Racing a Windy Long Course Triathlon Bike Course

TeamENBikeRiderWe’ve talked quite a bit on our race execution posts on this blog about how to ride hills in a long course triathlon, but we have done relatively little on how to execute on a windy day. And I recently returned from Ironman® Coeur d’Alene, where strong winds on the out and back section of highway 95 were the deciding factor on the day. Here is some guidance to help you:

#1: Do Your Homework

Do some research to determine if your intended bike course is knowing for being windy and from what direction these winds typically blow. You can usually find this information with a few Google searches for race reports, etc. More importantly, check out the bike course map and see if you will be riding in one direction for a long time. This is important because you could then potentially be experiencing the effects of wind from one direction for a long time. To save you some time looking at Ironman® course maps, here are a few key sections of popular courses:

  • Ironman® Texas:
  • Ironman® Coeur d’Alene: the long out and back on Hwy 95
  • Ironman® Lake Placid:
  • Ironman® Mont Tremblant:
  • Ironman® Louisville: the return back towards town on Hwy 42 and River Road
  • Ironman® World Championships: the ride back from Hawi
  • Ironman® Florida:
  • Ironman® Arizona: the out and back on the Beeline Highway

These are key sections, from the perspective that you’re riding one direction for a relatively long time, therefore significantly extending the amount of time you could be making a mistake, if these sections are windy and you don’t ride them properly.

#2: Ignore the Wind

Pacing your effort on a windy bike course is relatively simple: ignore the wind, from a pacing standpoint.

Headwind: don’t increase your effort into a headwind. The reason is because, unlike a hill, which will eventually end, you can’t predict how long you’ll be riding into a headwind. So if your plan is to dial up your effort into a headwind…but the wind lasts for five, ten, fifteen, or forty-five minutes, these are all very different scenarios!

Tailwind: don’t decrease your effort with a tailwind. The reason is that our natural tendency when riding with a tailwind is to back off our effort. If your plan is come off the gas and rest with a tailwind, you’ll be giving up a lot of easy speed.

And so the reason why we advise you to ignore the winds is because if you make the mistake of riding a little (or a lot) too hard into a headwind, or a little (or a lot) easier with a tailwind, the cost of those mistakes have a long time to accrue and then express themselves on the run. So you can see why extended, one-direction sections of bike courses are particularly dangerous: if make the mistake of riding a little too hard into a headwind on the Beeline Hwy at Ironman® Arizona, for example, you’re making that mistake for nine miles, with disastrous consequences on the run.

#3: Maintain a Reserve

One feature of every single Ironman® course is that conditions become tougher as you get later in the day: expect temperature, winds, and fatigue to increase across the day, not to mention a distinct pegging of the Phun-o-meter at about mile 85! The race gets hard, you have fewer energy reserves with which to respond, so you sit up and come off the gas…into a headwind, or with a tailwind, for miles and miles.

For this reason, proper pacing in the first two hours of the bike is especially important on windy courses, because they decrease the potential of compromised aerodynamics later in the day, which we’ll discuss next.

#3: Think Air Speed, not Ground Speed

Increase air speed while riding into a headwind increase the aerodynamic benefits and costs of your riding position:

Climbing into a headwind?
Your default riding position on a hill or any terrain feature that drops your speed under ~12-13mph may be to sit up and ride in hoods. But if you’re climbing a 1.8 mile, 4-6% hill at 9-10mph…but into a 20mph headwind (ie, Mica Grade, Hwy 95 at Coeur d’Alene’14), your airspeed is nearly 30mph. That’s a much different scenario from a windless, 9-10mph, one that warrants staying the aerobars and continuing to think about ways to hide from the wind. Climbing in the aerobars has the add benefit of usually preventing you from spiking your watts on a climb, and is therefore something you should consider putting in your tool kit to use on race day, regardless of the winds.

Feeling sketched by the wind, especially crosswinds?
All of us, at some combination of body size, wheel selection, crosswind, bike handling skills, and cycling experience encounter crosswinds that make our Spidey Senses go off and require us to get out of the aerobars and riding the hoods to maintain better control of the bike. That’s fine, but we encourage you to remain low and aerodynamic on the bike as you can, hiding from the wind rather than creating a sail.

In summary:

  • Do your homework, researching what wind conditions you can expect on the course (from what direction, how strong, what time of day, do they shift, etc), and does the course have a particularly long one-direction section, creating a segment where you need to be very aware of the winds and your actions.
  • Ignore the wind, not riding any harder or easier, into or with the wind. Just ride.
  • Save something for the last third of the ride.
  • Think air speed, not ground speed, and be aware of riding position opportunities to hide from the wind.

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