Ride Like the (March) Wind



When I'm cycling I do like to ride like the wind,
Meaning: head the same way that the wind's moving too.
Whizzing downwind is when I have most often grinned;
Grinding upwind, more likely, I'll groan or grunt "Poo!"

Now we all know that cycling straight downwind is fast,
And the pedals spin easier, quicker as well...
But I usually suffer the blustery blast
Of a ravaging, savaging headwind from Hell.

All too often it seems that the way I must go –
For I seldom, if ever, have freedom to choose –
Is that perfect direction from which the winds blow...
'Out and back' – shouldn't one of those two be a cruise?

Well, I don't understand all the tricks nature plays,
But it does seem I often get headwinds both ways.

Ever since I was a kid – which at my age can usually be considered effectively the same as always, except when discussing geology or (maybe) archaeology – March has been known as the month most famous for its winds. Even on the south central coast of California, where seasons rarely merit much more than an idle observation, this month is often the toughest challenge for a cyclist, either actual or wanna-be. Like a lot of other folks, sometimes I seem to vacillate between those two classifications. But in spring, when in other parts of the country cyclists are getting all excited about snow going away and warmer weather blowing in, I tend to get caught up in the national fervor. With my legs rusty after lazy days of winter and my behind (oversized from Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners) sometimes tenderly objecting to a hard tiny bicycle seat, off I go, determined to make this summer of cycling one I'll be proud to remember.

We (my wife Kay and I) live about five miles (east) from the beach, and our predominant (west) winds are straight off the ocean. As you might expect, the most appealing destination for a short ride is one of our local harbors or piers. So quite honestly, much more often than not, when we first start riding, we're heading straight into the wind. At other times of the year, probably especially late summer, if a person were to pop out of bed bright and early, he should be able to catch those last marvelous moments of the night's offshore (easterly) breezes as a titillating tailwind for his trip to the sea. Then if his timing is fortuitous, the wind will shift to its typical daytime onshore (westerly) pattern, and he will have a tailwind for his ride home as well. I'm sure that if you thoroughly reviewed meteorological data for the last 50 years or so, you would find that this looks like a fairly common opportunity. However, the actual chances of it happening are about the same as winning a few bucks in the lottery, or understanding how all those stupid nautical terms like 'offshore' and 'easterly' managed to survive the technological revolution. I have personally experienced this phenomenon maybe twice in more than 20 years – the two-way tailwind thing, not winning anything of any real value in the lottery.

Haven't you ever wondered exactly why in the BLEEP some 'winning' tickets have as their prize only a stupid replacement ticket? I mean, at best that's essentially the same as saying, "Up yours, you jerk – we have just nullified your participation in our contest, while at the same time ensuring that you will be subjected to the possibility of repeating this humiliation." I have decided after industrious, dedicated study (at least 5 to 10 minutes of it, maybe) that the reason they do that is some kind of accounting scheme, where those free tickets are considered part of the 53% payoff mandated by the state, but not as part of the income for the next round in whichever accounts or columns it is most advantageous to omit it. Does Arthur Andersen oversee the California Lottery? But hey, I'm rambling...

On one of my first rides this past March, I headed to the coast on a mountain bike with street tires, struggling and grunting, grinding along at a speed barely high enough to maintain balance. In fact, I think that Mother Nature might have thrown in a few shifting crosswinds and swirling eddies just to see if I was going slow enough to fall over as she played her little games. I was feeling pretty smug when I finally made it to the beach. But when I turned to ride northeast up the coast as part of my loop, expecting only a mildly gusting crosswind, I found that the wind had shifted a bit too. I was actually still battling almost directly into the blast. Well, heck, it was only a couple of miles before I would turn east and head for home; I managed to endure. Once I was rolling east, I could feel the bike become a bit more like a vehicle than a merely misanthropomorphic piece of furniture. [Please don't look up that word on Merriam-Webster's website; you know what I mean.]

I had about a minute and a half of that near euphoria that often comes for a cyclist when the road tilts nicely downhill, before my bicycle began to slow down almost like I was trying to ride through sand or deep mud. This was one of those days that we often get in March, when strong eastern winds – called Santa Anas – begin moving down from our mountains and deserts, reaching the ocean sometime between about 10 AM and 2 PM. The egregious earth goddess had given me just enough of a taste of a tailwind to agonize over it all the way home as I pedaled painfully slowly along, straight into the blustering products of her puffing oversized cheeks. If she has a collection of Funniest Home Videos, I suspect that I may have been the star for that morning.

Why are these hellacious howlers called Santa Ana winds? I think it's because they were actually originally named Santana winds, which is Spanish for Devil, which makes some sense, because in the summer they are usually very hot and dry. California firemen just love them. When we first moved to California, we lived in Orange County, and I thought they were named for Santa Ana Canyon, since they blew straight down it from Riverside. I think it's actually only because it's a more familiar phrase for local English speakers. Very few people seem to have noticed the ironic twist of devilish winds having somehow become saintly. But I'm rambling again...

Anyway, wrapping this up, it seems like the whole month of March was a series of struggles with the wind every time I was out on a ride. One afternoon, on our way back from Ojai to the beach at Ventura, I am almost sure that poor Kay was actually rolling backward, even though she was pedaling with all her might and the path was also slightly downhill. To be completely honest, however, I would have to admit that may have been a purely subjective impression; I wasn't especially enjoying the wind at that particular point in our ride very much either.

There was one nice ride that we had toward the end of March, starting (of course) with a struggle, at about five miles per hour into a headwind, over to Channel Islands Harbor. But then on the way home, we had a tailwind all the way, zipping along at closer to 20 MPH. [Cue background music from Fiddler on the Roof – "Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, ..."] Still, about halfway home in the middle of what should have been a very pleasant experience, it occurred to me: if you ride the same piece of road or bikepath both upwind and then downwind, the pleasant part of the ride when you're rolling downwind doesn't last nearly as long as the part where you're the most miserable. You know, I'm just really not sure there is any way we'll ever come out ahead on this. I was ready for April.

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Last updated Oct 12 2004