It’s not always a breeze: Tips for cycling in spring’s wild winds

Battling homeward in near-18 mph March headwinds gave proof to the old saw: “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” At least the lion part.

But it wasn’t all big-cat roars echoing through my helmet while knocking off errands. The outbound ride, in fact, seemed strangely quiet. Riding north through town — post office, pharmacy, library — seemed effortless, like levitating over the pavement. Meditating on the glories of biking, I only turned the cranks after full stops to resume a floating sensation.

That experience recalled an 80-miler from Evanston to Milwaukee, a fundraising ride several years ago urged on by a fellow weekend cyclist. With a near-constant 20 mph tail wind the entire way, raising the money seemed way harder than cycling “in the zone.” Thankfully, my buddy’s spouse sagged us home from Milwaukee that evening.

On this recent local outing, however, no one’s spouse awaited me at the library to haul me south to the calm oasis of my garage. Pondering the struggle homeward broke the spell of any tail wind reverie. Time to get practical.

Tail winds on open prairie trails, like this Lake Michigan lakefront, propel riders and induce unrealistic cycling fantasies. Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak

Windy day tips

Avoiding the wind is fantasy; ignoring it, unlikely. Sneaking around it, though, that‘s a possibility. Some tricks require familiarity with local street/trail geography, while others require smart planning.

Natural landscape features can help. On my errand ride home, a trail through a wooded area followed by an 8-foot high private hedge afforded temporary shelter. Adding extra distance, the trail wasn’t the most direct route. Also, it didn’t go on forever.

When wooded trails, residential hedges and other landscape features end, prepare to be assaulted. Beyond the hedge, a belligerent crosswind suddenly slapped Schwinn and me. The bike frame lurched leeward, acutely angled to the trail. Staying upright required forward motion and all my attention.

Maintaining momentum, regardless of wind, even at slow speed, seems key to balancing on a bike. Killing time at red lights, cyclists learn to inch forward ever so slowly so as not to have to step down and admit defeat.

Climbing a steep incline in too high a gear also teaches perilous lessons about momentum. Too little and the bike, with gravity as its nasty accomplice, suddenly tips sideways awkwardly. One moment you’re vertical, the next sprawled on terra firma.

As your bike scrapes the ground, listen carefully and you can hear it cry “uncle.” Listen carefully as a cyclist tips over and “uncle” is unlikely what you’ll hear.

Narrow residential streets can also minimize wind, but aren’t risk-free — vehicle doors opening, errant basketballs bouncing, jaywalkers bopping to playlists, motorists losing patience. Wider streets offer you more reaction time, yes, though less wind blockage.

Drafting in pairs or pace lines help conserve energy when fighting headwinds or otherwise. Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak

Check weather apps

Planning ahead never hurts. Check local weather apps for wind direction and speed. If your overall route includes wooded trails and open prairies, take advantage of tail winds on the open trail, letting woodlands absorb the headwinds.

Mid-February, a buddy and I made acquaintance with Gulf of Mexico winds in Florida. At steady 17-20 mph speeds and gusting violently, they remained acquaintances, hardly friends, mind you. They determined the direction of our morning rides.

With fresh legs, we’d usually head into the wind, knowing that rolling homeward would literally be a breeze — vegetables before dessert. We also knew from experience that the wind tended to strengthen as the day wore on.

To be contrary, we occasionally chose tail wind first, initially enjoying the relaxing propulsion. As the turnaround point approached, however, the return trip loomed in our minds. No spouse with bike rack awaited us in Tarpon Springs.

Actually, our anticipation outweighed reality. With a steady conversation to distract, the miles clicked on by and we forgot about combating the annoying ferocity. To make this trick work, one caution: Don’t discuss the wind.

Of course, drafting one another for stretches at a time also made great sense. Sharing the pull at the front at regular intervals allowed each of us to recover and budget our efforts in half-mile stretches.

No matter where you ride, on especially windy days, recruiting a handful of riders is prudent, especially those with compatible riding habits. Pace lines with alternating leaders are then possible, conserving the energy of those drafting. They are also effective against side winds, with formations resembling half-skeins of migrating Canada geese.

Over 55 Illinois events provide extensive cycling choices in the 2024 Ride Guide, published by Ride Illinois. Courtesy Ride Illinois/Photo by Emily Steele

Announcing 2024 Ride Guide

On particularly blustery days, another wind-fighting strategy is just staying indoors. Fighting the wind has a place for pacifists. Make the most of your downtime by perusing the Illinois 2024 Ride Guide, published by Ride Illinois, the statewide nonprofit biking advocacy group.

This year’s free guide, announced in early March and available on the Ride Illinois website, offers 55 organized bike rides of various distances around Illinois and surrounding states. Rides are listed from March to December.

Many are key fundraising events that sustain local bike clubs and the free activities they offer, some year-round. Others raise funds for charitable causes, like Project Mobility, which provides adaptive bikes to children and adults. Multiday rides, hosted by “Out Our Front Door,” offer overnight camping at Cook County Forest Preserve campgrounds. Others, like the May 15 “Ride of Silence, or “Let’s Ride, Illinois” events Sept. 6-15, include various short community-based rides scattered around the state and are free to all.

A chronological listing makes it easy to plan one’s riding season month by month around Illinois. Promotional pages include club/agency website links and QR codes, enabling access to more event information.

• Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at

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