Bicycles can be good for commuting. They can also be good for communing (with nature). On a bicycle built for two, whether you commute or commune, you had better be good at communicating.
This point was driven home to me time and again as I spoke to tandem cycling enthusiasts. They’re the people who ride those funny-looking bikes with the two seats, and if the folks to whom I talked had a lot to say about it, that might be because they have well-honed communication skills.
One way to look at tandem cycling is as one long trust exercise. You can also look at it as an exceedingly enjoyable, efficient way for two people to go on a bike ride together, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.
The trust comes from the person in the back, known in tandem parlance as the stoker. If you’re the stoker, as one person said, “you don’t have any control over braking, steering or shifting a bike,” which was an issue for her, a self-described “Type A personality,” to overcome. Another person told me that being in the back “can be scary, it requires letting go, it requires trusting the person in front with your life.”
The person in front is known as the captain. This person doesn’t have to preface everything with “This is your captain speaking,” but the captain had better do a lot of speaking, or else the stoker is in for some unpleasant surprises.
I was introduced to these unpleasant surprises by Larry Black, who runs Mount Airy Bicycles. The shop is the region’s foremost tandem retailer, and Black is happy to not only show novices the ropes but also let them borrow a tandem for a test ride of up to a couple of hours.
I arrived in Mount Airy with my wife, ready to try tandem biking for the first time. Because I have far more experience cycling than she does, there was no doubt that I would be the captain. But before we went anywhere, Black made a point of showing me how the other half lives.
Black took me on what he calls a “stoker empathy lesson,” literally giving me a back-row seat for all the things that can ruin a stoker’s day. There were several no-nos: wiggling the bike; giving an incorrect turn signal; pedaling quickly, then going into “leg freeze”; a sudden stop; and hitting a pothole without warning.
That last one was the most commonly cited reason for communication. Something about the design of a tandem provides a bigger jolt to the back seat when the bike hits a bump, a jolt made all the more unpleasant if it comes without warning. Captains should also announce gear shifts and braking.
I found this out on my test ride. After Black had shown us the proper way to get going (captain gets on first, then holds the bike steady as the stoker mounts, then the stoker positions the two right pedals so that both drive down on them), we took a few laps around the parking lot. Right away I realized that I had to be a lot faster in calling out bumps.
When we started to go uphill, I did my usual cyclist move of ramping up my pedaling. Unfortunately, I had not informed my wife of said move, and she lost her footing. She did find some choice words on the subject.
I soon started to get the hang of verbalizing my intentions, and as we began to coordinate our movements better, the sailing got smoother. Todd Stansbury, a Falls Church resident and husband of the Type A personality cited earlier, said that “the keys for us have really been communication, coordination and compromise.” He added, “The golden rule of tandeming is that the stoker is always right.”
Stansbury fits what I would consider the classic mold of a captain: Bigger, and a more experienced biker, than the stoker. Size matters up front for a couple of reasons, one being that the stronger cyclist can better tolerate the headwinds. Another reason, pointed out by Rich Tepel, an official with the group Potomac Pedalers, is that operating a tandem takes more arm and grip strength than does riding a single bike (or, as some tandemers amusingly call it, a “half-bike”). Tepel likened it to “driving a truck compared to driving a car,” and, indeed, the greater weight of a tandem can be felt in the front handlebars, and especially in braking, which, as with a truck, is a slower process.
On single bikes, Stansbury’s wife, Patti Cary, says she “was huffing and puffing to keep up with him.” The tandem neatly solved this problem by putting them on the same machine — as long as each was willing to compromise.
“It enables me to go on rides that I never would have challenged myself to go on as a single biker,” Cary said.
Desiree H.P. Sedgwick, of Spartanburg, S.C., agrees. “A tandem is very appealing as an equalizer between strong and weak riders,” she told me via e-mail. “I am not a spinner,” she said, but her partner is. “As a result, we have learned to accommodate one another’s riding preferences.”
If tandem cycling sounds like an elaborate, aerobic compatibility test, well, it kind of is. Stansbury mentioned the adage a bike retailer told him: “Wherever your relationship is going, your tandem will get you there faster.”
For Mary Gersemelina, a Southwest D.C. resident and cycling blogger, where her tandem took her was to wedded bliss. “My husband and I met on a tandem ride. We did a tandem century [100-mile ride] together as our first date,” she said. “I had never been on a tandem before. It’s amazing to me now, like, ‘What was I thinking?’ ”
However, Gersemelina admitted, she and her husband still have some irritation-filled moments on rides. At those times, they hold what they call “Tandem Team Meetings,” in order to “figure out how to address that in a constructive way, so that you’re still having a good time together and you’re not nagging at each other.”
Tandems can go faster than single bikes on flat surfaces and down hills, so couples can take on longer rides. The flip side is that tandems are harder to get uphill, which Stansbury attributes to having “a lot of mass” on the bike. Tepel postulated that it might have more to do with pedaling cadences that are slightly out of sync.
Either way, there’s some suffering involved, but it’s a unique, and rewarding, form of shared suffering.
“The rides that we’ve done, it’s great to have done them just in and of themselves, but it makes it even more awesome that you were able to share it, and do it all literally in tandem with another person,” Gersemelina said. “It just seems to make your accomplishment that much more special.”
In addition to Mount Airy Bicycles, Black owns another store, College Park Bicycles, which keeps fewer tandems on hand. Tandems can also be found at Bikes@Vienna; other bicycle shops may keep a small amount in stock or can special-order one. Companies that rent tandems include Big Wheel Bikes and Bike and Roll (downtown D.C. location only).
Potomac Pedalers organizes a number of rides each week that may include tandems. A subset of the group, Washington Area Bicyclists in Tandem Society (WABITS), organizes tandem-only rides. Other area tandem groups include Baltimore’s Couples Riding a Bike Simultaneously (CRABS) and Richmond’s Richmond Area Tandem Society (RATS).
Eastern Tandem Rallies brings together enthusiasts from all over the East Coast for multi-day events. More can be found at www.thetandemlink.com.
@DesBieler on Twitter
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