There’s an old joke about bicycles built for two: “Wherever your marriage is headed, you’ll get there quicker on a tandem.”
And you should probably know tandems go downhill really, really fast. And uphill requires more work than going it alone on a regular bike (or a “half bike” as diehard tandem riders describe them).
The vast majority of the approximately 100 tandem teams in the Evergreen Tandem Club are married couples who’ve made this style of cycling a part of their relationships and their fitness routines. They ride on their own, tour local roads with the club and take trips around the world.
Mike and Renda Murphy of Tacoma were charter members of the club when it started in 2001, and say riding a tandem is a perfect way for them to spend quality time together.
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“When you work a full-time job, it’s tough to talk to each other sometimes,” Mike said in August during a club riding/eating tour of the South Sound. “So this is our chance to talk to each other, communicate and have a good time.
“Plus we’ve made some awesome good friends,” Renda said of the club whose membership stretches from Oregon to British Columbia and as far east as Spokane.
Tandeming solves one of the biggest problems most couples encounter when they start cycling together.
“Typically a lot of husbands and wives can’t cycle together because the guy is usually bigger and stronger than the woman and it’s hard to keep up,” said ETC president Mary Tedd Allen. “Even if you are a strong cyclist as a woman.”
This means couples either aren’t really together on their rides or one isn’t getting the exercise they could.
Steve and Janet Sisson of Des Moines say they are pretty equally matched on single bikes. “But it doesn’t take much difference to not even be within sight of each other,” said Steve Sisson, who started riding a tandem with his wife in 2004. “And that’s not as much fun. … Getting there at the same time is a big deal.”
Mike and Jane Meagher of Lynnwood discovered tandem riding in 2000 when they bought a bike so their fourth-grade son could ride behind Jane during a trip to Australia.
Once they returned, their son was no longer interested in sharing a bike, so Mike and Jane decided to give it a try. They loved that they no longer had to wait for each other or worry about holding up the other rider.
“And you go so much faster on a tandem,” Mike said. “You’re more likely to see 50 mph (going downhill) on a tandem.”
The Meaghers probably could have hit 50 mph on their downhill approach to Steilacoom during the August club ride. Instead, Mike tapped the brakes. “You don’t want to go too much faster than the speed limit,” he said.
The August club ride, hosted by Walt and Tanya Richardson of Lakewood, made stops in DuPont, Chambers Bay, Tacoma and the Richardson’s home. The stops included meals such as seafood Cobb salad, a bacon and baked potato concoction served in a martini glass, and braised Asian ribs. It’s no wonder the club calls this annual ride the “Ride, Eat, Ride, Eat, Ride, Eat Ride.”
The club also staged a two-day wine tasting tour of the Yakima Valley in September, and offers other rides throughout the year including a Christmas ride in which they all wear Santa caps specially designed to go over their helmets. While club members are in good shape, the rides aren’t about racing or holding a blistering pace.
Instead, they focus on enjoying their sport and each other. “What we all have in common is that we all like to get out and be active,” Jane Meagher said.
If their August ride was any indication — and they say it is — the man typically takes the front seat, the position known as the captain.
But behind every great captain is a great stoker.
While the backseat rider is known as the stoker, several stoker wives on the August ride told me they’re actually the rear admirals, which, of course, outranks captain.
Several couples in the club occasionally swap positions, but regardless of which seat they’re in. a successful ride depends on teamwork and communication.
“Over time the tandem team gets very good anticipating each other’s moves, but communication is always needed,” said Walt Richardson. “For example, when riding, the stoker doesn’t see all the bumps so the captain should announce them in advance to keep the stoker from unnecessary jolts. Sometimes the captain misses one and you hear about it.”
While both pedal, the captain controls the brakes and steering and is the only one with an unobstructed view of the road. Meanwhile the stoker can handle maps, cellphones and passing food forward to the captain. It’s not uncommon for the stoker to store these items in their partner’s rear jersey pocket for easy access.
“We can’t see straight ahead, but we can see around and to the side,” said Jane Meagher. “But we can rubberneck more than you can on a single bike.”
In fact, some of the ETC stokers could almost face each other and carry on conversation while gesturing with their hands as they zipped down the road at 20 mph.
But don’t confuse this social aspect of tandeming with just being along for the ride.
The tandem riders say the most common comment they hear from single cyclists is “She’s not pedaling.”
“They all think it’s funny and original,” Mike Meagher said. “But everybody says it.”
It’s not true, of course. In fact, it’s not even possible. Most tandem bikes are set up so the captain and stoker must keep the same cadence. And with the extra drag on the uphill, both must do their part.
The couples say the teamwork makes cycling more fun and fulfilling.
“We do ride more now on tandems than we did on singles,” Mike Meagher said. “It’s fun to be able to get out there together.”