Riding When The Breezes Blow
Some years back on a cross-country excursion with my old riding pal Mike, while crossing Oklahoma and north Texas westbound on I-40, we found ourselves struggling against 30-40 mph winds blowing north, pushing on us from our left. At highway speed (doing about 75-80), passing or being passed by semis and the crazy turbulence they generate, Mike and I literally had our hands full keeping our luggage-laden touring bikes in our lane. The winds howled two days against us, determined to toss us into the ditch or under some truck’s tires. But we prevailed, albeit completely exhausted. Quite the nerve-wracking stint in the saddle, to say the least.
When nature cranks the fan up, and the winds start to push you around on the road, we’ve found a few techniques helpful to keep it between the paint.
Position, Position, Position
Wind at ground level is an incredibly unpredictable element of nature, changing directions in the blink of an eye. A fierce crosswind can create a very serious situation for a rider. To maintain control in stiff winds, your first priority is to tuck in, positioning your body as close to the bike as possible. Doing so reduces the amount of surface area the wind is able to act upon, diminishing its force against you and reducing its ability to shove you around the road. Also, be conscious of the speed you’re riding at when in windy conditions. Slow down a bit to give yourself better control and reaction time.
By leaning your bike into the direction of the incoming crosswind you’ll be able to counteract its effects. We know that from our trip across Oklahoma/Panhandle Texas. Stay focused when leaning into it because if the wind drops suddenly, you’ll need to be quick and firm on the grips to get bike and rider upright again. When riding into a headwind you’ll want to make yourself as streamlined as possible by tucking your arms and legs in, as close to the bike as can be. Think streamlined. The same goes for riding with a tailwind. And of course, with the wind giving you an added boost in a tailwind, pay attention to your speed to insure you’ll possess ample stopping distance when slowing down.
We must admit, we’re usually all about the ATTGATT acronym, gearing up proper for the many and varied environments and conditions we face as motorcycle riders. Oftentimes the wind will pick up flotsam and jetsam, whipping the gritty mix around and “sandblasting” your face and neck. We usually wear full-coverage helmets while on extended days in the saddle, keeping the visor clicked shut. If your neck is exposed, try wearing something like a bandana or neck gaiter to keep out any grit, bugs and debris. I took a wasp to the throat once, out riding. Quite unpleasant, to say the least.
If you’re rocking a half or 3/4 helmet without a visor, spring for a pair of good wrap-around riding goggles to keep your vision clear. Protect your face and specifically your eyes, at all costs.
Oh, If you’re rolling out into windy conditions, if at all possible remove, reposition or resecure any tanks, bags or tied-down gear before launching out, as they can add to the surface area that the wind is able to act upon. Again, voice of experience here. While evaluating the 2021 Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic recently, rolling at highway speed in wind back south to Milwaukee, my magnetic tank bag suddenly popped up and flew right into my chest. Fortunately I reacted swiftly enough with my left hand to grab the winged appurtenance and force it back down onto the tank, while rolling off the throttle and easing right onto the paved shoulder to reposition and secure the bag. Disaster averted, thankfully.
Riding in stiff breezes can beat the hell out of you, over the long haul. Fatigue from fighting windy conditions can seriously deplete your ability to act and react. It’s not just a physical battle wrestling against the prevailing, relentless winds; it’s also a mental one. It wears you out mentally, emotionally, and physically. It’s so important to take periodic breaks, allowing muscles and mind to regain their strength and sharpness. Crossing Oklahoma into Texas with Mike, we took frequent detours onto historic Route 66 (which was just cool by itself), refreshing ourselves in Elk City, OK (home of the Route 66 Museum), and enjoying Palo Duro Canyon, Cadillac Ranch, and Adrian, TX, home of the Route 66 Mid-Point Cafe. Each was a pause that refreshed.
Stay hydrated too, as wind and sun can drain you internally as well as externally. Use eye drops and ear plugs if necessary to make the ride as comfortable as possible. Sweat in the eyes while at speed can be irritating, and wind decibel levels can cause hearing damage over the long haul, even in a full-face. I’ve got permanent ringing in my ears, due largely to my years of riding without hearing protection. Might also have been due to blasting U2 at excessive levels in my younger years, truth be told.
Always check on the weather forecasted in your path and riding period before you leave A and head to B. The forecast can go a long way towards helping you decide which routes to take in the impending weather conditions. Also know when its time to concede, and let nature do its thing while you stay safe and “weather the storm” so to speak. Admittedly, I’ve not always been good at that. Sometimes the urge to ride can overwhelm reason, other times I’ve had no choice. I’ve ridden through torrential downpours across central Texas, outran a north Georgia tornado, and got pelted in a hailstorm crossing north central Oregon, to name a few. So all that to state, “Do as I say, not as I do” like some of our fathers told us as kids. Heed the forecast, know your limits.
As stated, wind can be unpredictable, but you can learn to anticipate how certain objects are going to be affected by it. For example; large vehicles may offer temporary protection against the wind if you slip in behind or around them, but when it comes to maneuvering out and away, it’s possible to get gripped in their turbulence and be jerked around by their wind wash. I’ve learned that large trucks and tractor-trailer rigs can produce conditions around themselves that feel like the bike gets sucked in, then pushed away, then yanked back, all at highway speed. Had a few “pucker” moments in those. Be aware when passing or being passed by rigs considerably bigger than you.
Buildings are a bit different, as they’re clearly not going to pull you towards them, but they can impact you with a blast of breeze as you ride around them. Winds whipping around buildings can cause sudden balance shifts, and we do mean sudden. Stay in control, not tight and winced up with a death grip on the grips. Stay loose in your shoulders and neck, yet guarded, ready to respond and adjust should you encounter a sudden gust while negotiating around an edifice.
Watching trees and tall grass fields up ahead can be good indicators of what wind conditions you’re about to ride into. Wind can funnel through openings in tree lines, down hills, and through valleys, creating whirlwinds that can foul you in an instant. Anticipate by “taking the long view” as we call it, and letting the bike move and flow beneath you while under your control.
Well, these are just a few of the preparations and defensive considerations we’ve learned, read about and experienced with regards to those windy days in the saddle. Like riding in rain, riding “against the wind” (with apologies to Bob Seger) has its challenges, but hey, we’re motorcyclists, “challenges” are part and parcel to our lifestyle. So ride safe, ride hard, and ride life.
*Article inspired by Brixton Motorcycles story.