A Cyclist's Guide to Wind in Union County, Oregon

The literal winds of change arrive every fall in La Grande, Oregon. There are two main ingredients on which to focus in La Grande weather forecasting--moisture and wind. Since the former is infrequent in the area, the latter should be the main concern. The winds of the Grande Ronde Valley occur daily and can be ferocious. This notion is supported by incidents of semi-trailer trucks being blown over on the freeway, an airport building being toppled, and even folklore of train boxcars derailed near Hot Lake. It goes without saying that cycling activities will be affected by these winds.

Generally, the strong wind starts in the fall and continue through winter and spring. When the hot summer weather starts in mid June, the wind subsides for a few month. The prevailing wind is from the south, blowing off the desert terrain around Baker City and picking up speed as it spills over the hills into the Grande Ronde Valley. Forecasts will often emphasize extremely high winds for Pyles and Ladd Canyons. Although the south wind is strong, it is usually a good indication that the temperature is bearable in the cold winter months. The wind will change to a north or west wind occasionally and often these are colder winds whereby wind chill is more of a concern. Wind generally picks up intensity in the afternoons, but this is not always the case. Sometimes strong morning winds are followed by calm in the afternoon.

Road cyclists are especially at risk because of the design of the valley. A tunnel of wind rips down the center of the valley where most paved roads are exposed because of flat terrain and no trees. Mountain bikers can often avoid the main impact of the wind because the trails are protected by trees and are above the valley floor. In fact, during high winds it is often advantageous to plan routes that hug the mountain (e.g. north section of Hunter Rd., Mt Glenn, Lower Cove Rd/Market Ln). This concept does not apply for Foothill or Union Hwy. These roads must be avoided during high wind.

Fortunately, wind is the one natural element that is accurately forecast in the area. Before hitting the roads or trails, every cyclist should check the wind information. This is especially important because there are often pockets of calm during windy situations. Just because it is calm at your house, doesn't mean it will be calm out on the road. Here are some resources to study:

  • Accuweather's Hourly Forecast: This is a reliable forecast for determining what the wind will be at a given time of the day. This forecast tends to slightly overestimate wind speed.
  • The National Weather Service Forecast: The dialogue from NWS provides a fairly conservative, but often correct, forecast for wind. The range for wind speed is often wide, which can create some ambiguity.
  • La Grande / Union County Airport Conditions: Get timely updates on exact conditions at the airport, which is just north of Ladd Canyon. This site also shows gust speeds, which are very helpful for cyclists.
  • Ladd Canyon Weather Station: Get the current wind speed at the base of Ladd Canyon. Figure this is the highest wind speed in the valley. The wind gauge can be seen at the rest stop on the west side of I-84.
  • Weather links at LaGrandeRide.com: Many of the above recommendations are linked from the site. Also, the magical Wundermap is the greatest weather invention to date.

During, "wind advisories" it may be best to forego riding particularly if you are a light rider. Heavier riders can withstand the gusts a bit more and often have a more inertia and power to overcome demoralizing head wind situations. Here are some suggestions for riding in the wind:

  • Never look at your speed. All cyclists know how headwind kills average speed. This is where power meters have advantages for training in La Grande. By looking at power, you can see how much effort is going into the workout.
  • Stay off the high traffic roads in cross winds. The gusting nature of area winds can toss a rider around. This is not good with traffic whizzing by. Plus, it is very disconcerting to be leaning over a ditch or into a road to counteract the side winds.
  • Plan your route to sail home. Many loops can be planned that allow you to catch a tailwind home. This will give you something to look forward to while you are battling a headwind. On the other hand, if you want to end your workout with added punishment, the opposite approach can be taken. However, I don't recommend this during cold weather. Since you can't exercise as hard with a tailwind you don't generate as much heat. You don't want to start off your ride and get cold and then hit a head wind. Also, be aware of the swirling wind that sometimes happens in the valley. I went on a ride once and had a headwind the entire loop.
  • Avoid the dust. In the spring, recently plowed fields can become a volatile dust storm. Storms move in rather quickly and whip up dust that diminished visibility for drivers and make breathing impossible. Since only select fields will yield the dust, attempt to recognized dust storms developing in the distance, and avoid them. Only once have I abandoned a ride, and it was because I was trapped between two dust storms. Fortunately, a local with a bike rack on their car found me trying to thumb a ride.
  • Use cues to judge wind speed and direction: One thing I learned from my golf days was to look at flags and the tops of trees to judge the wind speed and direction. Movement in the wheat or roadside grasses is an indicator of an even worse wind. Also, when it's quiet and you feel unusually fast, you have a tailwind pushing you. Sometimes this is hard to recognize. Just remember you have to go back into it when you turn around.

Rather then let the wind discourage you from riding in La Grande, consider it a challenging workout. And, don't forget to keep you head up and enjoy the beautiful scenery. If you don't ride in the wind in La Grande, you don't ride.