Riding in strong winds

As November unwinds, Britain is being battered by storms. So how does a rider deal with wind?

You can't stop the bike being blown sideways, but like most things, there are strategies for dealing with the problem.

As always, the first stage is SCAN and PLAN. Before you do anything else, watch the forecast! Seems obvious but the weather can change from a bright and still morning to a gale-wracked afternoon. Even when you ride, a bit of amateur weather forecasting can come in useful. The strongest winds often blow around thunderstorms and heavy showers, so if you see a big tall cloud with a tell tale rain shadow beneath it, prepare for a few minutes of strong winds.

Out on the road, look ahead, figure out where the wind is going to catch you:

    high bridges
    open roads
    coastal areas
    mountain tops and mountain valleys
    gaps between buildings and hedges
    as trucks pass
    below high rises in cities

etc etc - I'll leave it to you to think of other examples.

Then decide which way you are going to be blown.

Usually it's in the direction the wind is blowing, but there are three exceptions -

    passing trucks where not only are you sheltered from the wind but there is a low pressure zone beside the truck that sucks you in
    halfway down a hillside there is a back eddy where the wind blows in the opposite direction to the wind on the hill top and at the bottom (the M20 halfway down Wrotham Hill is notorious for this)
    alongside high rises where the draught at groundlevel is in the opposite direction (so you can be buffeted by winds which change direction through 180 degrees in a few metres).

Now if you know when and where you are going to be blown, you can deal with it - ACT:

    ride on the side of the lane which gives you the most room to be blown to the side
    keep a good distance if overtaking trucks (or one comes the other way),
    take up the right posture - brace your knees against the tank, brace your back, take a good grip on the bars. but keep your shoulders and elbows flexible
    steer into the wind

It's important you don't lock onto the bars with stiff arms. If your upper body gets buffeted and you have a death grip, you simply yank the bars and wobble and weave down the road. Think of the bars as the tiller, something you steer with, not something to hang onto. Simply countersteer into the wind.

Riding in strong persistant sidewinds is knackering. I still remember a Christmas eve despatch job from Kent to Northampton when the wind was strong enough to close the Dartford bridge on the way back. You'll find that if you hang your backside off the side of the bike facing the wind, the bike will try to steer into it and takes a bit of effort out of holding a constant degree of turn.

One plan is to take a route that is not so exposed - I came back through central London rather than go round the M25 again. Recently we had to take the tests down on the coast at Folkestone in the afternoon when the wind had got up and ride back to base later through the worst of the squalls. The examiner (and myself) avoided the most exposed bit of the A20 Folkestone bypass, and the route I took home was mostly thru country roads which are more sheltered from the wind, being aware that gaps in hedges and tops of hills would be windy.

I also warned them on the ride back to look out for fallen branches and general vegetable detritus blown from trees, and mud and gravel washed into the road by the rain.

Some people think that if you slow down, you feel less "blown about". Well, that may be true into a headwind but if the wind comes from the side, though you might feel less buffeting on your chests, the sideways component of the windr is unchanged, and you lose the benefit of the increasing straightline stability most bikes generate at speed. Ride too slowly in wind and you wobble all over the place.

The main problem in wind if you ride too fast is that you get blown off the road quicker than you can deal with it, so a compromise is necessary where the bike has reasonable straight line stability but you can stay on the road.

It's worth pointing out that different bikes react in different ways to the wind (big fairings and hard luggage tend to be worse than sportsbikes), but have more mass to shift than an easily buffeted lightweight.

Neither can you can't treat the bike as a solid object that is blown sideways - the rider tends to be blown around seperately and if (s)he accidentally steers the bike by hanging onto the bars at the same time this induces wobble. Baggy clothing and things like rucksacks don't help either.

The design of the front wheel is important too. Harleys with solid disc wheels have a bit of a reputation, and so did the 80's Hondas with "banana" comstars - I had an XBR500 and this was an absolute pig in high winds - you could feel the wind blowing the front wheel around and trying to yank the bars out of your hands.

Riding in strong winds is not fun, but with a bit of thought and forward planning it need not be scary.