How To Ride In A Motorcycle In A Heavy Crosswind

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Motorcycle crosswind

Right now, the Santa Ana winds are blowing warm, hot air from California’s interior out towards the coast. That creates wildfires and, if you go for a ride in the mountains right now, huge gusts that feel like they might send your bike off a cliff. What can you do about it? Here’s how to ride a motorcycle in a heavy crosswind.

This is something I experienced myself two weeks ago, headed up to Death Valley. Nearly the entire length of 395 from Mojave to Big Pine, cold air was pouring off the Sierras to replace the warm air lifting up off Owens Valley. Since 395 follows the valley North-South, paralleling the mountains, that means the winds run perpendicular to the road. Anyone who’s ridden or drive up there knows there’s nowhere to hide from that wind — very few trees and no geographic features to speak of. To add to all that, we were riding dual sports on knobbies, so they were already pretty unstable.

How did we keep them upright? With science and skill.

Step One: Batten Down The Hatches
Start with the 70 mph or whatever speed resistance you encounter from the air as your cruise along a road. You know how serious that is and you know how tightly you have to strap things down to your bike and to your body to keep them secure. Sidewinds exacerbate that problem to a huge degree. So, if you have a tank bag or panniers or a tailpack or a backpack or whatever, try and get it as immobile on the bike as you can possibly make it. Throw a bungee net over the luggage, pull the straps as tight as they’ll go, anything you can do to make it work.

Your gear will also be vulnerable to attacks from the wind coming from an unexpected direction. Now’s the time to fully-close zippers, zip together two-pieces, seal visors and make sure the peaks on dual-sport helmets are on securely.

If you know you’ll be riding in challenging conditions, it’s also a good idea to make sure your bike and its components are all in decent condition. Pay particular attention to air pressures, as those can contribute to instability should they fall too low.

Step Two: Speed Up
Know how you can take your hands off the handlebars at highway speeds and the bike will continue to track a straight line? Well, that’s due to the gyroscopic force of the wheels, which make a bike “want” to stand straight up. In a crosswind, this is your greatest ally. While getting blown all over the road may make you want to slow down, but you should actually maintain a decent speed in order to bring the full gyroscopic effect into the equation. Just don’t go crazy, 55 mph should work just fine.

Step Three: Minimize Your Footprint
Depending on what bike you’re riding, your own body could be the largest piece of resistance the wind is encountering. Crouching down can reduce this area; if your bike has a screen, try to put as much of your body behind it as possible. At the very least, this will mean that the force of the wind will be acting on something closer to the bike’s center of gravity rather than as far away from it as possible.

At the same time, release your death grip on the bars. If the wind is moving your upper body around, a tight grip or stiff arms could be translating that movement into steering inputs.

Step Four: Weight The Pegs
When you’re upright, weighting the peg on the side of the bike facing the wind will cause it to turn somewhat in that direction. This counters the force of the wind which is trying to turn it the opposite direction.

Step Five: Hang Off
If the wind is blowing so hard that you need to steer into it to maintain a straight line, then hanging off will have the same effect it does while you’re rounding a corner — making for less steering input and less lean. This method is particularly effective while crouching down in some approximation of sportbike body position (a little challenging on a dual-sport), reducing your aerodynamic footprint and countering the force of the wind with your body weight.

Using these techniques, my friends and I were able to manage hours of riding in significant crosswinds in some approximation of safety and control. Don’t take things too far though, in any inclement weather condition you’ll need to use your judgment to determine if the risk is outweighing the progress. Pull over if conditions get too dangerous.

Have you ridden in heavy crosswinds recently? How do you manage?

  • Jack Meoph

    Head out HWY 166 (just north of Santa Maria) towards New Cuyamam, CA on a windy day and hang on for life!!! Not only are you sideways at about a 20 degree lean angle just to go straight, but tumble weeds the size of large farm animals are rolling over the fences and into your path. Just hit them, because trying to dodge one is dangerous and they usually explode into a shower of twigs. If they get caught underneath you bike and lodged into your rear wheel you’re hosed anyways. Also, HWY 33 into Ojai south (raceway of the south/central CA white trash), or 33 north into Taft and then head back west on HWY 58 are all there to enjoy. Watch out for cows on 58. Seriously, they stand in the road.

