Weather involves more than just rain and snow. As cyclists, we forego many of the protections that cars offer against all forms of weather, including both precipitation and wind. While rain and snow can drench the unwary cyclist and make a ride unpleasant, wind can push you along to terrific speeds or slow you down to a crawl. But exactly how much wind is too much to ride a bike?
20mph wind can blow small branches or debris and blind the cyclist, such head- or tailwinds can noticeably slow down or speed up a cyclist, a 30mph wind can significantly increase the difficulty of the ride. Gusts of wind above 35mph blowing sideways are dangerous as they might push you in the traffic.
This makes it important for the avid cyclist to stay up-to-date on local weather conditions and avoid cycling when it’s too windy. Let’s break it down and discuss what factors to look for when considering if you should go out on your bike.
The amount of wind you can deal with will depend on your ride, your skill as a rider, and your other options.
In general, there are a few rules of thumb to consider. First, headwinds will reduce your forward speed by about half the speed of the wind. This means that if you cycle at 10 miles per hour, a 10 mile per hour headwind will halve your speed and a 20 mile per hour headwind will slow you to a standstill.
According to the experts, any wind that comes from an even vaguely opposed direction feels like a headwind. This means that you should probably switch to a different form of transportation as the wind speed starts to get close to or above the speed at which you cycle on the slowest part of your ride.
Secondly, while gusts of wind are much easier to deal with in terms of your forward speed, they’re much more dangerous in terms of control. No matter how skilled you are as a rider, gusts over 35 mph can send you sideways into traffic.
You’ll probably want to switch to a different form of transit long before gusts hit this speed. If you’re a lighter rider on a light bike, this number might be even lower. Be sure to consider both steady wind and gusts when planning your ride.
It’s always a good idea to set personal minimums for this sort of thing well before it’s time to use them. If you have a long think at home and decide that 20 mph winds are too much for you, it makes it a lot easier to keep your bike safe when winds kick up to 21 mph a couple of weeks later.
Just like with any other safety-related issue, if there’s any doubt, be sure to err on the side of caution.
Other Effects of Wind
Wind pushes you and your bike in its direction, which can be a big deal. It can also push around dust, objects, and clouds.
Depending on your area, these additional windborne passengers can be just as big of a concern as the effects of the wind on you and your bike. Dust and debris can blind you or make it difficult to see, while larger objects can strike you and pose a major safety concern.
If the wind is moving around clouds, it can also bring (or halt) rain, making it important to understand what other weather conditions are at play.
If you do plan to ride on a particularly windy day, glasses that offer a moderate amount of eye protection against airborne grit are a must.
Different Rides Affected Differently
When I’m considering whether the wind is too much, the first thing I consider is where I’m riding and for how long.
If I find myself on wide bike lanes or dedicated paths on a shorter ride, with plenty of options to bail along the way, I’m a lot more comfortable getting close to my personal minimums.
If I’m going to be on the shoulder of a high-traffic road with poor bike accessibility and I’m far away from a place where I feel comfortable resting if the wind gets too rough, I’m going to err on the side of caution a lot more often.
Here are some of the questions I ask myself when considering if it’s too windy:
What happens if I get blown to the side?
Crosswinds can affect your ability to control the bike, especially in gusty conditions. A strong enough gust can push you out of the bike lane and into traffic. The narrower the path you have to maintain to stay safe, the less wind you’ll be able to tolerate.
A ride on dedicated bike paths with a healthy buffer between you and traffic can handle a lot more wind than a ride a few inches from high-speed traffic.
Can I stop if it gets too windy?
Meteorologists are pretty good at predicting the weather, but they’re not perfect. The wind can suddenly become better or worse than the forecast predicted, which can lead to an unpleasant situation. We’re also not always the best at estimating our own ability to deal with hazards like the wind.
If there are good, safe places where you don’t mind stopping and waiting out bad weather along your route, you can get a lot closer to your personal minimums when you leave.
This might include a friend or family member’s house, a local library or coffee shop, or any other building where you’re comfortable sheltering for a few minutes or hours.
Be sure to consider what you plan to do if the wind doesn’t let up. Sometimes, this might involve calling a ride and having someone drive you (and your bike) back home or to your destination.
How hard is the ride? How hard is the ride with a headwind?
If I’m going on an especially long ride or a ride with lots of tough hills, a headwind will have a much bigger effect on my energy and the amount of fun I’m having. If I’m going on a short, easy ride, however, the extra challenge and workout that a headwind provides can be fun.
When considering the amount of headwind you’ll be fighting, be sure to consider your lowest speed on the toughest parts of the ride. Remember also that you’ll already be a bit tired from fighting against the wind when you get to those tough parts.
If a hill slows you to single-digit speeds, it might be best to avoid double-digit winds altogether.
What is the purpose of my ride?
Biking should be fun. If the wind makes your for-fun bike ride less fun, it’s totally fine to leave the bike at home, even if the wind isn’t strong enough to be dangerous or difficult.
If you’re riding as a means of transportation, however, you might want to get a bit closer to your personal minimums before you put down the bike.
No matter what, be sure to have a backup plan for both your ride home and a sudden change in weather conditions along your route.
Take Safety Seriously
As a final note, remember that it’s always better to be inside wishing you were biking than on a bike wishing you were inside.
If you’re just starting out, don’t be afraid to cancel a ride over an amount of wind that makes you uncomfortable, no matter how small the reported speed might seem.
As you gain experience as a biker, you’ll naturally experience a variety of windy conditions, giving you the real-world information you need to update your personal minimums. Not only will this help you feel comfortable riding on windy days, but it’ll also give you the confidence you need to put the bike down when it’s not safe to ride.