Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Bikes for Extremely Windy Conditions? Some Suggestions to Consider

Early Claud Butler Lady Lightweight
By now you may have grown used to my occasional laments about the very strong winds in this corner of Ireland. And lest you be tempted to roll your eyes at how easily I complain about mere trifles, I am not talking about normal winds here. I'm talking wind speeds of over 20mph, with 40mph+ gusts. That's severe weather warning territory! And if you've ever tried to cycle in those conditions without the benefit of being sheltered in a group, then you know it can be next to impossible.

Cycling into a headwind of 27mph, my speed slows to a snail's pace and trips into town take twice as long as they usually do at double the effort. But the real terror is when the wind comes in from the side - especially in gusts strong enough to push me off the road or into moving traffic. During my first year here, despite braving winds more than I thought myself capable of, I still spent many days off the bike during the worst of it; it just didn't feel safe.

My second year here, the windiness factor did not improve any. But as the number of bicycles at my disposal increased, I began to notice that some of them faired better in windy conditions than others. For instance: I noticed that my 650B fat-tire roadbke - which in most other ways is outperformed by my lighter skinny tire roadbike - was far less prone to being moved sideways by gusts. Switching to it during stretches of windy weather allowed me to put in more road miles than had previously been possible. But the bike that really takes the cake in this regard is the 80-year old heap of a mixte I have on perma-loan from a  friend (pictured above), which feels as if it plows through headwinds with less effort than my other bicycles, while remaining almost indifferent to sideway gusts. Having become my windy-day transportation bike, it has expanded my travel radius - and comfort - in what is otherwise "impossible" weather.

Having tried to find patterns between various bicycles' characteristics and how they handle in extremely windy conditions, my success has been limited. Most obvious is that a low rider position is better in headwinds. And that bikes with some weight to them (or just the wheels?) are better in resisting crosswind gusts. Other than that, I don't really have enough data to go on - or enough expertise to make deductions, for that matter. Nevertheless, I am curious. So I approached a few bikey folks with some experience in this matter and asked what they thought. I had expected their responses to be more or less similar, allowing for a general picture to emerge. Did it? Well, read for yourself!

Mariposa Bicycles are a Canadian builder specialising in road, touring and randonneuring machines since 1969:
The higher up the cyclist sits the more he/she will be affected by the wind and a poorly positioned cyclist will have a harder time handling the bicycle, especially in extreme conditions. 
The front wheel should have weight on it - [the rider] should not be sitting too far back in the saddle, with little weight over the front end, as the bicycle will be harder to control in a strong cross wind. Rims should present the smallest surface to side winds. Deep rims, especially the front, make the bike unstable in cross winds.  
When touring with panniers on low-riders and other bags, the weight should be as low as possible on the bike and the load well balanced. As the cyclist can easily become a sail in high winds, properly fitting clothing will also make a significant difference. 

Mike Flanigan of ANT is a Boston-based builder of transportation and touring bicycles, as well as a welder at Seven Cycles:
If I were building a bicycle specific to being used for [transportation in] windy conditions I would incorporate high trail geometry, not so light frame - if even heavy, tri-spoke aero wheels, rear loading rack with small panniers, and low-set upright handlebars. 
The bike being heavy overall would really help with stabilizing the ride. I would also oversize the tubing to stiffen up the frame to resist twisting. Bars [should be] low enough to keep weight on the front end. The tri spoke wheels are an obvious choice, even if ugly. Loading in the rear of the bike is a better option, as a front rack and or basket will catch a lot of resistance with gust. 

Jan Heine is a Seattle-based publisher of Bicycle Quarterly, an owner of Rene Herse Cycles and Compass Bicycles, and an experienced randonneur:
For handling low-trail geometry makes a huge difference, because then the whole bike gets pushed sideways without deviating from its course. As Tony Foale, the motorcycle handling wizard, pointed out, trail acts as a lever for the wind to turn your handlebars. The more trail you have, the more the bike will veer off-course when hit by a gust of crosswind.
For riding into headwinds, you obviously want a bike that has the right flex characteristics to work with your pedal strokes. That makes it less fatiguing to put out the power required to keep going into the wind.