  • http://www.pattonstrength.com/ PattonStrength

    As a Bay Area rider, I’m all to familiar with huge gusts of wind, especially on the Bay or GG Bridge. I try and not ride alongside any cars when traveling in gusty conditions. Just gives me a couple more feet of error, should I get moved suddenly. Especially when riding the DRZ.

  • Mark D

    The way out to Palm Springs from LA is also quite bad. My bike almost got blown off its sidestand at a gas station!
    The above advice definitely helps. I also make sure I am looking far ahead, not down at the pavement in front of me. Just like rounding a curve, or sailing a boat, it’ll go where you look. Keep your eyes up and your head down, steady on the throttle, and you’ll make it out alive.

    • IRS4

      I did that route once on a KLR650, loaded up returning from a Baja camping trip. Loaded, uphill, headwind cut me down to a 25mph freeway speed.

      Driving south on PCH north of Big Sur one dusk, winds blasting up the cliffs biked my bike up off both wheels and plopped me down in the oncoming lane. Longest time I’ve ever forgotten to breathe.

    • Alpha_Geek_Mk2

      The 10 is a gnarly route. Turns out they build windmill farms in areas of high wind- who knew? :P

  • Lourens Smak

    We have a lot of open land and polders here in the Netherlands. A trick I read about on a classic Dutch motorcycling site is the “flapping knee” technique… I tried it and it miraculously works. It involves sticking out the knee on the side the wind comes from. Keep your leg loose and let it move with the wind. Try it, you’ll be amazed. (I was). The site is here: http://www.lazymotorbike.eu/tips/weather/ (English version!) it has many excellent riding tips.

    • Jack Meoph

      The flapping knee sounds like a good idea. I’m going to try it the next time I ride in the wind.

      • Lourens Smak

        You’ll be surprised… wind from the right will push your bike left, a “sail” on the left will pull your bike to the right. They will automagically neutralize each other; relax and stay loose, and it will work…

    • metric_G

      It works, I use this technique all the time, I was surprised too when I tried it the first time.

    • Tupack Shackur

      I just love this comment, for some reason. I love that it’s good advice, but moreso that it’s a technique with a weird name, and it came from a Dutchman. Haha. Thanks!

  • Michael Howard

    I think the most important thing is to keep loose (don’t let yourself tense up) and allow the bike to move beneath you. Keep your eyes focused ahead and let the bike get pushed around a bit (because you’re not going to be able to prevent it from happening anyway). Countersteering is your best friend.

  • IRS4

    Speeding up isn’t just about gyro but inertia too. It improves the ratio between forward motion and the side load. A 25mph side wind into a 25mph bike is equal. That wind into a 50mph bike is relatively half as strong.

    Related to hanging off, sticking your windward knee out to the side can break up the incoming gust like a breakwater, so it doesn’t hit the slab side of your bike all at once.

    • Stuki

      The faster you go, the more head on becomes the effective direction of the wind blast. Apparent wind, as sailers call it.

      In fast sports cars (and more so race cars), which are designed specifically for aerodynamic down force resulting from oncoming wind, this can make them much more stable at elevated speeds. A problem with bikes, is that they all react to oncoming wind by lifting the front. There is virtually no way of generating aerodynamic downforce on the front end of a tall MC. It’s not so bad on lowslung, narrow faired bikes (sport/hyper bikes), but put a sizable windshield/fairing on an upright, tall ADV bike, and you have less and less weight on the front tire as speeds rise; meaning more and more susceptibility to have the front pushed around by side winds. And on dirt/ds bikes, designed to be light up front to begin with……..

  • Alpha_Geek_Mk2

    A few years ago I rode my Ninja 650R from south OC to Indio, via the 10. Y’know that area with all of the really cool windmills? Turns out it’s EXTREMELY WINDY there. In retrospect, duh. But that was probably the hairiest ride I’ve ever been on, I could barely stay on the road at all, let alone avoid being blown into the trucks that were passing on both sides. Don’t need to do that twice.

