A Bicycle Built For Doom?

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true.

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!

Ah, the quintessential romance of the tandem. Most of us remember that old chestnut of a song – perhaps it was the first place you heard of a “bicycle built for two.” Or perhaps you saw one trundling down the path at a vacation resort – fenders jangling, a grinning pair pedaling lazily.

My memory is clear. My best friend, Jenny Sneed, came over one Saturday morning in the summer of my eighth year and said, “Sally, you gotta come over. My brother Bobby bought aTandem!”

I had no idea what a tandem was, but the word sounded like seven kinds of fun, so off we went.

As bicycle enthusiasts go, I was a late bloomer. In fact, the little 8-year-old that skittered down the block after Jenny could not actually ride a bike at that time. When I saw it parked against the Sneed’s carport, I knew in the pit of my stomach that this must be a tandem.

“I know,” Jenny already was saying, “but you don’thave to know how to ride a bike. With a tandem, only thefront person has to know.I’ll be in front.”

That pretty much settledthat. With neither Bobby’s permission nor the slightest idea what we were doing, we straddled that beast and took to the street.

Paralyzed With Fear, Excitement
What a sight we must have made. Jenny – all ebony pigtails and wiry determination – stood on the pedals, her entire little frame rising and falling with each pedal stroke on the oversized bike. And me – paralyzed with that delicious mixture of fear and excitement particular to 8-year-olds and first-time bungee jumpers – glued to the seat, perpendicular to the pavement, my feet leaving the pedals at the bottom of each stroke, and flailing to catch them again on the upswing.

Flash forward 20-some years. The girl on the back of the tandem wears a helmet now, has many hundreds of cycling miles behind her, and knows she’s called a “stoker,” but one thing remains the same – those brown eyes, wide as saucers. I no more trusted my husband as “captain” than I had Jenny Sneed in the summer of ’69. Perhaps less so.

So, why did I do it? Like many couples who ride, my husband and I had struggled season after season to stay together on long rides with our vastly different levels of cycling ability. Riding a tandem seemed like the answer to our prayers. Here’s a way to get back together, to share the joys of the open road, if not side-by-side, at least together, at the same pace. Doesn’t that sound romantic?

Is riding a tandem really all togetherness and roadside picnics? Is it the effortless dream the Doublemint twins promised us in the television ads? Or is it . . . well . . . something a shade less idyllic? Could it be described as . . . maybe . . . hell on wheels?

Let’s ask my friend Leslie how romantic it was when she and her husband, Tom, had a slight, but unspoken difference of opinion about how to negotiate a certain S-curve on a familiar route. Each had taken the turn before – alone or with other riders, but never together on their tandem.

Rule #1 (The Leslie & Tom Principle):The person in front gets to choose.
“That wasn’t how I’d have done it,” said Leslie later, blinking at me from beneath her bandages. I was too fascinated watching her different-sized pupils dilate and contract to comment. I had recently been noticing that my husband’s cycling ability was uncomfortably greater than mine, and thought a solution might be at hand.

“Could we borrow your tandem?” I asked, unaware of the irony of the question. “You know, just while you recover?” Leslie saw no problem with the question and readily agreed. But then, she was suffering from a concussion ? what was my excuse?

So we had our chance to try our first real adult racing tandem – a chance to get some answers to our questions before making the investment in our own tandem. For example, does the “stoker” (i.e., “person on the back”) enjoy the support of the stronger rider, while the “captain” (i.e., “jerk that talked you into this”) benefits from the additional pedal power, or do both feel cheated – the front person out of speed, and the back person out of a view.

Rule #2 (The Sally & Doug Maxim): Everybody feels cheated.
Oh, I’ll admit it. My boyfriend’s behind was about the sweetest view I could ask for while cycling for the first couple of seasons. But now, as my husband of several years, I can think of things I’d rather do than spend hours on end careening through the unseen countryside with my face 8 inches from his tailbone. For that, gentle friend, is the reality of riding tandem!

I, as the weaker member of our tandem partnership, also have felt the other inconveniences of tandem riding – the panic of a hairpin turn when I am not in control; the sheer exhaustion towards the end of a long day’s ride, when my pride outlasts my aching fanny.

The stronger partner likewise feels the frustration – just ask my husband. It’s no fun to toodle along at 12 miles per hour when your buddies and your quads are urging you to tear along at 20-plus. Or, it may be fun once in awhile, but a steady diet of slow riding just doesn’t cut it.

In fact, the realities of tandem riding bring to mind the other version of the song. Perhaps you’ve heard it:

Charley, Charley, here is your answer true.

I’d be crazy to marry the likes of you!

If you can’t afford a carriage,

You can’t afford a marriage,

And I’ll be damned if I’ll be crammed on a Bicycle Built for Two!!

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