I used to sail with great frequency. Back in the day, the Mrs. and I owned a Hobie Cat, and we’d haul it to Evanston and go sailing on Lake Michigan on a near-weekly basis. (Obvious statement warning:) In sailing, you learn to see the wind. You find where it’s at, and you optimize your position to take the greatest advantage of it. We did some fun, crazy things in my younger years–including sailing down to downtown Chicago and up to Navy Pier (through the breakwater), on a sailboat with no motor and no way to ‘power out’ if we misjudged the conditions.
You might expect that the fastest sailing was directly downwind (or running as you’d say in nautical terms), but it wasn’t. Depending on wind velocity, the fastest sailing for a Hobie was going to be somewhere between broad reaching (sailing downwind at a 45 degree angle off the wind direction), beam-reaching (sailing perpendicular to the wind) or perhaps even close reaching (sailing slightly into the wind). Even with a spinnaker, the Hobie was not an impressive runner downwind. Accordingly, you would work your way in the direction you wanted to go by tacking back and forth (or jibing, if the situation dictated) and maintaining optimal wind direction. Even though you were covering more distance than a straight-line would require, it was nonetheless quicker because of your significantly greater speed over ground.
There are few feelings in life that can compare to the thrill of beam reaching (sailing at a 90 degree angle to the wind) on a Hobie, up on one hull, and out on the trapeze. (The trap is essentially a cable that connects a nylon seat (or ‘diaper’) to the mast, so you can lean waaaaaaay back over the water and counterbalance the boat against the wind’s velocity, helping to keep the boat somewhat level). Too much sail, and you’ll dump the boat. Pop the front of the hull into a wave, and you’ll flip and turtle, ending up with an upside down boat (mast pointed down, underwater). But if you did it just right, you’d be the fastest non-motorized thing on the water, and would feel like you were flying. No noise–just the sound of the wind, the slap of waves against the hull, and the sound of the water spraying up against the trampoline.
In some ways, I think any serious cyclist who rides on roads, be they gravel or pavement, should try sailing a few times. You see and appreciate the wind. When we do our group rides, I feel like I have a better understanding of where it’s going to be, and how it will change as I pass trees or structures. I have a greater respect for its power when I’m in irons (riding directly into the wind). Obviously, on a bike, running with the wind (directly downwind) is the fastest, unlike the Hobie.
I get asked with some frequency what I think about aero wheels, like the ENVE SES 3.4 Clinchers I run on the Madone. I love ‘em…but here’s a little secret. Like the Hobie, they are not at their best on a downwind run. When you have a staunch tailwind, they’re still great, but the advantage they have over “regular” wheels is not as significant. Where the ENVEs come into their own is when you’re running close hauled, close-reach, or broad-reach with the wind. Not directly into the wind, not perpendicular to the wind, not directly downwind…but at an angle to the wind (either a cornering headwind or a cornering tailwind). In those circumstances, my perception is that I can feel the effect of the wheels the greatest, and that they essentially act as a sail, helping to pull me along. That may be overstating it a bit–but they feel like they are reducing drag the most at that point of riding.
I miss sailing–and I wish I lived somewhere that it was more accessible. But on the right night, with the right wind, the Madone reminds me of that sensation of flying, and helps me remember to respect the great power of the wind.