
On our first ride to Canada we experienced a 20-30 mph headwind for most of day on our ride from York, Nebraska to Yankton, South Dakota. We rode 150 miles into that wind. Because the wind was so strong, we decided to not waste the energy of everyone on the team riding together, but instead opted to send out one person at a time. At first, we took turns riding 5-mile legs. But at an average speed of 8-9 mph, those legs were absolutely miserable. We eventually decided to ride 2.5 miles per leg to end the misery as quickly as possible.
On that day, the three guys in my vehicle all decided to take turns on the same bike–a Specialized Allez. The Allez had three chainrings on the front. We had to ride in the smallest gear on the front and the largest gear on the back when going up hills into that wind–which made for MANY more pedal revolutions to cover the same amount of ground that we had been flying over the previous day with a strong tailwind. At one point, I reached the top of a long uphill and decided to try to coast down the slight downhill on the other side. I eventually had to start pedaling after slowing down to 3 mph. I was slowing down while rolling down the hill. It was tough wind. It was a tremendous sense of accomplishment that the whole team felt after reaching Yankton at the end of the day.
As I rode into the wind this morning, I kept telling myself that the adversity and resistance is what helps makes me stronger. Like weightlifters and athletes who workout to improve their strength and performance, riding into the wind also provides resistance that can help build strength. The trick is to properly use your gears, minimize your profile, use the physical surroundings to provide as much shelter from the wind as possible, and to win the battle against the negativity in your mind. It is the indomitable spirit that keeps you on the bike and fighting to keep moving forward. Despite all of that, I MUCH rather have a tailwind.