I thought crossing Maryland with my girlfriend on a bicycle built for two would be romantic. And I suppose it was. Unfortunately, it was the other kind of romantic--the kind the dictionary describes in fine print: "imaginative but impractical."
Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking tandems, and I'm certainly not knocking my girlfriend, Guillemette. But a few days into our seven-day, 460-mile Deep Creek Lake to Assateague Island tour, I discovered that 20-plus years of enthusiastic bicycling on-road and off had taught me precious little about riding a tandem.
Not that tandeming is especially difficult. If you can ride a two-wheel bike, you can ride a tandem. In fact, one of the great advantages of tandem cycling is that it allows riders of disparate abilities to spend a day riding and still reach the finish line together.
The togetherness factor is driving brisk sales of tandems, which have increased even as the bike market in general has gone flat. It seems that baby boomers wish to exercise as a family and have been buying the two-seaters despite prices that often exceed the cost of two separate bikes. A reliable tandem ranges from $1,000 to $5,000.
Certainly the togetherness element played a big role in our decision to buy a tandem. With tandeming, Guillemette wouldn't have to push herself to the point of collapse while feeling guilty about "holding me back," as she had done when we rode separate bikes. I put in a lot of research and eventually chose a sleek black Burley Rumba tandem. With the extras, it cost $2,300.
As an incentive to put plenty of miles on our investment, we signed up for a week-long trip crossing Maryland from west to east. The tour, organized by a group called Bikevents, would bus us and our bikes to the West Virginia border. We would ride east across the panhandle, around the top of the bay, then south to Assateague Island. It was the first year of the tour, and although the organizers said the first two days would be challenging, the rest would be flat and fast. With the guides trucking our baggage between hotels, it sounded pretty plush. Surely, with an old hand like me captaining, the trip would be a breeze.
This was, again, a romantic notion. Imaginative but impractical.
From the time we bought the bike, we had six weeks to train, and started by addressing the question of who would be captain--the person in front who operates the gears. The captain should be the more experienced of the pair, and more important, must be able to hold the bike upright with the "stoker"--the person on the back seat--sitting down. Once clipped into the pedals, stokers seldom take their feet out. That made me captain.
But we found many less obvious issues to work out, like which pedal I wanted at the top of the stroke after the stoker was clipped in. We had to work out all kinds of signals. For instance, we couldn't get into the lowest gear on some hills unless we pedaled very lightly to coax the gear to drop. When we failed, we had to struggle painfully in too high a gear. I learned to announce, "One, two, three, FEATHER!"
We made the shift most of the time. By the end of our six weeks, we fancied ourselves pretty adroit. We shot up the short hills neatly, rocketed along the downhills and made a fair pace on the flats. We were ready to rumble. Or so we thought.
The first day of our trip put us at the Maryland-West Virginia border before the sun had arced over the horizon. Fog clung to the valleys, creating a postcard scene: Just down the road, a white church was shrouded in mist and dappled by the rising sun.
We were, we discovered, among the youngest riders on the tour. We had observed two fit, gray-haired gents comparing ages on the bus ride to the start. "Sixty-seven," boasted one. "Seventy," his seat mate replied. All but two riders were over 40. We figured our fitness and training would allow us to lead the pack.
One central tenet of tandeming is that tandems are fast. Numerous long-distance bicycle race records have been set on tandems. On flat courses, tandems have the advantage of twice the power of a single bike with only slightly more wind resistance. Downhill, tandems absolutely scream--by our third country-training ride, we had already easily topped 50 mph on the downhills.
But now, making multi-mile climbs on the tour, we made a crucial discovery. We were not pedaling in sync, each of us working against the other at crucial points on each stroke. It was like riding uphill with the brake on. We never did quite adjust. (Longtime riders tell me that it takes a year or so for a riding pair to synchronize their strokes.)
We improved a little as we went along, but our muscles were burning and our lungs aching. And--adding insult to injury--even the oldest riders left us in the dust.
One beauty of tandeming is that there's always somebody there to share the surprises along the way. During one glorious 10-mile downhill, Guillemette and I pulled up short when we spied a castle on our right. I'm not making this up. We shot into the driveway, off of Mt. Savage Road in Mt. Savage, Md., to find a replica of Craig Castle in Scotland, which is now a bed-and-breakfast.
The castle started as a stone house but was built into a stately collection of verandas, terraces and great rooms by a Scottish entrepreneur who lost his wealth in the Depression. Owner Ronnie Port encouraged us to tour the grounds; then we sat in the kitchen, where she told us that over its history the B&B had been variously a dance hall, casino, brothel and apartment. We swapped stories until it was time to hit the road again.
We made it to the panhandle city of Cumberland, Md., where we immediately sought food. Cycling is a big calorie burner, and after about five hours in the saddle each day, we were burning off a pound or more's worth of calories. A paddle in a pool is good for soothing sore muscles, but sleeping was difficult due to the Cumberland Holiday Inn's proximity to train tracks.
Pedaling out of sync is a big problem on the big hills, but being psychologically out of sync is much worse. On our second day, we faced more hills, but this time our legs weren't fresh and we were sleep deprived. As we battled each other's unsynchronized pedaling, Guillemette asked to stop mid-hill. Her legs were so worn out she needed a massage.
As we got back on, I tried to coach her. I called out cadence to get our pedaling in a groove. When she vehemently declared, "This is why I hate hills," I tried to be upbeat, to counsel against a self-defeating attitude. I thought I was helping. In fact, I was driving her crazy. We became short-tempered with each other. We fought. We snapped. We focused on a countdown of the miles to the day's finish line. And we repeated this pattern daily.
