Pedaling pairs: Tandem cyclists share a delicate balance

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do
I'm half-crazy, all for the love of you
It won't be a stylish marriage. I can't afford a carriage.
But you'll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.

-- "Daisy Bell," by Harry Dacre, 1892

Frank and Kay McGuire live in Rochester, N.Y., but they recently drove all the way to Westerly to take a bike ride.

"We're completing a mission," Frank McGuire explained. "We've ridden in all the states except Rhode Island and Alaska. ... Don't ask me how we missed Rhode Island."

So when they heard that TBONE -- Tandem Bicyclists of New England -- were hosting a ride along the Rhode Island coastline, they packed their custom-made Bilenky tandem -- also known as a bicycle built for two -- into the back of their minivan and made the eight-hour trek to Westerly.

They joined a dozen other couples, mostly from southeastern New England, who gathered at Misquamicut State Beach on a brisk Sunday morning for a 33-mile spin along the shore.

And what a sight they made as they took off down Atlantic Avenue, a string of tandem bikes with riders in matching outfits -- brightly colored windproof jackets, riding pants and safety helmets.

Many of the helmets were equipped with rearview mirrors, as well as microphones and earpieces designed to make it easier for the couples to carry on a conversation as they sped along.

After all, the McGuires said, the beauty of tandem cycling is that it allows couples to spend time together while sharing their love of cycling. The concept has become so popular that it has developed into a national movement.

For many people, tandem becomes attractive when one member of a couple is stronger than the other.

"A lot of women say they can't keep up with their husbands, so they start tandeming," Kay McGuire said. That way, they can stay together for the entire ride and carry on conversations as they go.

Bernice Stone of East Providence said she took up tandem cycling after she suffered a brain injury in a bicycle accident in New Hampshire 10 years ago. She was in a coma for weeks and spent nearly a year in rehabilitation, and she still has weakness on her right side and can't balance a bike.

But she's loved cycling ever since her husband, Howard Stone, a longtime bicycle enthusiast who writes books about some of the best bike trails in New England, first taught her how to ride a bike as an adult. She laughs as she recalls how he made her wear knee pads and lowered her seat before turning her loose in the parking lot of a local supermarket.

She couldn't bear the thought of not being able to ride after the accident. So her husband bought a tandem, and they've been riding together since.

Bernice Stone loves the freedom the tandem offers: "I don't have to steer. I don't have to change gears ... I don't even have to pedal."

She quickly added, with a chuckle, "No, I do pedal."

Ralph and Anne Hunt of Weston, Conn., are newcomers to the sport. They took up tandem bike riding about a month ago as a way to continue to be able to ride as they get older. They'd been riding single bikes for more than 20 years. But now, Ralph said, "We're at the stage in our lives where we want to still be active, and we enjoy the slower pace, smelling the roses."

It was lifestyle, not age, that was the impetus for Ted Shwartz of Dartmouth. He and his wife, Sally, began riding a tandem bike about five years ago with their two young sons, Sam and Tom, in a trailer attached to the back.

"We discovered we could have some time for ourselves and not worry about the kids," he explained. Now that the boys are 9 and 7, Shwartz has a triple bike which he rides with the two boys while his wife rides alongside on a single bike.

"It's good family time outside," he said. "There's nothing pulling you in different directions. You're out for a bike ride."

But he and his wife still like to escape on their tandem bike once in a while, as they did this particular Sunday, to join other tandems for social outings. "We've met some very good friends through TBONE," he said.

It's definitely a social thing, said Kay McGuire, who said she and her husband have been riding tandems for 30 years and are longtime members of the Tandem Club of America, which includes thousands of members nationwide.

They travel the country for bike rides and participate in rallies sponsored by groups like TBONE or the Tandem Club, such as a recent tandem rally in Indiana that attracted more than 500 tandem cyclists. As she says, "it's just an awful lot of fun."

Bob and Carol Anderson of Portsmouth even use their tandem to commute to work at separate jobs at the Naval Warfare Center in Newport. They ride together on the six-mile trek from their home to her office building, then Bob takes the bike to his office nearby. And after work, they take the long way home, a 23-mile route.

