Crosswinds: An Invisible Danger

Feb 19, 2019
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Most cyclists are familiar with riding in the wind. Headwinds are annoying, tailwinds are awesome, and crosswinds ... well, crosswinds can be deadly. 

For a long-distance touring cyclist, riding in a crosswind may be unavoidable. Whether it’s a gust blowing across a prairie or a stiff ocean breeze coming towards shore, crosswinds pose a real danger to cyclists — especially fully-loaded touring cyclists, whose panniers and trailers can act as sails, catching the wind and pushing them either off the road or into traffic. 

Windy Wyoming

I remember encountering my first crosswind near Rawlins, Wyoming. It’s a region that’s famous for wind, and I’d been seeing the same postcard in all the gas stations for over a week. The postcard featured a black and white photograph of a heavy metal chain being blown sideways. “Wyoming Wind Sock” read the caption. Haha.

I hadn’t been tempted to take the hype seriously. Sure, it was my first bicycle tour, but I’d already pedaled over one thousand miles from Oregon to Wyoming. I was feeling pretty confident about my riding skills. Too confident, as it turns out. 

I was crossing the wide Separation Flats towards Rawlins when a stiff wind began pushing my bicycle toward the ditch at the side of the road. I tensed up, cocking my shoulders and using a surprising amount of upper body strength to keep my handlebars pointed forward. My tires were rolling over broken glass and tire wires, but I couldn’t dodge a thing. All my energy was needed to keep from flying off the road. 

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The wind was roaring so loudly in my ears that I didn’t hear a semi-truck coming up from behind. Suddenly a high wall of metal was whizzing past, temporarily blocking the crosswind. My bike was sucked into its slipstream, veering suddenly towards the truck’s massive wheels. When I yanked my handlebars away, I shot off the road and plowed to a stop in the loose gravel. I was stunned, straddling my bicycle and breathing hard. Another semi truck roared by. And then another.

A Gale of a Situation

I dismounted, hauling my bike back onto the pavement. I knew I was not the first rider to be smacked around by the wind, and I wouldn’t be the last. So I began to pedal forward again. Other cyclists probably do this all the time, I told myself. I just need the right technique. 

But it wasn’t a matter of technique. A few semi trucks later, I was once again standing ankle-deep in gravel, heart hammering. I’d been careening back and forth across the highway shoulder, buffeted by the crosswind and the trucks’ slipstreams to the point where I felt as in-control as a ping-pong ball. 

A Breezy Solution

So I did what any wise cyclist does: I stopped riding. Bracing my bike against my thighs, I stuck out my thumb and was rescued by the very first pickup truck to appear. That’s my advice for navigating dangerous crosswinds: don’t. Play it safe, know your limitations, and accept help when you need it. You’ll live to ride another day!

Ever been caught in the crosswind? We’d love to hear your story in the comments below. 
 

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Comments

David Seslar May 17, 2019, 11:20 AM

One thing I've done when heavy cross-winds were blasting across the road and pushing me off the edge on a lightly traveled road was ride on windward side of the road (yes, the "wrong" side). The benefits of this include gusts pushing me across the pavement (not into gravel and ditches) and I can see the traffic approaching me that will pass the closest. The second allows me time to plan our "meeting" - checking behind to see if there is any traffic in the opposite lane to accommodate and looking ahead to see if I want & where I might stop before the other traffic passes me. Also, the passing traffic never blocks the wind so my counter-lean/counter-steering will take me *away* from the other traffic if the wind pressure lessens

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Dan Gonzales March 13, 2019, 4:11 AM

I just left the south island of New Zealand where I had unrelenting cross winds and minimal shoulders. The truck traffic was not heavy but terrifying when it happened. This article is very timely for me.

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Charlie Gable February 22, 2019, 9:41 AM

In the summer of 2018 I was slowly climbing the last, small hill on the road into Jeffrey City, WY, working hard to keep my loaded touring bike moving forward into the strong headwind funneling through the cut in the crest. Suddenly, a dust devil formed right in front of me and slammed me to the pavement before I could react. Fortunately, I was wearing cycling gloves, so my palms were merely bruised by gravel instead of deeply gashed, and I had no other significant injury or bike damage. The next day I chose to walk up one hill when facing a similar wind (but no dust devil). My bit of advice would be to always wear cycling gloves; by the time you really need them it's too late to put them on!

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Ed McAuliffe February 21, 2019, 9:22 AM

On a bike tour with many riders we were heading north in central "Windy Wyoming". Ferocious wind from the west.

Heavy truck, bus, and car traffic. Same experience as Olivia's with a trailer truck momentarily blocking the crosswind then a hard punch from the returning crosswind. Knocked me off the road down an embankment of heavy gravel. Broken handlebar, cuts, bruises, blood, and wounded ego. I wanted to just lie there for awhile to take inventory and recover but many concerned fellow cyclists were calling down to me and I had to get up. Since then, no desire to return to Wyoming despite its many attractions.

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Olivia Round March 7, 2019, 3:29 PM

I've found that's one of the few perks of traveling solo: no one's around to see your mistakes. :D But despite the embarrassment, it sure is nice to have fellow cyclists help you out of the ditch!

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Tom Knoblauch February 20, 2019, 6:26 PM

ill winds abound. cross winds can change. head winds detour you. tailwinds seem illusionary. Heavy air of a large downdraft confound. Use caution with these words but, if you the skill and wisdom to smartly maneuver a person can circumnavigate the troublesome cross wind conditions if they remain constant by switching to the other lane of travel.

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Maury Cooke February 20, 2019, 10:24 AM

My wife and I honeymooned by bike through Iceland and experienced winds like I had never seen in many thousands of miles bike-touring. We had camped on a beautiful beach call Sandvik and left in the morning, heading for the next closest town. The morning dawned with a fair bit of wind, 20-30 MPH, but manageable until it kept increasing to 40-60 plus. We spent our share of time in the gravel on the side of the road also and dismounted whenever the rare vehicle came by, since the winds were blowing us all the way to the other side of the road. I'll never forget watching my wife ahead of me, her pannier-loaded steed leaning about 20 degrees into the wind to keep from getting blown away. As the wind increased to well over 60, we got off our bikes, put our shoulders down and walked the bikes into town. The only lodging was a campground surrounded by a dirt berm that rose about 6-8'. The wind continued to increase and the berm allowed us enough shelter to set up our tent. As I was setting up the tent, and my wife was inside, she got hit in the head with something and came out to see what it was... I was laid out beside the tent, unconscious, with the aluminum bleacher set that had been picked up by the wind from the soccer field on the other side of the berm, and as it flew through the air, caught me on the back of the head. Aside from a bad concussion, I was OK, but it was almost a very short marriage for the two of us! I recuperated in the "blue lagoon" the next day and we finished the trip, but she had to be the one looking over her shoulder for traffic, as I couldn't turn my head. Be careful out there and check those weather reports to know when to take a day off riding for some sight-seeing!

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Olivia Round February 20, 2019, 5:59 PM

Oh my gosh, Maury! I'm glad you survived, and that you're able to share this amazing tale with a happy ending. Safe rides to you and your wife!

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Maury Cooke February 20, 2019, 8:07 PM

Thanks! Enjoyed your articles and appreciated the reminder of how important it is to pack it in sometimes, and recognize (hopefully before you get hurt) when in a dangerous situation. Hopefully, you'll help a few people learn this one without having to do it the hard way like some of us :-)

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