Todd Fahrner is an owner of the transportation-focused Clever Cycles in Portland Oregon and an experienced bicycle tourist:
Get a very heavy bike with big heavy wheels. Dutch models aren't bad. Like an icebreaker, these resist buffeting through sheer mass. Equip the Dutch bike with aerobars.  
[Failing that] get a fully-faired recumbent velomobile... Bromptons are good too as you can get into another vehicle with no fuss.
Indeed! Better yet, will the Brompton fit into the velomobile?

Silliness aside, the above suggestions - despite some very different recommendations as to wheels and tubing - do share some common elements. Basically in extremely windy conditions you want a bike that is "planted" enough to resist gusts, that responds well to your pedaling efforts under strain, and that positions you (and your luggage) in such a way as to minimise wind resistance. No doubt there is more than one way in which such a machine can be achieved. And with its heavy old wheels, compact frame and ultra-low deep drop bar positioning, my ancient Claud Butler mixte might just have tapped into one of them.

Then again, perhaps the most sensible piece of advice on the topic of riding in windy conditions comes from Todd Farhner after all: "Always arrange for the wind to come from your back, adjusting your destination or schedule as required."

45 comments:

  1. It should DEFINITELY be high trail or low trail, with heavy or light wheels, as far as I can tell.
    Farhner sums it up the best. Keep the winds at your back!

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    1. And what's mid trail, chopped liver??

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    2. I take my bike on lots of trails, does that count? : )

      In seriousness, though, I find it hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from these contradictory statements. Based on their answers I would expect that good bike for windy conditions is about as likely as finding an impossible cube; however, you seem to have found just such a bike in Claudia. Perhaps the rider position helps with the headwinds? How does it compare to more modern bikes with similar drop bars? My own experience, on a mountain bike with flat bars, suggests that a lowered riding position helps a great deal.

      As for side winds: I have no idea what would help, except that my pannier isn't doing me any favors. It's on the bike all the time and presents a nice flat surface for the wind to push against, sadly.

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  2. Your ancient Claud Butler mixte seems to be a good way but, if you were to put a race handlebar on your Brompton like Moulton’s I would be interested by your feeling.
    In fact, I think a small-wheeled bicycle is more efficient.

    L.

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    1. The problem with the Brompton is not so much headwinds as the crosswinds and gusts. Mine is very susceptible to being moved laterally in strong winds. And when it happens I feel the force somewhere low, so I doubt my upright position is the main culprit. Consistent with Jan's description of low-trail handling, the entire bike moves and not just the handlebars. But that brings little comfort if I'm being pushed into a ditch or into moving traffic!

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    2. Can the titanium content in both bicycles have anything to do with this I wonder?

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    3. I don't see how, other than that it makes the frame (or in Brompton's case, the areas around the wheels) lighter. But then I am not a materials expert.

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  3. "Always arrange for the wind to come from your back, adjusting your destination or schedule as required."

    A tourist friend did just that. After battling the wind all day she decided that when she got out of the tent the next morning she'd go in the direction of the wind. It was an around the world ride and she had many, many, stories of dealing with high winds but this particular day it worked out in her favor. She found herself effortlessly and happily moving along and soon a motorcyclist pulled up along side and pointed to his speedometer. She looked at hers …. 55 mph! She arrived hours early to her destination and enjoyed the afternoon off ;)

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  4. I suspect cross wind stability comes more from whatever geometry also makes a bike easy to ride no handed. I doubt the wind is actually turning the wheel so much as it is pushing your body over sideways (your body has a much higher cross section than even a deep aero rim.) As you know, most turning actually comes from leaning and bikes that respond very quickly to leaning would be very "responsive" to cross winds as well. Does that mean high trail or low trail? I have no idea. But I really doubt the weight of the bike or tubing selection matters much at all.

