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RAGBRAI Training: May The Wind Be Always At Your Back

  • 6 May, 2022

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields….

I’m not sure what kind of a blessing this is. It sounds like hills, wind, heat and rain. Actually sounds like it could be RAGBRAI!   But let’s talk wind for now. It’s been extremely windy in April here in Iowa so it is top of mind for me. According to the National Weather Service, this has been the second most windy April in Iowa.  Wind is one of the enemies of cyclists along with hills, rain, flats and dogs. For me, I’d rather ride uphill than ride into a stiff headwind.  The originators of RAGBRAI understood this, which is why RAGBRAI travels from west to east, taking advantage of the prevailing westerly wind pattern in Iowa. Note the word “prevailing”.  Prevailing means blowing usually or most frequently from a given direction. It is not a guarantee, and it’s very likely there’ll be a day or two on RAGBRAI when the westerly winds don’t prevail and instead they prevail from the north, south, or horrors, east!  Not only that but you will certainly face headwinds in your preparation for RAGBRAI as you are putting in the miles.  So here are some things to consider as you face these headwinds.

There’s almost always a headwind
The wind direction and speed are affected by your moving on a bicycle.  There’s relative wind speed. Even on days when there is no wind at all, when you are riding at 15 mph, you are generating a headwind of 15 mph. If you are riding 15 mph into a 10 mph headwind, you experience a 25mph headwind.  Then there is relative wind direction. Let’s say the wind is coming directly from your left, a direct crosswind. When you are riding along at 15 mph, that relative wind direction changes to a direction more into a headwind due to your forward motion (think vectors if you ever took physics class).

Therefore, like it or not, more than half the time we are riding into a headwind regardless of wind direction or lack of wind.  Well that blows, doesn’t it!  It is only when the wind is primarily at our backs that we have no headwind and even a tailwind.  So prepare yourself to be working into the wind a  great deal.  The wind will never be always at your back unless you ride one direction, the same direction as the wind is blowing.

Treat the wind like hills
Riding into the wind requires patience, just like riding up a hill. It will take longer because you are going slower. You can fight it, ride harder and eek out a little more speed but it will tire you out faster too. Or you can downshift into an easier gear, keep your cadence up but ride more slowly.  Riding in the wind, as in riding uphill, is as much a mental game as a physical one. If you accept the fact you will go more slowly, you will end up working no harder than you normally do. But this requires patience.  It’s hard to have patience when pedaling hard and going slowly.  But similar to my advice on hills, when it comes to training for the wind, the best way is to get out there and ride in it. It can build leg strength but also build mental strength.  One downside to the wind, it doesn’t stop until you change direction. At least with hills, there is eventually an end to it.

Wind can be great training
One question I hear quite a bit is how people can train for hills when they don’t have any where they live. One of my suggestions is to ride in a headwind.  The only place I know of that doesn’t have wind is Never-never land.  You can use the wind to generate additional resistance. This will force you to exert more force on the pedals, exert more effort and energy and increase your cardiovascular strain. These are all good things for training.  While it may not be much fun, just tell yourself as you are slogging into a strong wind that at least your body is improving.  No, it’s not fun. But some people don’t think hills are fun either.

Watch out regarding the wind
A few additional considerations regarding the wind.  If it is quite windy and especially when swirling or gusty, your bike can get pushed around while riding.  This is made worse if you have deep rims on your bike.  So be careful when riding on windy days especially if riding with others. It would be prudent to leave more space between you and other cyclists.  Also be careful not to get blown off the side of the road or into the traffic lane.  Strong winds can also blow dust and sand into your eyes.  If the wind is really strong it can blow objects larger than sand into you.   Also, there is something called wind chill. This works even when it’s not all that cold.   A strong wind when it’s cool can feel downright cold.  Plus when you are riding you are generating more wind chill yet. So even though we often talk about the heat during RAGBRAI, there are some mornings where it could be chilly especially if it is windy.

A word about drafting
Drafting is a term in cycling (and car racing) where you follow closely behind  the rider in front of you. This can make your riding about 30% easier because the rider in front of you is pushing the air and wind aside creating a small slipstream you can ride in. This is something experienced riders and racers will use when riding together. Usually riders rotate, with the person in front ‘pulling’ for a period of time then rotating to the back letting the next rider block the wind.  When several riders are drafting together, it forms what is a called a paceline. You will see these on RAGBRAI but I would suggest caution in joining in one of these. First of all, they work best with experienced riders who are used to riding with each other so they have the trust to ride closely and are familiar with each others’ movements. Secondly, in RAGBRAI there are people all over the road going very different speeds and sometimes swerving across the lane. It’s not exactly a safe place to be speeding along in a paceline. If you want to practice these in your training that’s fine but its best not to use drafting during RAGBRAI.

So, maybe you can escape hills where you live (although not on RAGBRAI), but you can’t escape the wind, so learn to live with it and maybe even use it to your advantage.

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach. He coaches the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team and individual cyclists through the Peaks Coaching Group. He also provides cycling training plans and ebooks at his website: http://www.CyclesportCoaching.com . He can be contacted cyclecoach@hotmail.com.

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