    • mms

      Ugh I hate that stretch of road, on the bright side just head out there on any bike that needs a good sandblasting and it’ll do the job for you

  • BillW

    While you’re doing all those things Wes mentioned, also be on the lookout for wind shadows, which can be caused by structures, hills, or even semis. You want to be ready when the wind suddenly goes away, and then just as suddenly returns. And of course, watch for things that are more substantial or hazardous than tumbleweeds that may be blown across the road, e.g., plastic bags, cardboard boxes, pieces of plywood, small children, cattle, houses. It should go without saying that it’s a particularly bad time for you and your buddy to ride side-by-side (not there’s really a good time for that).

    Pay attention to your body and state of mind, too. Riding in a strong crosswind can be very fatiguing. You’re not going to be able to safely make as many miles as you’re used to.

  • Sam Belton

    Be very VERY careful of obstacles that may block said cross wind. Adjusting for an extreme cross wind is exactly what you should be doing, however when that force on you and your machine is suddenly cut, you will quickly find yourself not just over compensating but driving clear off the road. A few years back I was driving across Western Turkey in a serious crosswind. At 180 km/h I was leaning hard into the wind. What i was too exhausted to anticipate was the small town of about 6 buildings in the middle of the plains, they blocked the wind so suddenly i nearly drove right into them,

    • octodad

      daddy…you were flying. too bad you didn’t have wings on that thing, could have flown right over that town. thanks for the story, I will heed your advice….

  • Daniel Keith

    I have had numerous rough wind days on I-70 in Kansas, usually westbound between Salina and Denver, CO. I have found that by relaxing the shoulders and arms a lot, and gripping the bike with my legs more than normal I can have comfortable control over the bike. I like to let it pivot under me, keeping my torso and head straight-up, scanning for wind indicators and tumbleweed. I remember feeling vulnerable and unstable below 65, it seemed counter-intuitive to speed up but inertia is powerful ally. Also, I found that if I had a car in front of me, he would act as a gust indicator and I could then modulate throttle to “turn-in” to the gust to maintain my position in my lane. I ride a BMW K1200S, I think the weight and good aero-profile help a lot in cross winds. I try to see every “miserable” riding situation as a challenge, and skill building opportunity and it helps in many situations.

    • Stuki

      Gripping the bike with your knees, or with anything other than your hands, is a major component of riding straight in gusts. If you sit on your bike, and a gust hits you from the left; since you are as big a sail as the bike is, you will get blown to the right. If your slouching, you will, subconsciously, brace yourself and get back to your former position, at least to some extent, by pulling your left handlebar. Which, given countersteering and all that, will exacerbate the nudge the wind already gave your bike to the right…… The wind’s interaction with the rider, IOW, reinforces it’s interaction with the bike; which is exactly what you don’t want.

      Sticking your windward knee out helps compensate for this, as a windgust from the left will tend to rotate you a bit towards the left, so that your subconscious response will be to pull yourself back to neutral by pulling the right bar. But even absent that, locking yourself to the bike with your knees, will mean less counterproductive counterstreering inputs simply to maintain position, than if you ride around like a sack of potatoes, until suddenly given a push by the wind.

      As far as bike choice, bikes where you already, during steady state riding, have lots of weight on the bars, are less affected by wind, since the percentage wise difference in bar loading with or without wind is smaller. Totally unfaired bikes ridden at higher speeds are also not so bad, since you are already hanging on, largely with your knees/body, just going down the road. While the worst are bikes with a relatively small screen, that create a calm pocket when the apparent wind comes from right up front, since it allows you to be a potato sack. But then, once the apparent wind direction changes, a sudden blast gets around the carefully designed calm air pocket, and really knocks you for a loop. Think ADV bikes. But once you get to car sized windshields (Tulsas on Goldwings), as long as you maintain a good clip, you’re sitting in a calm pocket almost regardless of where the wind is coming from, and how strong it is.

