Tips from the pros: Three rules for riding in crosswinds

The fundamentals are straightforward. Call them the three Ps of riding crosswinds: Positioning, Planning, and Power.

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MUSCAT, Oman (CT) — Oh, to have been born in the Low Countries. The frites in Flanders, the stroopwaffels in Holland, the love of beer that runs deep from De Panne to Groningen. Public transit options galore. And, of course, the innate ability to ride a bike in the crosswinds.

The Belgians and the Dutch seem to know how to form echelons before they learn to walk. For the billions born elsewhere, it may not come quite as easily, but there is hope. Peter Sagan is from Slovakia, after all. Fabian Cancellara hailed from Switzerland. New York native George Hincapie even won a windy Gent-Wevelgem in 2001.

“It’s something you can learn,” Niki Terpstra told CyclingTips at the Tour of Oman. “Even climbers, if they have good position, can be in the first echelon.”

Terpstra was one of several classics veterans tuning up for classics this week in the Middle East. We took the opportunity to ask a handful of seasoned pros in Oman if they might divulge the tricks of the trade for thriving in the crosswinds. We can’t all be born into it, but we can at least try to learn from the best.

How to ride in crosswinds: Learn the three Ps

The fundamentals are straightforward. Call them the three Ps of riding crosswinds: Positioning, Planning, and Power.

As any pro will tell you, positioning is the real key to a successful day in the crosswinds. But what does that mean exactly? For numerous riders we spoke to at the Tour of Oman, it’s all about being near the front for those first few seconds of chaos. So it’s really a combination of positioning and timing. Of course, that means you have to know when the chaos is about to start.

“If you see a strong team is grouping together, all the alarm bells have to go off,” says Terpstra.

The surest way to guarantee you’re in position for the action is to be the aggressor, the one on the offensive. It’s best to be proactive on a windy day.

Proactive riders and teams can not only survive the crosswinds, but use them to put their rivals in the rearview mirror.

“If you want to do [an echelon] you need to be the first, and you need to have all the team on it,” says CCC sports director Valerio Piva. “If you are in the defensive position, you’ll never be able to do a real echelon. The first team to do it has control of the race.”

In short, echelons are yet another incentive for teams to spend time at the front of the peloton. Considering how important it is for sprinters and GC stars alike to boss the front of the bunch anyway, riders can sometimes find themselves in good position for the crosswinds without even meaning to be.

“There were a lot of times at Sky where I would make a split in the crosswinds,” American climber Ian Boswell points out, “not because I am good at it, but because we were at the front already.”

Holding court at the head of the bunch is easier said than done, of course. Learning the terrain is a good place to start for any team trying to take control of a race. This is where planning comes in.

Echelons can form when the wind first picks up, or when a windy race goes through a tricky corner. That’s when it’s critical to be in the front — and to fight to stay there.

“You have to do a really big effort, and usually after one minute or two, it’s already settled,” says Alexander Kristoff. “You need to hold on for the first two minutes, and if you do, you’ll be there.”

Part of that is knowing where the pinch points on course are, or where the route is likely to turn from a headwind or tailwind into a crosswind.

“You need to do a good preview before the race of what the road is, what the wind direction is, when it changes, or when the parcours changes,” says Stijn Vandenbergh.

Studying past editions of a windy race can be useful too. Seasoned sports directors can give their riders a massive leg up by giving them intel on the wind direction and intensity they can expect for a given stretch of road or pavé. They create maps the morning of any crosswind-prone race, marking forecasted wind direction so they know where key turns will be. Soigneurs and mechanics driving ahead of the race will call back and make note of any changes.

It also helps to keep an eye on the specialists as the wind picks up—and it’s not always the very strongest riders worth following. Not everyone can keep up with Tom Boonen. It pays to know who else can navigate the crosswinds.

“When I was a young rider I always looked to Juan Antonio Flecha,” Michael Schär says. “It wasn’t Boonen because Boonen was too strong for me, but Flecha was smart.”

It’s critical for dropped riders to form a new echelon quickly. This is something that many amateur pelotons struggle with. Those that do create a new echelon, rather than suffer in the gutter alone, stand a good chance of ultimately reconnecting with the group ahead. Problems arise when riders hesitate to commit to a new echelon, allowing gaps to balloon.

“If we all formed echelons right away, you can be 10 or 20 meters behind but if you just keep rotating, the echelons wouldn’t be a big issue,” Boswell says. “But no one wants to be the first person to swing out to the right or left and create a second, third, fourth echelon.

Once echelons have formed, riders settle into the rhythm of pulling and recovering. The paceline may have a diagonal slant, but the flow is familiar. So too is the desire to skip the occasional pull, hanging at the back to save energy— but that can be an especially dangerous game in the crosswinds.

“You can sit and survive [at the back],” Schär says, “but it’s a really delicate spot.”

At the tail end of the echelon, a wayward elbow from an annoyed rival can put a rider into the gutter. A tiny split at the back can become an insurmountable gap in no time if there’s no one else around to form a new group. In other words, it’s smart to be diplomatic within the echelon. It’s sometimes easier to take a pull. The stakes are even higher than normal.

Where does power come in? Obviously, strength helps everywhere in cycling. But big watts can be wasted in crosswinds. Power needs to be used at the right time. It’s worth digging deep for the first split, but hope is not totally lost for riders who miss out when splits begin to form. Raw power can come to the rescue, assuming the gaps are still small. As Schär points out, “If you’re really strong, you can be behind and then sprint into the echelon.”

Clearly, the combination of planning and positioning is likely to be more effective than raw power.

Above all, the experts stress the value of a strong, cohesive team in crosswinds.

A handful of riders working in sync can succeed where a disorganized unit might fail. A group of teammates willing to take turns for each other can thrive.

“You need to follow the team, and when you are doing that, sometimes, you need to go in the wind. You need to [pull] in the echelon to be able to stay in the echelon,” Piva says.

“The important thing is to understand that you are not alone.”

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