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  5. Yes, Bromptons have extremely low trail--just 11mm, if I recall correctly, and mine does feel the wind. However, my medium-low trail Bottecchia handles well in our occasional Santa Ana weather (typically 20 to 30mph with gusts to 70), and has a very light frame for steel. I do feel the wind much more when there are panniers on it. I doubt you can isolate just one factor. Probably whether the bike feels "twitchy" or not in windless riding predicts how it will behave in broadside gusts.

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    1. Factoring in wheel size, the virtual trail is more like 27mm if I recall correctly (which is still friggin low!). I absolutely love the Brompton's handling in most circumstances other than high winds.

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  6. My Brompton is my fav in rough winds -- I don't find it gets blown around nearly as much, and when it does, I agree the force is low down -- it's probably the wheels catching the wind, and tiny wheels = lower point at which the force seems to apply. I find that side-force much less disturbing than force higher up. (My alternatives are fewer than your stable, but they're my lightweight road bike (which gets batted around easily) and an 80's rigid MTB about the same total weight as the Brompton and only slightly less upright.)

    I think bottom bracket height might also be in play -- how far my "footing" is from the ground makes a bike feel tippier, even if it isn't really any less safe.

    Also, with the Brompton, I can drop the saddle an inch in a flash and be able to put both feet on the ground, which in traffic and wind (or snow) is comforting.

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  7. Your old borrowed Mixte (cool bike by the way) is from there. It does the best because it's used to it!

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  8. I think there is merit to Jan Heine's recommendation.

    My own experience with 2 very similar bikes (a Mercian Audax and a 1973 Raleigh International) that only really differ in the amount of trail behave precisely as he predicts. The high trail Mercian (43mm of fork offset I believe) really gets blown off course in moderate or greater side winds and is a handful climbing at low speeds if there is any side wind at all, illustrating Jan's description of "wheel flop" and it's effects on handling.

    The low trail Raleigh(65mm) is vastly less apt to wander in side winds and while climbing at low speeds describes a nice strait, barely wavering path, winds or not. I know a lot of people who think Jan is sort of a crank and prone to being dogmatic and pedantic but I think he's a pretty sharp cat who carefully looks at a problem and tries very hard to quantify whats going on before he starts forming opinions. I also have a lot of respect for people like Mike Flanigan and wouldn't discount anything he had to say either so please don't let me appear to be taking sides or hoisting flags.

    I once did a series of experiments to see if one could get any increased speed benefit from a sail or parachute in windy conditions. These experiments led me to these conclusions...

    A) That while a parachute attached to the handlebar stem pulling the bicycle is less apt to entangle and kill the rider than a bedsheet attached to crossed broomsticks gripped in ones hand, the difference is negligible, and that sidewinds are the variable most difficult to plan and make allowance for and the most likely to create the "Wizard of Oz, Witch pedaling in a Tornado" scenario.

    2) Your Mom is going to want to know what the Hell happened to her sheet.

    D) The completely enclosed faired recumbant would be the most likely of all configurations to fall on it's side, be caught by the wind and go merrily tumbling down the road like a discarded Four Loco container.

    Spindizzy





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    1. My mid-trail Mercian fixed gear is more stable in high winds than my Seven, but slightly less so than my DIY bike. My intuition - which, granted, could be wring - tells me that trail has little to do with this whole issue and that it's mostly about the weight, assuming equivalent rider's position.

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    2. If your bikes are High Trail Seven, Mid Trail Mercian and Low trail DIY as I think they might be, than your bikes seem to show the same characteristics as mine... But this discussion has gone past the point where I can claim to really have a grasp of the physics so I'm going to try my best to sit on my hands and listen for a change.

      Spindizzy



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    3. Problem is, they are also different weights. So while the rider's position (roughly same on all 3) is controlled for, either trail or weight could be a "confounding variable."

      But yeah. I'm not qualified for the technical discussion either.

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    4. Wait, wait, sorry Spin. I must have had my afternoon cocktail too early. My Seven isn't high train; it's mid trail also - pretty similar to the Merc in fact (both in the mid-50s somewhere). So scratch all of that. Except for the part where my intuition tells me trail is not the issue.

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    5. So, does speed have anything to do with it? The faster one rides any bike the less stable, especially in winds?

