Everyday Cyclist: Working Two Wheels Together

Tom Miller and Karen Libsch rode a mountain bike tandem together in this year’s “Round the Clock” 24 Mountain Bike race. They did ten 14-mile laps. Here’s what they have to say about riding a tandem off-road.

OTM: People joke about how tandems affect relationships. In your experience, how has the tandem impacted your relationship?

KAREN: I was actually riding a tandem with Tom’s father at a mountain bike weekend when I met him. Not to get mushy, but I liked Tom a lot at the time not for any romantic ideation but because of how well he treated his girlfriend. She was a big smoker, unfit, afraid of the mountain bike, but he stayed with her on the very easy rides and was extremely considerate to her needs. It gave me hope that I could find someone someday who wouldn’t just try to beat me at everything.

We actually dated a fair bit before we rode what was for me the scariest ride of my life. An avid competitor in everything I do, the ride for me was scary because the best way to ride was not to compete. Of course, it is obvious that two people need to be able to work together to make a tandem work best, but that ride was so terrifying for me because I found that I could surrender that competitive notion to him. I trusted him to do what was necessary and right, not what would “test” me or what would show off his skills. I know it’s not an earthshaking revelation, but submitting to the notion that it isn’t for one of us to win or to lose is very intimate. Neither of us is showing off or proving anything to the other. And yes, I do believe this has been an important foundation to our marriage.

OTM: How does the stoker on a mountain tandem ride out big bumps?

TOM: Bumps, technical sections, quick turns, low branches (my wife’s favorite), and unplanned dismounts all have the potential to add some stress to the ride. I do my best to keep Karen informed as to what is going on and she is incredible at anticipating what is happening by just following my movements. I can feel when she tenses up and there have been times she’s expended a lot of energy trying to stay relaxed.

KAREN: On a trail, sometimes Tom barely sees something before the whole bike has to react. There isn’t time for him to tell me about a hard right coming up or a series of rocks downhill or that we need to wiggle the bike through some trees until we’re there, and then we need to be doing it, not talking about it! In riding the bike, I have to immediately react to changes that come up that I can’t see coming. It’s similar to the routine stresses of everyday life.

In our day-to-day life, Tom is the stoker. I wish I could make it easier for him to anticipate what is coming, but I don’t know either. In the same way, Tom can’t tell me when we’re riding the bike. So, the answer to your question, I actually tolerate big bumps easier when we’re on the trail because he can’t always see it either.

OTM: How well matched are your riding styles when you are on separate bikes?

KAREN: I think we are well matched with regard to fitness but very different on the bike. I am a runner. Tom’s the biker.

On the road, I am aware that I am not good enough to help him train for races but I can certainly help him (and me) put some solid miles in the seat. I am not as gifted kinesthetically as Tom—I don’t have as good a sense of where my bike will land on the ground. I know a good line and can run it but I don’t trust the bike going where I place it.

I do get a chance to learn his bike skills on the back of the bike. As I said before, there isn’t time to overthink because by the time you know about something you have to react. Tom’s reactions are instinctual. My riding improves because his reactions are now instinctual to me too.

OTM: Anything else you want to share?

TOM: I agree with the statement, “Wherever your relationship is going, it’ll get there faster on a tandem.” After 25+ years in bike shops, tandems will make or break a relationship, there doesn’t seem to be much in between. For the captains out there, it is so cool that your partner can share your ride with you, so remember that your stoker is always working as hard as you are and don’t ever joke about them just coasting along. For the stokers, just let us know when it’s getting scary or you’re feeling the ride and tell us what to do to make you more comfortable even if it’s just to hop off for a few minutes, look at the scenery, and have a snack. If your captain doesn’t do what you ask, show no mercy.

KAREN: Onlookers will always comment on how one job is more important that the other. Unless you have tried to ride a tandem, it is difficult to understand how much work it takes for either rider.

I guess it is sort of like a marriage. Both people in the relationship have their set of responsibilities to make the whole thing work; without one person’s responsibilities fulfilled, the whole thing falls apart.

John Speare grew up and lives in Spokane. He rides his bike everywhere. Check out his blog at http://cyclingspokane.blogspot.com.

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