Over the last several years, we considered getting a tandem bicycle, but we never decided to go forward and try to ride one. One night, last summer, we found the perfect tandem on eBay. A seller in Connecticut had a barely used Cannondale road tandem in our size and it was black. Excellent.
And so, we began out journey into "the tandem lifestyle", but more importantly, it presented a true opportunity for Susanne and me to ride together with neither one of us feeling the pressure of keeping the right pace. Of course, first we had to get this giant bicycle home and learn how to ride it. The seller was eager to head back to New York and said that he would leave the tandem by the front door. That made me uneasy until he told me that you couldn't see the house from the road and that it looked "a little like a space ship". Off we headed to Connecticut to find our new ride.
This is where we picked up the tandem. If you studied architecture, you may know it as the Richard Foster Round House built in 1968. It is an amazing house that sits on a small pedestal which permits the 30 foot diameter structure to rotate 360 degrees. Sprocket was right there, next to the pedestal, waiting for us. There was no one home or we would have asked to use the loo just to get a peak inside. Flickr photos give you an idea of what we saw. With no one around, it felt like we were stealing the bicycle, as we loaded it into our truck for the ride home.
We had heard all of the horror stories about couples, including some married ones, that parted ways after the tandem experience. So we did what we always do. We searched Google and sought advice. We learned that the Stoker (person in the back) is always right, while the Captain (person in the front) is responsible for keeping the stoker happy at all times. This had a familiar ring to it.
The mechanics of riding are slightly more complicated. The Captain (me) steadies the bicycle while the Stoker (Susanne) clips into the pedals with both feet. Once the Captain clips in with one foot, we are locked and loaded. The Stoker starts pedaling and the Captain clips in with the other foot. We tried this in our neighborhood and shakily moved forward on our first attempt. Round and round we went until we realized that we didn't know how to stop. We rode, it got darker. We searched for the softest looking lawn. I realized that we had made a tragic mistake. All of those stories were correct...this was going to have a horrible end.
And then, with the final light of day, I unclipped one foot and slowly brought what felt like the limousine of bicycles to a slow and controlled stop. We had done it! Upright and without injury. We hugged like ecstatic children. The next day we couldn't wait to try again. We practiced starting and stopping, slowly building our confidence and skill. I was frightened as the Captain, but didn't want Susanne to know. I had serious doubts that we could do this tandem thing. We had seen an accomplished couple ride years ago. They had style, power and complete control even when they stood up and pedaled. We, on the other hand, had difficulty circumnavigating our neighborhood.
In a few evenings, our skills developed enough for us to venture from our neighborhood to the bike path that connects us with town in one direction and to the the train station in the other direction. We pointed ourselves towards the train station and started pedaling. Four miles later, we arrived at the train station. Along the way, the most amazing things occurred: children waved, adults smiled and cyclists held us in awe. We were tandem cyclists.
We discovered that, on our tandem, that we could go faster on a flat road than most single cyclists. We had two engines and despite what everyone thinks, the Stoker works really hard. Both crank sets are connected by a timing chain, so no one slacks. Ever. We pedal or coast together, as the situation demands. Downhill, we go even faster and acceleration is instantaneous. Sprocket weighs 38 pounds, the equivalent of two 19 pound bicycles. When you add the unpublished weight of both riders, we weigh twice that of a single bicycle. Weight, as any cyclist will tell you, is the nemesis of climbing up a hill. Our first real hill made us realize why tandems have a triple chain ring. That little gear comes in really handy when the grade tips up past 6% (6 feet rise in 100 feet of road) and is essential on long steep grades. Combined with a 10 gear cassette on the rear wheel, we have 30 different gear combinations. After successfully going up a hill with a 25% grade, we are fairly confident that we can climb anything, just as long as we don't have to go too quickly. When we pedal in the lowest gearing we look like a human pepper mill grinding up a hill.
Over time, we slowly built up our confidence and skills together. Once the Stoker starts pedaling, it is up to the Captain to not only make the critical decisions regarding steering, shifting and braking, but he has a real time responsibility to keep the Stoker informed of what is going on in front and behind. To see behind, I have a small mirror at the end of my handlebar on the left side. The Stoker has only peripheral vision, unless the Captain has his hands down in the drops. That is the only time Susanne can see over my shoulders.
As the fall approached, we started group rides, met another tandem couple and made lots of friends along the flats as they drafted behind us at 24 miles per hour. We occasionally had to slow down, so they could keep up. Of course, once the road tilted upwards, they flew passed us, thanking us for the "good pull". We would catch up on the next descent and repeat our drafting service. We thought about spelling out "You're Welcome" on the back of the bike. It seemed appropriate.
I have heard it said that riding a tandem will propel your relationship along whatever course it is already on. We were happy to discover that ours is on the right track.
Thanks for reading.
See ya next Sunday,
This post was originally published in 2011. Sprocket has taken us on a late summer holiday. More to follow...