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    6. My train wring intuitions are often cocktail-based too. But a recumbent tricycle won't budge sideways in the crossest of winds, unless you've been drinking. And it has the aeroest of positions. You'll still go slow, because it's a tricycle, but you'll be comfortable down there under the wind in your easy chair.

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    7. Early cocktails + autocorrect = lethal.
      Best not to operate trains at least.

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  9. I am surprised no mention of fenders in this post. I take the fenders off my touring bike in the summer, and it makes a huge difference, especially when going over bridges where the wind picks up.

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  10. None of these pieces of advice is exclusionary of the others, except for Jan's, as one might expect.

    Heavy bike + aero position means better = wind cheating? Who would have thought?

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  11. We have storms popping up in the midwest which can produce strong, unpredictable, winds. As you say it's the side winds which are the scariest not only because they can blow one over or into traffic but also because they can switch direction in a moment, and if you're caught leaning when the switch happens, you're down! Also, the wind is strong enough to blow over trees and knock down limbs which has me freaking out on many levels. All I can say is I'm glad I don't live in Northern Ireland and have to deal with that on a daily basis.

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  12. They all agreed that weight was important. That's why you'll often see "Classics" racers to be relatively more "stout" then the climbers and grand tour racers. They can withstand those windier northern Europe conditions better. I hate riding in the wind, although I am heavy enough :( that I do fairly well and tend to be good for drafting behind. Now a headwind and a climb is generally cruel, and not unusual enough, punishment.

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  13. Just to be clear(or dogmatic and pedantic?) The 65mm figure for the Raleigh is fork offset, not trail. I've never calculated the trail for either bike but since they both have the same headtube angle or the very nearest thing, I think it's safe to describe the Mercian as high trail and the Raleigh as low trail or something pretty close. Low-Mid trail at the very least... That seems to be the way they behave in any case.

    Spindizzy

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  14. Interestingly, only Todd Fahrner from all those bike gurus thought about a recumbent. This is the ultimate weapon for strong cross winds. Otherwise, Maria Leijerstam wouldn't be so successful in reaching South Pole by bike: http://bostonbybike.blogspot.com/2014/01/happy-new-year.html

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  15. My 3 speed Pashley is excellent in strong winds, it just seems to barge on through pretty much whatever I throw at it or hang off of it. It may not be a fast bike, but it just goes out and does it, day in, day out, rail, hail, sleet,snow and heatwave. Dutch bikes are made for windy conditions, as you will see if you spend time in the Low Countries.

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  16. I live near Wollongong on the coast south of Sydney. Horrendous winds here particularly in July and August. An added hazard are wheelie bins! Commuting in a gusting westerly has seen me dodging wheelie bins blowing across the road twice this winter already. So far this season it's a 1-1 draw; I've only hit one of them.

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  17. My experience, go low and slow. The bike is minor. Be safe up in that wind corner of the world.

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  18. You might try this:
    http://www.lightningbikes.com/f40/

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  19. My Retrovelo is great in strong winds -- the huge fat frank tires feel very stable. But for me this is more about emotional security. I also have a Brompton and live in NYC where the traffic is intense. I love to use the Brompton to get through traffic on most days but in windy weather -- especially crosswinds -- I certainly don't mind trading the speed for a feeling of safety.

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    1. The Brompton is my favourite for tight spaces and chaotic traffic.

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    2. ^Clicked too soon, but meant to add that I love Retrovelo's heaviness vs quickgoingness ratio. With the stem slammed and bars upside down I bet that would make an awesome wind bike : )

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  20. Yay Mariposa! How nice to see them mentioned on Lovely Bicycle. What's the connection, is it n+1 time? (Apologies if I am I letting the cat out of the bag! ) Hugh

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    1. Heh noooo! (meaning I am not getting a Mariposa bike - although they're surely lovely)

      But I've been following them for some time. And if the reader feedback I get is anything to go on, they seem to have an unusually high customer satisfaction rate. So I just thought I'd add an opinion of someone never before mentioned to the mix.

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  21. Me like bikes, hate wind, sometimes ride anyway. Bikes bikes bikes....