      Steering lightness also has a lot of effect on cross wind stability. Over the past couple of decades, better understanding of bike geometry has allowed bigger and bigger bikes to “handle like lighter bikes in the twisties”, to great applause from the sport riding obsessed cycle media; as well as, truth to be told, buyers. Big GS’ being flicked around like supermotos is just one effect of that. A side effect, is that the bikes are much more prone to the kind of rider induced wind instability mentioned above, since it takes much less effort to conutersteer the bike, and it doesn’t self right nearly as hard or as quick, hence “get stuck” in a turn. I haven’t specifically gotten this verified by all those riding them, but I would be surprised if that is not one of the reasons the now old and slow handling FJR is so popular amongst top Iron Butt competitors. That bike just goes straight, almost whether you want it to or not. Even a bit of unintended yanking on the bar to right oneself after a gust, won’t have nearly the effect on direction as it would on a quicker steering, more modern, bike. And compared to the 1200GS and the Vstrom, ditto for that other Yamaha tourer, the S10. As Adv bikes go, the heavy, sluggish, pig just laughs at wind; helped both by slow steering, and by a crazy amount of weight over the front for any bike with offroad pretenses. Of course, the GS has almost similar front wight bias, but that light steering that allows Fritz the German Engineer to “embarrass squids in the twisties” ain’t no longer your friend coming down the 395 in windgusts hard enough to blow Range Rovers into the ditch, and causing 18 wheelers to use two lanes consistently.

  • Nemosufu Namecheck

    I ride a lot in windy areas on I-80 between Omaha and Denver and it’s pretty nasty when combined with average road speeds of 80mph and deep rain grooved pavement in long stretches. This is new to me because I’m just a transplant here for a couple of years so I have tried a few different bikes and techniques. Here is what I found:
    – Tire choice – you want a bigger tire if you can, something over 170mm if possible and road-biased. When the wind is pushing you tires need to be on your side, not the highway’s (think like an avon, metzler etc.)
    – Big windscreens that are areodynamic will help you get through the big gusts and relax your body, especially arms, neck, shoulders, and kidneys. Big windscreens on custom cruisers can cause high-speed wobble which is awful if you haven’t had the pleasure.
    – Ear pro will take the noise-induced stress away from you, allowing you to go faster to match the wind like the article mentions. Pilots have been doing this forever.
    – Take a secondary highway or route to get away from the trucks and higher speeds. They are more fun anyway and allow you to pull over if it gets too bad.
    - I don’t own one, but the best bikes in the wind are the touring-class. Aerodynamics, weight, tire size all help in this class. Second probably sport followed by adventure (big), cruiser (big), and dual-sport (kite-class)
    – Last but not least you cannot ride in all wind. Wind will lift up your bike, and when it does you do not want to have loose arms, but arms locked in the direction of travel until you have rubber on road again. This has only happened to me on full-faring bikes but that may have been coincidence. I always keep in mind that if the wind can blow a tractor or car off the road I’m even easier.

  • TraderJoesSecrets

    In my experience riding at speed, in very strong crosswinds, on the Isle of Man I found the key was (in sharp contrast to the Dutch theory, below) to grip the tank very firmly with my knees, while maintaining the loosest possible grip and “softest” arms at the handlebars. I believe that the wind effects are most pronounced when they impart movement to the riders’ body, that is in turn transmitted through the handlebars.

    • Stuki

      As Keith Code says, what turns a motorbike is counter steering.

      If that was not true, bikes would be built with the handlebars controlling an air rudder, not the front tire…..

      • Piglet2010

        “Dirty Exceptions

        Before I go any further I want to address off-road motorcycles. An off-road motorcycle will easily steer by pressing down on the inside
        peg, and in conjunction with shifting the upper body mass, will go over pretty easily . Still not what I would call good control but it can be
        done fairly efficiently.

