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?