Carpe Diem, The Series: Size Matters

Size matters

Paul Stevens

Carpe Diem (but in a relaxed sort of way)


Before you let your mind wander with the title of this article, let me take a step or two back to set the table here.  You may recall that when riding my bike, the wind and I are not on the best of terms.  I understand that wind is a common element of the weather, especially in spring and fall when weather patterns are changing.  I understand it but that doesn’t mean that I like it.  Quite the contrary; given the choice, I would make it go away.

About a week ago, my fellow Manditos and I headed out on a Sunday morning for a ride down the St. Clair Parkway.  This is a scenic road that parallels the St. Clair River from Sarnia, ending up in Windsor, which is opposite Detroit.  Heading south, we were immediately dealing with a very strong and consistent wind from the south.  That means a headwind without interruption which can be challenging.  That is just a polite way of saying that it is a pain in the you-know-what.

I found that I was having a difficult time maintaining pace with our group as I kept falling back despite using all the techniques you usually employ to help yourself going into the wind – drafting the riders in front of you, stay as low and streamlined as possible, lower gear selection, etc.  These tactics would provide short term benefits however I kept slipping back.  “What the bleep is going on here?!” I said to myself on more than one occasion.  

Consider Your Weight

Going down the Parkway, the chosen destination was a sleepy little town called Sombra.  Other than offering a ferry ride across the St. Clair River to the U.S. side,  there really isn’t a compelling reason to spend more time than is necessary in town.  Some riverside homes and cottages, a couple of ice cream shops and that’s about it. The distance to Sombra is about 40 km but going into a strong wind the entire way made it feel like more, a lot more.  Once we turned around and headed back up the Parkway for the return trip, it was like a giant sigh of relief as the wind was now firmly at our back.  No trouble keeping up with the pack and even leading it on several occasions.

The guys I ride with are all about the same age group. While we are in decent physical condition, we are not of Olympic calibre, nor do we need to be given our current stage of life.  I work out regularly, have been on the bike enough to shake off most of winter’s cobwebs but still I was having trouble keeping up on the way down the river.  So what is going on here? I’m doing all the right stuff but looked out of place compared to my riding bros.  

Why Size Matters

This was going to take a little research.  Checking out the ‘net the following day, there were several eye-opening articles that put my troubled mind to rest. Recall that I am not a particularly large person; I’m 5’6’’ and weigh about 150 lbs.  I consider myself to be ‘environmentally correct’ as I take up a lot less space and eat a lot less food than some 6’4” palooka.

Relating this information to the cycling world, I found a good analogy that goes like this. Consider two baseballs. Both look identical on the outside, but one is of regular baseball construction and weight. The other is filled with a lightweight material such as Styrofoam. Throw each baseball into the wind and you will have dramatically different results.  Throw the regular baseball straight into the wind, as opposed to a high arcing toss, and the ball will get basically to where it is intended.

Do the same thing with the lightweight clone and it is going to get significantly buffeted about and may not reach its intended target.  This is what happens to the lighter rider on a windy day.  The lighter rider is getting slammed by the wind on a more impactful level whereas the greater mass of the larger rider will create an advantage of momentum that will help maintain forward motion.  Even though larger riders have more surface area, this is outweighed by the maintaining of forward momentum.

Size matters

Choose Your Moments

Where the lighter rider can play catch up is going up hills (no wind of course) as the power to weight ratio is generally an advantage or on the flats where the same effect is in force.  The larger rider will have the upper hand going down hills as momentum kicks in.

Around our area, we have virtually no hills of consequence and lots of flats.  When we don’t have wind, maintaining pace with the group has never been a problem for me so the above analogy answers my “What the bleep is going on!” question.  I don’t need to kill myself trying to break the laws of nature on a windy day and as long as I keep within earshot, I’ll catch up on the return leg.  A bit of knowledge can be a comforting thing and I must admit to feeling a sense of relief now that I understand what is going on with me and the wind.  Maybe the wind and I will not be the foes we once were; just adversaries that understand and accept each other. In summary then, size does indeed matter, and a bit of weight, well placed, doesn’t hurt either.

I’ll get to put this newfound knowledge into practice with the next group ride for those that are participating in the upcoming Gran Fondo in our area.  If its windy, I’ll join a more modest group in terms of distance and speed. If it’s calm, I’ll stretch myself out a bit more to add speed and distance.

Your friend, Paul.

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