The slow, tedious drain of headwind
I woke in the tent around 7am after a very pleasant sleep on the open, arid plains of Kalmykia, south west Russia. The sun had been up for two hours already and it was starting to get hot. I opened the tent door. A northwesterly blew into the tent bringing with it a cool relief accompanied by a hint of dread. I was cycling northwest all day today and that breeze was already feeling quite strong. In the heat in the middle of the day the breeze can usually double in ferocity, so a strong headwind at 7am is not a good sign. I rolled over on my mattress unwilling to face this for another half hour.
When I finally dragged myself out of the tent I sat in 30°C appreciating the cool breeze, knowing that this was the only time I would appreciate it all day. I packed away and cycled back along the sandy dirt track to the main road. I turned the bike to face the long, flat road and felt the strength of the wind push into me. I started the battle.
The problems with headwind
Unlike a mountain climb, there is the psychological frustration that comes with the knowledge that headwind isn’t always there. On another day the wind may be coming from the other direction or there may be no wind at all. And unlike a mountain climb, the push against headwind has no reward. It is endless, tedious and infuriating. The only relief is when you stop briefly to sink your head despairingly into your handlebars. But this only provides short term respite as in reality these breaks slow your progress, lengthening the time it will take for you to find water, food or to reach your destination.
Cycling becomes pointless. What on earth am I doing this for? Man has invented the combustion engine! You watch as cars soar past effortlessly, unaware of the front that you are battling. But why should they be aware? You are the only fool who chose to use a push bike.
Headwind doesn’t test your muscles, but strains your body. Your tendons ache, your feet and hands start to go numb, the tension in your back and neck becomes unbearable. Headwind dries your mouth out, cracks your lips and burns your skin. When the road takes a slight curve and the wind comes at you from an angle, your whole body braces to keep the bicycle steady. In moments between gusts, when the wind lessens for a second, your bike swerves into the vacuum. When a truck goes past, the truck’s draft pulls your bike into the road, sending your adrenaline soaring and causing you to tense further as you try to maintain balance of the bike.
Distracting yourself with music or podcasts becomes impossible as the wind roars past your ears making it impossible to hear anything. Your progress is minimal and morale is low. You have travelled half the distance you planned, whilst having had a miserable time, knowing that on another day the whole experience might have been different.
The Kalmykian plains
Since leaving the peace of my camp spot I had spent almost six hours pushing hard to maintain 13km/hr against 9m/s headwinds through the deserted plains of Kalmykia. My Russian visa is soon to run out. I have to get to the Kazakhstan border by next week. And what is there to do on an open empty plain, anyway? There’s no food or water, no shelter. I had no choice but to keep moving. When I had left that morning, the city of Elista was 125km away. On another day I could have made it, but tonight I was going to have to give up, to camp on the plain, to eat the left over dry bread and to ration the water.
Somebody in a car pulled over in front of me, jumped out and gestured at me to stop. “Hello, want a lift? We’re heading to Elista”.
A saviour, a gift from the cycling gods, a reprieve from this pointless, self-inflicted nightmare.
I grinned and I patted the bike affectionately: “No thanks”, I heard myself say, “I’m having fun”. He shrugged, wished me luck and drove on. I restarted my battle.
They say cyclists are a strange breed.