It takes a special relationship to make tandem riding work. The couples have to be in sync, and there's a certain amount of trust involved.

After all, the lead rider -- the captain, who is usually the stronger of the two riders -- is in charge of steering, breaking and shifting gears. The back rider -- the stoker -- provides extra pedal power, while also being responsible for signaling turns, reading maps and looking out for potential obstacles such as dogs and cars.

That takes getting used to, said Jeanette Kildea of Canterbury, Conn., who got a tandem with her husband, Dan, about three months ago.

"You have to give up control. You have no brakes. You have no steering. It's (a matter of) trust." But, she added jokingly, "He has to treat me well because he's in front of me and I can hit him."

The other good thing about being on the back seat, Kildea and others noted, is that the captain blocks the wind, making the back seat a lot warmer than the front seat.

That's an important benefit for folks like Anne Hunt, who appreciates having her husband, Ralph, block the wind: "I freeze out a lot faster than him." And, she said, "It's fun being in the back."

Still, she and other stokers are known for getting heckled from passersby, who are known to call out: "She's not pedaling."

But in actuality, the stoker's pedals are usually linked to the captain's pedals, so both people have to pedal at exactly the same speed.

So it takes coordination and communication to make it work, and both halves of a couple have to love it or tandem bike riding simply isn't much fun.

"It either makes you or breaks you" as a couple, said Sandy McIlmail of Mattapoisett, who's been riding a tandem with her husband, Bill, for more than 30 years. "You have to be compatible. You have to be able to get along. There are people who've tried it and it just doesn't work out."

John Bazzinotti of Attleboro notes that a tandem can help improve communication. "You can work out a lot of problems when you're on it."

But it can go the other way, as well.

As Ted Shwartz said: "There's kind of a standard saying: Whichever way your marriage is going, you're going to get there faster on a tandem."

"There's give and take," said Janice Schaffner of Warwick. "Some days are better than others."

But for the most part, she and her husband, Paul, simply enjoy spending time together doing what they both love to do.

While it takes some couples awhile to come up with a comfort zone for cycling together, for others it's now second nature.

Take the Maguires, who've been riding tandems for the past 30 years. They've taken their bike to nearly every state -- even Hawaii -- during business trips and vacations over the years. And during a cross-country trip two years ago, they realized they'd biked in 48 of the 50 states. The only states they hadn't ridden in were Rhode Island and Alaska.

So they joined the crowd at Misquamicut for the pleasant end-of- summer ride along the shore a few weeks ago, and followed it up with a 10-mile tour of Newport's coastline, as well.

Now, their mission is nearly complete. And, said Mrs. McGuire, they might just get to Alaska.

But in the meantime, they're already thinking of rejoining their newfound friends in the Rhode Island tandem community. They had so much fun, she said, "We might very well be back."

Tandem tech

Tandem bikes have improved tremendously from the heavy, bulky frames and single speeds of antique bikes.

Today's tandems are high-tech machines made with the same lightweight frames, upwards of 30 different speeds and special tires that grace some of the top single touring and mountain bikes on the market.

The tandem cyclists gathered at Misquamicut Beach last month said you can spend anywhere from about $500 to $10,000 or more on a tandem, but most decent tandems sell for $4,000 or $5,000 apiece.

Ralph and Anne Hunt of Weston, Conn., spent about $4,000 on their new tandem bike that has 27 speeds, weighs 32 pounds and can be separated into two pieces that can be packed in suitcases and taken on a plane. They plan to take it on a vacation to Germany this year.

"It's an investment," Ralph Hunt said. But, he noted, "A good single high performance bicycle is now $2,000 to $4,000. So instead of spending that on each of us, we're spending less" on a single tandem.

It is an adjustment to learn how to ride it, he said. "It takes a while to anticipate the road. There's a shorter turning radius. And, you have to be concerned about hitting bumps so the stoker (person in back) doesn't complain."


Discuss This Article