Riding Tandem Through Life

I. Introduction: “Daisy Bell” was composed by Harry Dacre in 1892

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.”

In 2003, the summer of our 25th wedding anniversary, we bought a tandem bicycle. Both of us had been riding a bit, we’d done the MCC Flatlander: Dave way out front with the fast guys doing the whole 65 miles, and me somewhere further back, ambling along engaged in pleasant conversation with other leisurely riders not looking to work up a sweat. The idea of a tandem was appealing – at last, we could ride together without Dave having to “slow down” or me having to ride harder than I wanted/ or thought I was able, to. We were, however, warned, “Whatever direction your marriage is going, it’ll get there faster on a tandem!” Pretty sure our marriage was heading up, we took the chance and bought a brand new. bright red Burley Tamberello tandem from Bicycle Pedaler in Wichita. Though straining the budget at $2,000, it was still a bottom of the line, entry-level bike.

In the summer, we worked up to 100 mile rides, breezing past slower, single bikers because of our added pedal power. Finally, we gave in and started wearing those padded spandex bike shorts that look, and sometimes feel, like a cross between a diaper and a girdle. We rode Biking Across Kansas and met a former bike racer who egged us on to ride harder/faster. We started to look “lean and mean” like the leaders. On a tamdem, we flew past all but the fastest guys on the downhills, then tried to remain cheerful as they all passed us on the uphill. (Gravity works both for – and against- us.)

Fortunately for us, our riding styles were in sync with each other and we adjusted fairly easily to pedaling at the same speed. Sometimes in the early evening with the sun slanting our shadow across the ditch as we rode, it looked like a perfect picture of marital harmony: two people pedaling in unison down life’s highway… I’ve put myself to sleep at night visualizing that idyllic – and hypnotic – ’round and ’round motion.

II. Could tandem bike riding be an analogy for marriage?

At a glance, tandem bike riding might appear a great analogy for a (traditional) marriage. Noel Piper does just that on their website www.desiringgod.org after writing about lessons learned while riding tandem, she says:

Perhaps the 19th century songwriter was wiser than he knew when he created a marriage proposal that said, ‘You’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two’. It makes me think of what Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:22-24: ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.’

After all, the Captain, the person who rides in front, needs to be the stronger rider. Dave has to be able to hold the bike steady and balanced while the stoker, me, gets onto the seat and clips their bike shoes onto the pedals. He also does all the steering, shifting and braking while riding. He sees the road ahead and has the map on the handlebar bag in front of him. The stoker attends to side details: I take pictures, wave at children, signal turns (as directed), get stuff out of the bags on the back of the bike and stare at Dave’s back… The stoker has no positive control, though I can make the bike veer by leaning. Being stoker is an exercise in powerlessness. On our first really fast downhill, my hands were clenching the bar, my mouth in a grimace as I contemplated all that bare skin hitting the asphalt at 49 miles per hour – or missing the curve at the bottom of the hill and flying to my death. Dave, on the other hand… was also gripping the handlebars tightly – so he could shift, brake, etc. Brake? Why would he brake? He was having the time of his life – mouth wide open in a great big grin!

The times when tandem riding has been most difficult – are not the hills we’ve had to climb, but the downhills when our differing tolerances for risk come into play. On our first really big downhill on our 2005 ride to Charlotte, NC, I said, “I smell something hot!” “Nah” says Dave. Later, after a blowout on another downhill, Dave admits I was right, he could see that braking had heated the tire enough to melt the bead and eventually caused a blowout. This of course meant he now wanted to brake even less, with longer intervals of gathering speed before braking -to avoid a repeat blowout.

III. A deeper look – Marriage and riding tandem

A more nuanced look at tandem bike riding would show that, while the captain has his hands on all the controls, the stoker is not a lesser partner. If I don’t want another rider to pass us… Good luck! I’ve been known to stand and pump – near the end of a ride – just to keep some younger guys from catching up after a day of playing leap frog -for the last 90 miles.

A humorous article entitled, “The Proper Method” was a big help in helping us understand how to balance the captain’s control with sensitivity to the stoker. Pointing out that “There are hundreds of husbands with wives who no longer ride their tandem…”, the author of the article links that sad situation to the captain/husband’s failure to understand the first rule of tandeming: “The stoker makes no mistakes” Or, for emphasis, “the stoker makes… …no mistakes.” Or, as another rider put it, “the stoker shouldn’t be held responsible for unpredictable reactions to ounknown conditions” (http://www.cyclingsite.com/collected_wisdom/what_to_take/bikes/tandems.htm).

No matter how “in control” Dave assures me he is, it’s really hard to keep pedaling fast when it seems certain to me I’m pedaling to my doom. I argue that it’s instinctive to try to pedal backwards, or stop pedaling in the face of one’s imminent demise. Dave disagrees, and says I need to keep pedaling so he can shift down prior to braking – and – that I should “trust” him to control everything. This is not a picture of bike riding – or marriage – I can live with. After all, I was right about smelling burning rubber.

