Should Wind Conditions Affect My Bike Strategy?

Yes! The best race performance will come from smart pacing, and a windy day will change what it feels like to make the bike go fast. When cyclists talk about wind they’re generally referring to three types: headwind, crosswind, and tailwind. Headwind is always brutal because roughly 75 percent of the resistance we overcome on the bike is coming through the air. A strong headwind can slow even the fittest athlete to a snail’s pace. Crosswinds can make the bike hard to handle and cause a rider to spend more energy in upper body tension just trying keep the bike upright. Tailwinds are great anytime we’re on the bike, but on race day a tailwind still demands attention when it comes to pacing.

RELATED: Julie Dibens’ Top Tips for Biking in the Wind

It’s important to know that bike pacing strategies can never be based on speed. If an athlete’s goal is to average 18mph, a headwind may make that impossible. Any attempt to hold to that speed in a headwind might require such a tremendous effort that the run off the bike is likely to become a walk. A tailwind can allow the bike to roll without any work at all, making that 18mph goal inappropriate as well. Smart bike pacing should be set using one of three options:

1. The ever reliable “RPE” or Rate of Perceived Effort. This is done by listening to your body, moment-by-moment through a race and asking, “Is this too hard, too easy, or, just right?” RPE can be applied to wind in any direction at any time, and this option should be a continuous assessment during the entire race.

2. A heart rate monitor can also be used for pacing on the bike, but it can sometimes deceive you with a delay; attack a 60-second headwind section, and the heart rate will keep going up well after the 1-minute effort is over. Heart rate can also mislead you via something called cardiac drift; in a long race, when you’re fatigued and dehydrated, heart rate will creep up even though effort remains low.

3. A power meter is the most accurate way to pace on the bike, and it will give an immediate, objective assessment of the effort, no matter what the wind is doing. Power meters have become more affordable in recent years with reliable, accurate options selling for under $400.

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Ian Murray is a USAT Level 3 certified coach, host of the Triathlon Training Series DVD, a Level II ITU Triathlon Coach, a Level II USA Cycling Coach, a masters swim coach, and a F.I.S.T-certified bike fitter. Find him at Teamtts.com.