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  22. Hello there!
    Here on Baltic coast (northern Germany) we have a lot of wind, but it is not as strong as your – 15-20 mph.
    However, I am riding the Trek Earl, ant it gives me too upright position so I am going to get something with lower bb and with longer trail.

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  23. Bicycle stability is a product of the gyroscopic action of the wheels that want to continue in a forward and upright direction. The heavier they (rim & tyre) are, the more gyroscopic action. To test this, ride down the road, sitting upright and then with your hands force the handlebar in the opposite direction that you want to turn. The bike will turn in the direction you want to go (in fact, on motorcycles, this is the best way to make an emergency turn, such as avoiding an obstacle in the road real fast).

    Countering this is the sail effect. The less air resistance, the less the lateral force on the bike. The question of sitting upright vs down is only relevant riding into the wind. Sideways gusts will get you regardless of how close your nose is to the bar.

    The point on weight is correct as well. If the front wheel has less weight, there can be a point where the road traction is insufficient - think black ice for the extreme.

    This tends to support the comments on Dutch bikes. They are heavy, 28 1/2" rims with large tyres. The frames are heavy as well with lots of weight on both tyres.

    I suppose if the winds got too horrible, perhaps an adults tricycle might be the best solution... and for fun, add a sail.

    Morgan

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    1. Good point about the gyroscopic effect. I couldn't see how weight could have any affect on stability, but heavy wheels do make sense.

      A minor quibble with your cross wind - lateral force point though. While the lateral force will be roughly the same crouched or upright, that force will have more leverage on the bike when you are upright and farther from the axis (tire-road contact point). So while the force will be the same, crouched you would experience less tilting of the bike which would cause the swerve.

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    2. MaxUtil, Archimedes would agree with you: " δῶς μοι πᾶ στῶ καὶ τὰν γᾶν κινάσω". (Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth).

      Morgan

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  24. I am around 98 lbs. I ride a hybrid bike and prefer to have my panniers loaded with groceries if there is a strong wind.

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  25. I'm no scientist but I have a current personal experiment that I've been riding for several years. 1987 Bridgestone 300 touring mixte. Wind had always been that hill I don't mess with using muscle. Instead, I science by illegally testing on humans. The original wheel set was 27", and the wind raged havoc twisting the handle bars at every chance when using alloy rims. Months of frustration lead to steel 27" rims. The added weight helped. But then I noticed I was now the winds focal point. Me, my physical body being jetted up into the wind. I now had this tendency to tip over or buffer. I then added more variables, 700c, 50mm aero rims and 23mm tires. This lowered my body and thinned the wheel profile. Problems came back to the alloy rim. I needed weight on the front again. So I added a longer handlebar stem and moved the saddle forward. Helped some. The trail had increased from the smaller overall rolling diameter too. I had the added low speed twitch now. So I added a front rack and bag. Now the wind only had my body and the rim side to pick on. The wind picked the rear wheel. I had to much focus on the mid and rear of the bike. I moved to a boxed alloy rim. That worked well. Stupid wind picked up on the handlebar bag next. I next increased the tire size to 42mm to increase trail. It alleviated some wind input on the bag. I switched the bag out to a Wald basket on a steel surly rack versus an alloy rack. It has been manageable for the last 6 months. Last week, I installed a 26" wheel set using rynolites for their weight and box shape mainly, and 1.75" tires. This overall is near the height of the 700x23. It's only been a week and the wind is just picking back up here in east central Florida. It so far is very neutral. The gearing will need attention next. I know there are/will be head scratchers..... 27" to 26"- yes, the secret is BMX brakes. No lever change, just calipers.

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  26. I really enjoyed this piece; In Brighton we don't quite have the wind speeds you do, but when higher up on the downs it can get pretty risky!

    I agree with Mariposa Bicycles comment, when in windy conditions I try to put as much weight on the front wheel as possible. It seems to give me a more sturdy ride.

    Thanks for the tips! :)

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  27. This TEDx Talk should answer everyone's questions as to why bikes stay up... and a whole lot more.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Y4mbT3ozcA

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