Most of the hotels we stayed in were Comfort Inns, which are far superior to the usual tent camping required on bike trips. Still, the Perryville Comfort Inn was next to a truck stop, so we were serenaded by rumbling diesels. Having a warm shower was perhaps a fair trade-off. The Chestertown Comfort Suites was particularly cushy--our sizable room actually had a little sitting area.
The trip organizers got much right, even small details like ensuring that everyone got to keep their bikes in their rooms and making sure Guillemette and I got a first-floor room to save us from maneuvering a tandem up stairs.
But the downside of taking a first year of a trip became apparent as our tour guides came up a little short of the service they'd hoped to provide. With only one car, it was tough to get 28 riders to a restaurant (we were responsible for lunches and dinners). One day in Seaford, Del., we cadged a ride to Nautico, an all-you-can-eat crab restaurant housed in an old ship, with the understanding that we would have to walk back ourselves . . . along a highway.
Perhaps the most frustrating deficiency concerned the cue sheets, which were our map and directions. The distances were often wrong, and one day they were so convoluted that most of the riders abandoned the directions and improvised. Many days turned out hillier than advertised, which wouldn't be a big deal on a single bike. On our tandem, it was murder.
Even a hard trip has plenty of rewards. On the route from Hagerstown to Westminster, partway up Catoctin Mountain, we stopped for a massage break and feasted on wild berries along the roadside. The downhill through Catoctin Mountain Park in Thurmont was a glorious stretch of tree-shaded, smooth pavement. Coasting at high speed down the curvy stretch had the feel of a perfect ski run.
Between Westminster and Perryville, crossing the Conowingo Dam was nerve-racking as cars honked and swerved around us in the narrow lanes. But then we turned onto Route 222 for a flat, fast ride into Port Deposit, a rustic, charming town where we tanked up on ice cream. The final two days on the Eastern Shore were flat and easy, with unchanging vistas of cornfields and scorching sun, and the occasional surprise. In the town of Berlin, we lolled in rockers on the shady porch of the Atlantic Hotel, an 1895 Victorian that was featured in "Runaway Bride."
As with all adventures, a little adversity made for good company. As we topped one big hill, riders Duffy Fogle and Rose Rottloff insisted on sharing a toast of Gatorade and peanut butter crackers. I met--for the first time in person--an old business acquaintance I had phoned regularly a decade before. And we rode briefly with the elder members of the trip, Allen Lowe and Paul Vinikoor, who without fail finished far ahead of us.
For lunches, we stopped at any restaurant where we saw a pile of bikes out front and got acquainted with our fellow cyclists. In the evening, some riders would congregate to find a meal together or just walk into a restaurant and share a table with any fellow cyclist. And despite the occasional annoyed motorist, people everywhere were friendly and inquisitive (especially about the tandem), marveling out loud at the distance we were covering.
As we counted down the miles to the end of the trip and to the chance to recover from our injuries, I swore we'd never repeat the experience. But I also realized that our explosive arguments had dwindled. Guillemette said she felt a sense of accomplishment, that she "could do anything." Our arguments off the bike seemed to wane, too.
After more than a year together, we learned a little more about each other and maybe about communicating. We have achieved a new level of domestic tranquillity. Whether that is tandem-related is anybody's guess.
And although I swore we would never take a trip that difficult on a tandem again, I recently have been intrigued by notices of 100-mile "Century Rides." Maybe if there's one on flat terrain . . .
Roy Furchgott is a Baltimore writer.
DETAILS: Tandem Biking
Tempted to test the strength of your relationship by using a tandem? Consider the Great Maryland Bike Ride, to be held twice this year, June 17-24 and Sept. 16-23. Registration is $845, or $745 if you register three months ahead of the event. This year's route is similar to last year's, though it's been simplified and mapped more accurately. Organizers say there will be shuttles to dinner and a mechanic on hand at all times--but the mountains don't go away. Information: Bikevents Group, 410-876-8889, www.bikeventsgroup.com.
Here are some other places to get started:
LOCAL TANDEM CLUBS:
* WABITS (Washington Area Bicyclists in Tandem Society), which is affiliated with the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club, costs $25 for an individual membership (some singles go "trolling for stokers"), $30 for a family membership. The club sponsors group rides and dinners and has a library of route directions. Details: Willa and Bob Friedman, 703-978-7937, http://cyberider.us.net/wabits.
* CRABS (Couples Riding a Bike Simultaneously), affiliated with the Baltimore Bicycling Club, costs $20 for individual membership, $23 for families. It sponsors group rides most weekends into early winter and holds swap meets and social events. Details: George and Mary Drake, 410-343-1106, http://users.jagunet.com/thbauer/bbc_crabs.htm.
TANDEM SPECIALTY SHOPS:
* Mt. Airy Bicycles (4540 Old National Pike, Mount Airy, Md.; 1-888-MY-TANDEM or 301-831-5151, www.bike123.com). Owner Larry Black is an acknowledged tandem expert and one of the largest Santana dealers in the country. He also sells Burley, KHS, Co-Motion and others. The shop is sponsoring two day-long rallies this year, one in Mount Airy (May 7) and one in College Park (Sept. 17).
* Tandems East (86 Gwynwood Dr., Pittsgrove, N.J.; 856-451-5104, www.tandemseast.com). Owner Mel Kornbluh will schedule a day of test rides on a variety of bikes for serious shoppers. The shop sells Bilenky, Burley, Co-Motion, Cannondale and others, and sponsors the Tandem Weekend 2000 rally July 7-9.
INFORMATION: The Tandem Club of America, a national volunteer organization, puts out a newsletter, "Doubletalk," and lists events on its Web site, www.mindspring.com/strauss/tca.html. Details: Bruce and Judi Bachelder, 704-437-1068.