Yours, Mine and Ours: Bicycling in Tandem

20 Feb

Two-wheeled romance or divorce machine? The tandem bicycle’s paradoxical reputation is well-deserved. As the popular adage goes “Whatever way your relationship is going, a tandem will get you there faster.” How a couple rides a tandem together both reflects and intensifies their relationship, for better or for worse.

My husband and I bought a tandem as a wedding gift to ourselves. Our plan to ride it away from our wedding was far from unique, even trite, albeit the post-wedding procession plan was a 2800′ descent down Mt Hamilton.

Alviso Marina Tandem

An epic windstorm kept us from riding that day, but we do take the big beast out from time to time and have mastered the necessary skills: how to start, how to turn at slow speeds, how to stand to get over a rise, and most importantly, how to communicate and work effectively as a team. Well, 97% of the time anyway.

The usual advice on tandem success tells the stoker (rear rider) to “trust the captain” and tells the captain (front rider) that “the stoker is always right.” To me, that advice falls short. The truth is that it’s all about consideration. The captain has to earn the confidence of the stoker to be an effective leader, and that only happens when the stoker believes his or her requests will be respected by the captain. Both partners need to be willing to follow.

In short, successful tandem teams are successful partnerships, which is what successful marriages are.

Panda Duo

Now I’m not an expert on tandems or marriages or even partnerships, but I’ve done 50+ mile rides in both the captain’s and stoker’s seat, “raced” tandem cyclocross, and finished the rides on good terms with my partners.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far as a captain:

  • Talk, talk, talk, especially with a new stoker. “I’m shifting”, “Coasting,” “Bump,” “Turning left,” “Standing.”
  • Encourage feedback from your stoker. “Is this gear comfortable?” “Was the speed OK on that descent?”
  • Apologize if you make a mistake or do something your stoker isn’t comfortable with.
  • The turning radius and stopping distance required are much larger than you might expect.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far as a stoker:

  • Be patient when the captain does something you don’t like. He or she wasn’t doing it to piss you off.
  • Be gentle when you ask the captain to do something differently. Lighthearted humor goes a long way.
  • Not having to steer gives you freedom to take photos, eat, stretch, etc. Just don’t wiggle too much.
  • For an easy power boost, you can stand and pump while the captain stays seated. Just don’t rock the bike.

These tips are just a start. There’s a lot more specific advice on riding a tandem out there, but honestly the best way is to hop on, give it a whirl and work out the rough spots on the street. You’ll definitely learn a thing or two about yourself, your partner and your relationship, for better or for worse. And you can always ditch the bike.

Have you ever ridden a tandem? If so, what were the biggest challenges? If not, would you consider it?

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Posted by on February 20, 2013 in Backroads


3 responses to “Yours, Mine and Ours: Bicycling in Tandem

  1. 6H3770.51X (@M4NH0)

    February 21, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Tandem cyclo-cross sounds (and looks) a little ridiculous šŸ˜€

    Sincerely, Searching for a Stoker in San Jose

    • ladyfleur

      February 21, 2013 at 11:44 am

      Cyclocross is pretty ridiculous. Cyclocross in costumes is more ridiculous. Cyclocross in costumes on a tandem is supremely ridiculous. And we weren’t by any means the only couple on a tandem in costume that day.

      You can see our competition in this video at the 0:07 mark. They beat us by 40 seconds. My excuse is that the stoker is a former elite racer.

  2. georgie

    February 22, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Hehe my OH would LOVE tandem cyclocross. We have a very bumpy muddy stretch of canal towpath we tandem on sometimes – it is like being on a rickety old roller-coaster for me stoking. Great fun!!!


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