Monday, July 17, 2006

Which Way The Wind Blows

One thing certain about Chicago is that the wind is always blowing. From the north, east, south, and west, whatever the direction – the wind is always, all of the time blowing.

As I headed out for last week, the wind blew from the northeast at 15 mph, gusting to 20 mph. I welcomed this wind, as this was no typical summer breeze in Chicago. The sun was shining, cumulus clouds hung in a sky of blue, the northeast wind was cool and clean, pleasantly keeping the temperatures below 80 degrees and making even the headwind seem light, thin, and crisp. Truly this was the perfect day for a ride and as the roads rolled by for 40 miles, I got to thinking about the wind.

Tailwinds from the Wild West

On Ragbrai, you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows - all you need is our friend, Marshall, to pull a tuft of grass from the ground, hold it high, let it go, and watch which way the wind carries it. Above all physical or mental factors that you might feel over Ragbrai, a 7-day, 500 mile ride across Iowa, the wind trumps them all, taking control over your entire experience. Heading from the Nebraska border clear across the Illinois, Ragbrai is a significantly eastern adventure. As you roll along in an easternly direction, summer winds from the south might blow and winds from the west are welcomed with open arms and wheels. It was 2004, and in a most unsummerly manner, the wind blew from the southeast for most of the week. To our dismay, we headed mostly south and mostly east, making the miles a long hard grind into the headwind. Several days later, we awoke moaning to the wind to grant us mercy and relief from its cruel headwind hold. But that morning, before we rolled out, Marshall dropped a tuft of grass, and to our surprise the wind picked it up and furiously whipped it away in the most delightful direction. Not only was it a westerly tailwind, but it was gusting to 40 mph. You don’t ride this type of wind – you glide, you fly, you sail above pavement effortlessly to the east. This was a day for Ragbrai history – the day we rode, geared out, cruising 120 rpm’s at a comfortable 42 mph. I hung until until 39 mph, 650’s spun out in wheeled fury, until I dropped off defeated from the back, watching the guys disappear in the distance. Like this, I realized the west wind will carry you, and 10 of your friends, across Iowa or any state for that matter with uncautious grace, laughing manically the whole way as you hang on for one hell of a wild ride. The west wind is relentless and full – it does not tire, it does not stop. It holds speeds that you can only dream of in cycling – 25, 30, consistently 40 mph. The most impenetrable of all winds – unbeatable, indefatigable, and capable of leaving you tattered and tired 25 miles from home, 2 hours later, only to turn around, point your bike east and coast back in under a hour. The west wind truly promises a wild, wild ride.

Storming Through A Southeast Headwind

2001, Ragbrai, again late July. The team rolled into Storm Lake, a town true to it’s name. Grinding into Storm Lake, I was taking whatever draft I could find behind Chris’ wheel. Heading into the storm surrounding the lake, the wind was in our faces only permitting us to proceed at a mere 9 mph. It’s never a good sign when up in the distance you see a field full of giant metal windmills, churning and whirring in the stormy wind, and especially not a good sign on the second day of the week-long ride. Marshall, standing over 6 feet tall, was leading the way into the wind, the rest of us hiding behind his rear wheel hoping for any small measure of relief in his wake. We worked hard, those in front and in back, and the rain was making us wet and weary. Like the windmills turning in the fields, our wheels turned in large, slow circles through the stormy southeastern headwind. As we fought against the wind, the windmills served as reminder that today the wind would win, and we would only fall tired in our tents that night, beaten by the southeasterly blows and uppercuts of Storm Lake. Ravaged and spent, we had no choice but to ride on and as we did Marshall pulled to the side of our paceline and added a brief moment of humor as he pleaded, ‘I sure wish someone would turn off those giant fans.’

Winter Wind From the East

From the middle of summer, to the dead of winter, the east wind brutally blows like cold, cruel breath from a giant cartoon cloud. It was late February, and I was determined to escape the indoor cycling confines of my basement and ride outdoors. The temperature looked appealingly cooperative as it hovered around a balmy 38. Bundled up and prepared for a cold, but manageable, ride, I headed west on my mountain bike. The wind seemed light at my back and I was warm inside my layers. And then I turned around to head home. Even today, the heaviness of my mountain bike was not slow enough to keep me from feeling the speedy briskness of the east wind. Twenty minutes from home, I began to feel the physical and mental sting of the cold, fearing that several parts of myself would freeze or fall off. The pain in my hands and toes had grown unbearable and even under two layers of mittens and wool socks, the wind sent its piercing fury into my extremities. I stopped, panicked, grew colder, and realized I had no choice but to gut it out and push the rest of the way. When I arrived home, I collapsed on the couch, holding my feet, crying to my husband. But there is no way to warm the body fast enough when it has been cold for that long. You can only wait it out and wait for the feeling to return, cursing the east wind and all of its wickedness to pass the time.

South Winds – Not What They Seem

Summer in Chicago brings winds warm, sultry winds from the south. But don’t be fooled. For all of their warmth, the sound wind is the thickest, heaviest of all winds. It was early May, I was riding out in the far western suburbs. It was a 4 hour ride, mostly to the north and the west on the way out. Turned around and literally hit a wall – except that I had to keep pedaling, pushing into that wall over and over again. Despite the headache, despite the pain, my knees crying for relief from the 50 rpms, I found myself pushing 4.9 mph at over 220 watts geared out with 2 hours left to go. The south wind can leave you dry, wind-whipped, and broken at the end of the ride on what seemed like an otherwise pleasant and warm day.

You Don’t Know the North Wind

Running through the Chicago winter promises a confrontational encounter or two with the north wind. The north wind is strong and bold. It does not care about you – it does not care that you have just ran 45 minutes out with the wind against your back, growing sweaty under 5 layers of thermafleece, moisture-wicking, Pearl Izumi gear. As you turn around, it stares you right in the face, in your $200 winter gear get-up, teasing you with a brash ‘bring it on’ as you furiously pump your arms and put your head down to grind against it tenacious hold. You return home, face blotched and red, bitten by the north wind only to fall exhausted on to the floor wondering what happened, how you got beat up along the way, wondering where exactly your run went wrong. Outside, the north wind sneers in a sinister way as it whips through your storm windows and causes the heat to kick on.

Make Nice with the Northeasternly Wind

Thinking about the wind, I cruised comfortably on my 40 mile ride, with the friendliest of winds – the northeasterly wind. We talked, chatted, made friends. It kept me cool under the summer sun, blowing just enough at the right times – making me feel like I was working hard, but then backing off to give me a break. Afterwards, I felt like I wanted to invite the northeasternly wind to join me for dinner or at least another ride.

But these days are rare. Tomorrow will bring a new wind – whether it’s blowing, gusting, swirling, tearing, biting – pick a verb, any verb and then just wait. The wind will show – and blow. It always does.

After awhile, you get used to the wind. You realize that you’re not going anywhere around Chicago without it. So you best make friends with it, learn to live with it, put your head down, and go.

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