Words: Paul Fournel Illustration: Jo Burt
The bike is the school of the wind. There are two kinds of biking wind: objective wind and relative wind. The first one is produced by the world around us, and the second is the work of the cyclist alone. His masterpiece, you might say, for the faster he is, the more wind he creates.
The wind of the world is the one that hits you square on. Against it there’s no remedy other than friendship and solidarity. When you get a strong, persistent north wind full in the face, there’s nothing better than a big-shouldered friend. You curl up into a little ball behind him and wait for it to pass. Actually, you wait till he moves aside to give you his spot, and then you take your pull.
The strongest wind I can recall ever having ridden into is the wind of the west of Ireland. I pedalled along the coast, south of Galway, and I was careful always to leave riding into the wind, so I could be sure of getting back. I was alone, and it was a rough fight. There was no mercy. Everything that allows you to cheat and find shelter was missing: no trees, no houses, no hedges, no contours. Nothing but the wet, powerful, inexhaustible ocean wind. Stretched out on the bike, I had the feeling I was killing time, condemned to using mountain gears on flat terrain.
On the way back, all along the Irish coast, it was sheer delight when my little inner breath connected with the big outside wind. More pleasurable than descending, because I felt like I was in super shape, going much faster than I should have been.
Having very early on, at my own expense, learned that the wind wears you out, I soon learned to note from which direction it was blowing. There’s something of the sailor in the cyclist. Thanks to this basic training you learn to shelter yourself better and take better advantage of the strength of others. When the wind blows from the side, or from an angle, the riders fan out across the road in order to use their companions as barriers. These fans are called ‘echelons’, and if you’re not in the right one, getting from one to another is practically impossible.
Shelter and suction are the best reasons to make cycling friends. You can benefit from the combined effort and relax for a moment before taking your turn at the front.
To really take advantage, you have to stay close, in the bubble, with your front wheel only a few centimetres from the wheel in front. If you give up a few bike-lengths, the wind closes in on you and ‘getting back in’ is not easy. When whoever’s in front is pulling really hard, it can even be impossible.
In the 1996 Tour de France, in the long and very regular descent from Montgenèvre to Briançon, the peloton, anxious to get to the finish, stretched out in a long unbroken line, with every racer fighting to keep his place. Melchor Mauri, a good-looking rider who had been pedalling next to our car, had some derailleur problems that made him lose his spot; he was slipping away very quickly from the group. Christian Palka, who was driving, told me: “If we leave him there, he’ll soon be ten minutes down. He won’t get back in by himself at that speed.”
So we sheltered him with our car for about a hundred metres, to get him back in the line. He thanked us with a pleasant wink. At that point we were doing about eighty kilometres an hour.
Please don’t repeat this story, since it’s strictly forbidden by race rules to help riders in this way – by breaking the terrible law of the wind.
Extract from issue 8
Paul Fournel is the author of Vélo, available from the Rouleur shop.