Llamas Running Downhill

“Read. My. Lips (honey). I will NEVER ride a tandem with you.”

So then there it was under the Christmas tree, donning red bows and looking a bit sheepish.

“Oh! My.” I said, or something like it.

“So…so, I mean, I heard you—what you said—about the whole never-ever-never thing, but…just SEVEN
TIMES. Ride it with me seven times and if you hate it, I’ll sell it or whatever. OK? Whatdya say??”

Oy vey. We were a cycling couple; it was our thing. He was (is) a strong, fit athlete and on road rides he
would accumulate lots of ‘dog miles’ looping back for me. We had friends down the street who killed it
on a sweet, matte black, carbon Calfee, and they seemed to have a good time, so what the heck. Fine.
I’d try it.

The key to riding a tandem is communication. I doubted he was capable of this. We went out to the bike
path on Christmas day when lots of others were learning how to ride bikes as well. That these “others”
were three and four-year-olds on wooden Striders is immaterial. I was glad he was as nervous as I was,
though I shouldn’t have been surprised—we were equally yoked, and crashing would happen to us both
if it happened at all.

We made quick work of balancing, turning, stopping, and even communicating. After all, forgetting to say “off” when ceasing to pedal would merely throw me into his back and cause a wobbly, jumbled mess, in addition to my wrath.

We graduated quickly to our regular Marin road routes—the beauties like Pt. Reyes Station, Mt. Tam,
and Paradise Loop. Also, to my surprise and delight, I began to discover things I’d never seen before on
these now familiar routes. Sure, I couldn’t see a damned thing dead ahead of me aside from his jersey
pockets, but I was now free to look right, to look left, in a sustained manner that is simply not possible
when piloting your own vessel.

I was often erupting about this or that thing that he couldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) look at, lest we crater
into a pothole or drive right off the road.


“Llamas running downhill…OMG that is the goofiest thing I have ever seen! But DON’T LOOK!”

Some sights seen while stoking told long and winding tales with just a quick glance—a picture being
worth-a-thousand-words and all. Old cabins near the creek on National Park Service land were in various
states of disarray. Some were falling down, others were Insta-worthy with their old-time beauty, but
they were all marked with giant spray-painted X’s, their removal imminent and confirmed on our next
ride by the clean, fresh patch of dirt where those modest homesteads had once stood.

He’d comment on upcoming hazards or challenges, all psychobabble to me. “OK, we’re gonna get ‘em!”
or, more concerning, things like “Uh, it’s okay, were just gonna scoot around that…” I’d pop my head up
like a prairie dog and look over his shoulder to see a gaggle of roadies he wanted to bury, or maybe a 17-
car pile-up.

The only close call occurred when passing another cyclist. He appeared to forget he was hauling a
load—namely me—and began to pull back over after the pass as if he were solo.

“Long load! Long load!” was the only warning I could conjure at the moment, to which he responded
“? Uh, yeah! It’s a long road!” We managed to not cream our fellow cyclist by the narrowest of margins.

They say that couples who ride tandems should trade places, at least once, to more fully understand
what it’s like to be a pilot, a stoker, and the special responsibilities/faiths one must deploy for each role.
This is sage advice. Super logical. So, after several months as a stoker, we went back to the bike path and
I took a turn as captain and he as stoker. He got settled in the back, perched up there like a nice little
monkey ready to be taken for a ride. And I absolutely froze. Couldn’t move a muscle. Couldn’t pedal,
couldn’t get on, couldn’t nothin’. We were 1000% Going To Crash, just fall right the hell over with a
distinct splat/squeal were I to achieve anything approaching liftoff. He climbed down, I got on the
back, and we never tried that again.

So, the upshot of this story is that while there’s a big (long) load of truth to the notion that tandems are
“divorce machines,” they’re also a lot more fun that one might expect. If a pair is able to internalize the
importance of communication—learn it, know it, live it—and the captain respects and appreciates the
unique helplessness and utter lack of control felt by the stoker, a long and prosperous future of you and your partner seeing very different things on the same ride is possible. And stoker, don’t forget the power of a well-timed pedal check when the captain forgets to relay important information. Bet they won’t forget next time.

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