        Again, I am not a true tech guy, but it occurs to me that the small contact patch on knobbies or dual sport tires plus dirt bike
        steering geometry (which is not intended to provide an enormous amount of stability at speed) contribute to the reasons why steering results
        from weight shifts to the degree it does on a dirt bike.” – from http://www.superbikeschool.com/machinery/no-bs-machine.php

        So even Code admits in some cases counter-steering is not needed to turn a bike. Of course, anyone who has seen a push-bike rider do a U-turn while riding no-hands would know the statement should not be taken as an absolute.

  • Isaac

    “Know how you can take your hands off the handlebars at highway speeds and the bike will continue to track a straight line? Well, that’s due to the gyroscopic force of the wheels, which make a bike “want” to stand straight up.”

    No, it isn’t. It has been proven that gyroscopic effects are neither sufficient nor necessary for self-stability. Gyroscopic forces are real, but offer only negligible stability for single-track vehicles.

    You offer good riding advice. Don’t mess that up by throwing around incorrect science terms.

    • Piglet2010

      While it is certainly possible to ride a single-track vehicle with negligible* gyroscopic balancing forces (e.g. a pedal bicycle below 8 mph), gyroscopic forces do make a significant difference, as the lesser effort needed to balance and maintain direction at speed shows. Or for the non-believers, try riding an offset cone weave with and without a brake torque technique, and you will find the bike much more stable with the engine at 2 to 3 times idle speed rather than just above idle speed (with the forward speed identical in both cases).

      * Or even none, as has been shown with a special bicycle equipped with counter-rotating weights to cancel out the gyroscopic forces of the wheels.

  • Piglet2010

    Is that a jackalope crossing sign?

    • Christopher Murdock

      It’s an Elk, but Jackalope aren’t far behind ever.

  • octodad

    recently scooting around in NOLA. wind was obnoxious, difficult to stay in the lane, especially traversing bridges. imagine the weight of the motorcycle affects it’s wind stability. would a lighter, more open bike have less wind problem. will try some positioning to make myself smaller, and stay away from tractor trailers…

    • Strafer

      I believe usually a lighter bike gets moved by wind more than a heavier bike

      • octodad

        find that confusing. wouldn’t something w/ less mass experience a diminished effect. perhaps surface area is determining factor? is a liter bike w/extensive bodywork less stable in the wind than a 250cc naked rider? dig all the tips being inserted. position on the motorcycle appears really important. love that windward knee trick…

        • Guzzto

          Lighter bike does get moved around more, my low slung Guzzi 1000 is very stable in high winds , my faired gs1200ss was like a sail as the larger surface area made it very prone to buffeting and unplanned lane changes.

  • William Connor

    One of the main things I have relied on is keeping a really light grip on the bars. It has been my experience when riding in high crosswinds that it’s not the bike that gets blown around, it is you moving the bike with input from your hands and body being blow around.

  • mms

    My best embarrassing wind story happened during a long (10k mile) road trip on a fully-faired sportbike. The winds were very strong but consistent, not gusty, and for the better part of an hour I’d been riding leaned over into them. I got off the highway and stopped at a red light. Not realizing I was still leaned over. Fortunately the guy in the car behind me was really nice and helped me pick the bike back up.

  • 480272

    Many years windsurfing in Ireland taught me how to handle extreme gusty conditions, we don’t get steady wind here being at the end of the Atlantic. Relax the body and don’t panic, the rest comes naturally.

  • Dustin Coury

    Got stuck in a huge rain storm with massive gust of wind over the Grapevine in CA. I got through with going fast, leaning whole bike into the wind, and holding on for dear life. Pulling over was not a choice as the wind was that bad. Slowing down under 50 mph would have resulted into getting pushed off the freeway. Gnarly time.

  • Guzzto

    I live and ride in the worlds windiest city. Best advice is to relax the upper body, keep speed up and position yourself on the road so that you have extra room in your lane so you have room for being buffered by the wind. Also avoid riding next to high sided vehicles that may in turn be pushed into your lane. I would also advise just not riding once the wind is gusting above 140 kph as it just stops being fun.