Eph. 5:21 begins the famous “Wives be subject…” passage with “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This verse was helpful to us in adjusting our marriage relationship and is a much more accurate picture of what tandem-bike riding needs to be for both to enjoy the experience and the bike to get where you’re going – safely. While I wouldn’t go as far as one couple “A tandem is definitely a better investment than marriage counseling or a divorce lawyer for any couple who is sincerely interested in learning to compromise and work together to set goals and achieve them.” (http://www.ltolman.org/tandems.htm), we would say in our experience, three things are necessary for good tandem bike riding, and, not co-incidentally, a good marriage:

A. Communication

We’ve got to talk to each other while riding. About the day, the weather, what we’re thinking, yes, but even more importantly, when Dave is going to change gears (which changes our pedaling speed and how hard it is to pedal), when I should signal a turn, when either of us needs a “butt break”, when I’m going to turn around to get into the rack trunk or otherwise really wiggle, whether there’s traffic coming up behind us, and, how hard we’re hoping to work on a ride. I may not know that Dave is working up a sweat while I’m ejoying the view. If I don’t know, and he suddenly realizes I’m not working nearly as hard… Let’s just say, it’s important to communicate and agree on our goals for a ride: is this a long, slow distance, or an attempt to ride twenty miles at 20 mph? When pulling out from a stop or pulling up a hill, if I stand to pump, Dave needs to shift – when I tell him to – not before, and not after. Shifting at the wrong time can be a shock to my knees. The first, and only, time we’ve actually fallen on the bike was when we were completely stopped – and each tried to dismount in a different direction. I won. We ended up in a pile. In the ditch.

B. Trust

I need to trust Dave’s ability to keep the bike’s speed at a level he can safely control and maneuver the bike, especially on downhills and corners/curves. This means, yes, I do need to keep pedaling – Dave’s counting on it – when I think we should be slowing down so he can go through all the gears he needs to in order to make starting up again after the stop – easier on us and the bike. Dave needs to be able to trust me to tell him of any traffic behind us when we’re planning to turn. Our differing tolerances for risk – and hence the need to trust – were evident in my grimace versus Dave’s grin on our first really fast downhill and in buying the bike itself. $2000 is a fair amount money to plop down in one go. It’s not that I didn’t want to buy a tandem, I just thought we should wait until we’d saved up enough to not use a credit card to buy the thing, which would have put it off for six months to a year. Dave insisted we buy it the summer of our 25th wedding anniversary – and he was right – it’s been one of the best things we’ve done.

C. Respect each others’ strength

Even though I’m a strong rider, if we were riding single bikes, there’s no way I could keep up with my 6’2 1/2″, 200 lb husband. Even on the tandem, I may not be able to pedal as hard, or as long as Dave can. It’s important that he listen to me when I say something is starting to hurt – or that I really can’t ride this speed for another 50 miles, I try to ride at a speed I can finish. It does no good for the stronger rider to push the (physically) weaker one to exhaustion. Then, he would end up doing ALL the work to get those last miles to our stopping place for the day. Pushing someone beyond their capacity does not make for a good day that day – or set the scene for positive expectations for riding together in the future. “The stoker makes no mistakes!” The Captain must listen to the one who has little/less power in the relationship.

Bill McCready ends his article on “The Proper Method” with these words, “If you think you’ve discovered an exception to ‘The Stoker makes no mistakes,’ I’m certain a closer examination will reveal a captain who should’ve known better.” A wise captain knows when to stop pushing and let the stoker set the pace.

IV Is there a broader application of these principles?

In what other areas of life/politics – do we need to give the less powerful an equal voice? Who else do we need to be careful not to put in a position of no control and expect them to keep pedaling towards their doom. MCC has a policy of not going into an area without being invited. This is one way of not taking control. They also try very hard to let program direction and goals be set by local and national stakeholders. It would be very easy for an outside agency like MCC, an agency with people and the power that comes with access to resources and money to be in control. I’m not talking about a false equality – we really can’t switch places on the bike; I couldn’t hold it up with Dave clipped in, and we can’t switch places with the health workers Generations At Risk Bicycles will help. But we can give with an awareness of giving power as well as resources, allowing partner agencies to set direction, allocate resources, and measure success. We can give with an awareness that none of us can live without the help of others, both in our community and in the broader family of faith.

Because of our years in Chad Africa with MCC, as we ride, we can picture the villages and people these health workers will be riding through as they visit people affected by HIV/AIDS. We will feel the hot sun and know what it means to carry water for many miles. We will also know what it means to do something that can make a difference. Thank you for your help.

[tags]tandem bike riding, Burley tandem, Cookie, Wiebe, Cookie and Dave Wiebe, analogy for marriage, sharing power, stoker, captain, trans-Am bike route, trans-America bike route, Mennonite, MC, Mennonite Central Committee, Generations at Risk Bicycles, Generations at Risk, [/tags]

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3 Responses to Riding Tandem Through Life

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