The Wind Hammer

A losing battle with a sworn enemy

This article originally ran in the August 2014 issue of Bike.


Words by Mike Ferrentino
Photo by Anna Keller

I am bent over the handlebars, slowly churning the pedals along on pan-flat gravel. Just over a mile away, dancing in the haze, shimmering like a mirage on the horizon, is my home. The tingling begins in my fingers, a sure sign that I am about to physically implode. I stand up for a few sluggish pedal strokes, try to up my cadence, and as I stand, the wind that I have been punching helplessly into for the past 4 miles tears at me as if I am a flimsy sail, and my already slow-motion pace is further reduced. The tingling reaches up my forearms. I tuck into my smallest crouch, staring directly at my feet while trying to present less frontal area to the steady, relentless wind. Counting the pedal revolutions at the end of what was otherwise an easy two-hour ride, I calculate that I am lumping my singlespeed along at about 7 miles an hour. This is as fast as I can go into this headwind. My hands go numb, and there on dead-flat ground within sight of my home, I crack.

Since I moved to a shack on a Brussels sprout farm two years ago, this has become a regular occurrence. The farm sits on the coast north and west of Santa Cruz, and the wind–constant, relentless, indifferent–is the defining feature of the landscape. Tractors plow the fields, sending plumes of dust east and slightly south in their wake. Trees grow stunted on their north and western sides, shaped and bent to the leeward east by the ceaseless pressure. Calm dawn gives way to a growing breeze by mid-morning, and the fence slats on my deck are almost always whistling by noon. By early afternoon, the powerlines start moaning their mournful, haunting song, and the wind owns this part of the world from then until the sun goes down. It is a constant west/northwest wind, blowing cold off the ocean. Averaged out for the year, the wind speed is about 7 miles an hour, which includes the quiet times during the night and the very rare days when the wind doesn't blow. In reality, the wind is a 15-mile-an-hour force of nature as reliable as a Swiss watch. Kiteboarders love it. I am not a kiteboarder. The wind is my sworn enemy.

It doesn't matter if the ride is two hours or an all-day affair. It doesn't matter if there was 2,000 feet of climbing or 5,000. It doesn't matter whether I am on a road bike or a mountain bike. It doesn't matter how much suspension travel I have, or how many chainrings I've got, or what size wheels I run. If I go for a ride and find myself coming home northwest on the coast at the end of it, no matter how fresh my legs felt when I pointed my bike toward home, the wind will try to crack me. That is a given.

It used to be that sun and heat were my enemies. And while I admit that my ginger soul has natural reason to fear these elements, I have learned to deal with them. Hydration, sunscreen, dress accordingly. Hell, there are even times I can lay claim to having enjoyed a scorcher of a day. The wind, however, is an entirely different kind of nemesis. Nothing can be done about the wind. Fighting it is futile. It cannot be conquered. It can only be obeyed.

As such, the wind shapes my rides, just like it shapes the trees and sand dunes. If the ride is likely to end after 11 a.m., it is best to make sure the return is from the north. So, nine times out of 10, rides leave the house and head south, loop uphill and east, north in the sheltered trees, before dropping to the west and home with either a descent or a tailwind. One time out of 10, for the masochistic reality check, I point the bike up the coast at the end of the ride, just to remember how it feels to be really powerless.

In the same way that battling feebly upwind home after a mellow Wilder loop is a surefire way to feel like a sad old bag of shit, there is something magic about popping out onto the coast 20 miles north of home, after a shattering five-hour dirt exploration, only to feel that giant invisible hand pushing me in the small of the back, legs suddenly young and strong again. That tailwind at the end of a long ride is the only saving grace to living in the wind. Otherwise, there is no redemption, no beneficial side effect. I am not a kiteboarder, as mentioned already. Nor am I a sailor. Wind drives me batshit crazy after a while, and I harbor the suspicion that anyone who truly loves the wind is either a kiteboarder or is batshit crazy to begin with. There is no 'character building' that comes from living in this constant state. There is no solace gained from realizing just how small and powerless we all are in the face of such titanic forces of nature. The invisible soft walls we bang our souls against, these tiny incessant pillow fists that wail incessantly down on us, they will prevail.

Cracked by the wind, salt-crusted dried sweat, the taste of dust in the mouth and sting of grit blown into the eyes, the wind's ominous song humming across the fields, I lean the bike against the railing, fish a cold beer out of the fridge and slump to the deck. A murder of crows hangs suspended in the air, beating their wings upwind but barely moving. I raise a toast to them in sympathy and utter, "May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back." If only it was that easy.

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