  • Roland Straylight

    One of the defining features of british weather is it is highly variable. First found myself in a 25mph winds gusting to 40+ a few days after getting my first 125. I’m quite used to it now. The worst part is getting hit by a gust that causes the front end to go light whilst committed to a corner. Won’t be riding hard in those kind of conditions but it’s unnerving to be on a roundabout or cuved sliproad and suddenly feel the front go light. Found myself hugging the tank or my virago for one particularly interesting cross-town trip, at night, in the rain, gusting 50+. It’s the transitions that really take thinking about, riding all forwards, low on the bars, hugging the tank, to stopping, where a causal toe down won’t work, particularly when the wind is from the left, and the right foot is busy on the brake. I throw my leg as far out as I can as a counterbalance, dropping it as the bike comes upright. Looks like I’m trying to kick a mirror off a taxi…

    Another problem is tight corners. Finding myself coming out of the hills when the weather hits, stuck in a queue of confused cagers, and hitting a series of tight bends decorated with many warning signs not to take them above 20mph car drivers seem to panic and driver super slow through, braking hard at the apex of the corners as if they were determined to go straight on. Leaving enough room to not have to brake mid corner, and to be able to take the corners at enough speed to not be blown off course or over is tricky, as holding up traffic any whilst one makes space is generally not treated sympathetically. I suspect they think the wait then sensible speed through thing is all about wanting to play on the corners. Ok, when no traffic and no storm then such locations can be just a little bit of fun.

  • Adan Ova

    I cannot remove my hands from the handlebar without them turning left (making the bike steer right, of course). I have tried it in long trips on straight roads and haven’t been able to ride without hands as it’s a heavy shift (not something I can correct by moving slightly to one side of the bike or something like that as I’ve been advised to do). It’s not a problem of weight as far as I am concerned. =(

  • Scarabrian

    Interstate 80 in north central Nevada is open range Great Basin desert country. This past September I was riding west from Battle Mountain towards Winnemucca. The weather had changed suddenly and the conditions were deteriorating fast as it often happens in the desert. Winds were blowing harder and harder as I climbed the steep Golconda Grade to the 5160 foot summit. Winds were coming from the southwest perpendicular to the road blowing dust everywhere. I was already leaning probably about 20 degrees into the wind and my throttle was full on but the bike kept drifting to the right towards the soft shoulder and a drop off of fifty feet. The 500cc single thumper was doing all it could to maintain a speed of about 45 mph. Fortunately for me there were no other vehicles on the road in either direction and after cresting the summit there was an exit to a frontage road that led me to town. Decided to call it a day and checked into lodging. The TV news that evening warned people to stay off the roads as the winds were a constant 40 mph with gusts up to 60 mph. Those conditions lasted two days so I just hunkered down in town until things improved. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor!

  • Scarabrian

    Interstate 80 in north central Nevada is open range Great Basin desert
    country. This past September I was riding west from Battle Mountain
    towards Winnemucca. The weather had changed suddenly and the conditions
    were deteriorating fast as it often happens in the desert. Winds were
    blowing harder and harder as I climbed the steep Golconda Grade to the
    5160 foot summit. Winds were coming from the southwest perpendicular to
    the road blowing dust everywhere. I was already leaning probably about
    20 degrees into the wind and my throttle was full on but the bike kept
    drifting to the right towards the soft shoulder and a drop off of fifty
    feet. The 500cc single thumper was doing all it could to maintain a
    speed of about 45 mph. Fortunately for me there were no other vehicles
    on the road in either direction and after cresting the summit there was
    an exit to a frontage road that led me to town. Decided to call it a
    day and checked into lodging. The TV news that evening warned people to
    stay off the roads as the winds were a constant 40 mph with gusts up to
    60 mph. Those conditions lasted two days so I just hunkered down in
    town until things improved. Sometimes discretion is the better part of
    valor!

  • Christopher Murdock

    Hey West, someone wrote up a nice summary for you

    http://www.cycleworld.com/2014/01/29/how-to-survive-riding-in-a-crosswind

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      Zero comments, zero social interaction. Poor guys.

      • Christopher Murdock

        I commented, it’s “Awaiting Moderation” I’m guessing it won’t get posted