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Six Tips for riding in strong winds
Most years, Britain is battered by winter storms, and even in the autumn we're increasingly being affected by the decayed remains of Atlantic hurricanes that still produce strong gales. Even in mid-summer, a thunderstorms can generate surprisingly strong, if localised winds. And of course it's always windier on the coast or high in the hills. So what are my Survival Skills tips and the best way to deal with strong winds? As always, the first stage is to plan ahead. Before anything else, watch the forecast. That might seem obvious but what looks like nice morning weather out of the window can change in a couple of hours to a gale-wracked afternoon and it might be a good idea to travel another day. Maybe we can take the car or the train. But what if we have to ride? Here are some handy Survival Skills tips for riding in strong winds.
REMOVE LUGGAGE IF POSSIBLE - don't forget that luggage on the rear of the machine acts as a ruddy great sail - top boxes can really destabilise a bike in strong winds. A magnetic tank bag can be blow clean off the tank too - don't ask me how I know (I always tether a tank bag to the keyring fob with a carabiner now). If it's possibly to take any bags and boxes off, do so. Baggy clothing and rucksacks aren't a great idea either. If there are cinch straps on sleeves or legs, tighten them up. And if we're going to carry a passenger, get them to sit as close up as possible so there's no big gap between rider and pillion.
REMOVE LUGGAGE IF POSSIBLE - don't forget that luggage on the rear of the machine acts as a ruddy great sail - top boxes can really destabilise a bike in strong winds. A magnetic tank bag can be blow clean off the tank too - don't ask me how I know (I always tether a tank bag to the keyring fob with a carabiner now). If it's possibly to take any bags and boxes off, do so. Baggy clothing and rucksacks aren't a great idea either. If there are cinch straps on sleeves or legs, tighten them up.
PLAN THE ROUTE - defore setting off, do some route planning. Try to find roads that are not so exposed. A roads are generally more sheltered than motorways. Roads in the lee of hills will be less windy than roads along the top. It may be possible to plan the route so that on exposed roads the strongest winds are behind us, rather than from the side. And we may need to change route mid-ride. Many years ago on a despatching job to Northampton, a windy Chrismas eve morning turned into a full gale by mid-afternoon. The M1 was a real struggle - I recall a furniture lorry being blown up onto two wheels as I passed it. Rather than attempt the M25, I came back through central London. It turned out the newly-opened Dartford bridge was closed anyway. By the time I was back out on the M20 and heading home in Kent, the wind had dropped.
SPOT THE PROBLEM AREAS - once on the move, do a bit of amateur weather forecasting. The strongest winds often blow around squall lines and thunderstorms, so spotting a tall, dark cloud with a tell tale-rain shadow beneath it should ring alarm bells. Look ahead and figure out where the wind will catch us:
- exposed roads, particularly motorways
- high bridges
- open roads
- coastal areas
- roads across mountains and along 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.
WORK OUT WHICH WAY THE BIKE WILL BE BLOWN - usually it's in the direction the wind is blowing, but there are three exceptions:
- passing trucks - if the wind's coming from the far side, we're suddenly sheltered and we're actually sucked in towards the truck, then as we get level with the cab, we'll be suddenly blown away again
- halfway down hills - there's usually a back eddy where the wind suddenly reverses direction. The M20 halfway down Wrotham Hill is notorious for this
- alongside high rise building - the building deflects the wind so it blows in the opposite direction at groundlevel is in the opposite direction, so we can be hit by winds which change direction through 180 degrees in a few metres in city centres
Other problems? Look out for fallen branches and general vegetable detritus blown from trees. Wheelie bins get blown into the road. Fences may come down. I've even seen a shed collapse into the road.
STRATEGIES TO SURVIVE - so if we know when and where we're likely to be blown of course, we can at least prepare:
- ride on the side of the lane which gives us the most room to be blown sideways
- keep well away from high-sided vehicles, and give a good clearance to those coming the other way - they'll be pushing the wind in front of them
- don't try to hang onto the bars - instead, keep the shoulders, elbows and wrists as loose as possible but locking the knees against the tank and brace our back. That way when we're blown around on top of the bike, we won't take the handlebars with us, and it's much easier to steer a reasonably straight course
- be ready to steer into the wind
- remember counter-steering - if the bike is being blown TO the left, we need to steer INTO the wind by pushing on the RIGHT handlebar end
Strong, sidewinds are knackering. I had to ride 200 miles due south across the Mohave Desert with a 50 mph wind coming from the west. Absolutely NO cover from the wind. My arms, shoulders, and back burned by the end of that ride. The only way I made it was by hanging my backside off the side of the bike facing the wind. Try it, and you'll find it helps the bike to steer into the wind. And that means a little less effort in holding a constant degree of steering into the wind.
I can't emphasise how important it is not to ride with stiff arms. If we're hanging on for dear life, every time our upper body gets buffeted, we feed that straight into the steering and we make all the wobbles and weaves much worse. Keep elbows loose but the wider we hold the bars, the more leverage we have to steer into the wind and the less 'push' we have to make which means it's less tiring.
DO WE SLOW DOWN - there's often a suggestion that if we slow down, we feel less 'blown about'. Well, that may be true into a headwind but if the wind comes from the side, we might feel less buffeting on our chest. But the sideways component of the wind remains exactly the same, plus we lose the benefit of how straightline stability increases with speed. There's a trade-off where too fast becomes a problem because we get blown off the road quicker than we can deal with it but it's certainly possible to ride too slowly in wind - the clue is we're wobbling all over the place.
Some bikes are better at handling wind than others. Part of the problem is the design of the front wheel. Harleys with solid disc wheels have a bit of a reputation for being unstable in crosswinds, and so did the 80's Hondas with the 'Banana Comstars' - I had an XBR500 and this was an absolute pig in high winds - I could feel the wind blowing the front wheel around and trying to yank the bars out of my hands.
I can't claim riding in strong winds is fun. If we have to ride - as I had to on that journey back from Northampton - we can't stop the bike being blown sideways, but like most things, there are strategies for dealing with the problem. It's hard work, but with a bit of thought and forward planning it need not be quite so scary.
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