I Have an Amazing Stoker

Back in my educator days, our leadership class headed up an annual, week-long project—Teacher Appreciation Week. One of those activities was to produce large posters to be taped to respective classroom doors. The words would express love and appreciation, and the middle school artists produced some very creative caricatures and other visual depictions related to their beloved teachers. I was a school counselor, and most of the students assigned to draw up my poster didn’t know me very well, so their instructor (a cyclist himself) tossed out an idea. “Mr. Merz is quite the serious bike rider, and he and his wife also like to ride their tandem on all the wonderful trails in and around Spokane.” Then their teacher explained in some detail what a tandem bicycle is and how tandem biking works, including how they require a captain and a stoker. They liked the idea and went to work.

Don’t know what a stoker is? You’re not alone. When we are cruising around on our tandem bicycle with me in the captain position in the front, my wife’s position on the back seat is known as the stoker. Most folks know that a tandem bicycle has two seats, two sets of pedals, and two sets of handlebars. Fewer folks understand that on most tandems, the two sets of cranks are mechanically linked by a timing chain and turn at the same rate, which means that the stoker has absolutely no independence in pedaling. The steering, braking, shifting, pedal cadence, and speed are also totally controlled by the captain. To be fair, stokers do several important things quite well. Stokers provide a lot of the pedal power and also provide a critical balance factor as well. My stoker also does a great job of frequently yelling, “Not so fast!” 

One of the most unnerving experiences I’ve ever had was about 16 years ago when I was showing off our newly acquired tandem to my brother and I suggested that we go for a ride with him at the helm. That was the first and only time that I turned into a stoker, and it literally scared the hell out of me—not because of anything my captain brother was doing, but because I could not handle the feeling of total helplessness. Like a fish with no fins. Never again. That is why my stoker and all stokers out there are truly amazing. Your trust and confidence in your captains is remarkable, and that allows tandem couples to share some of the most enjoyable and memorable bike-riding experiences one could imagine. We captains tip our helmets to our stokers; we are grateful for the faith that you place in us.

Having no idea that the students had created an appreciation poster for me, my secretary met me as I was returning to the guidance office. Her look of concern that seemed to say “I’m not sure this is okay” was unmistakable. I said, “What’s up, Claudia?” She answered, “Ed, what is a stoker?” I had no idea where she was coming from, but I could certainly answer the question. 

“Well, way back when, in the days of steam locomotives, a stoker held an extremely important job,” I told her. “While the engineer was at the controls of the locomotive, the stoker was shoveling coal into the boiler to provide the steam to power the engine. A really hot and strenuous job. Of course, no stokers necessary on trains these days.” I then explained to Claudia that I live with a stoker. It’s my wife, Georgia. “You know that we have a tandem bicycle. I am on the front seat in the captain position and Georgia is on the seat behind me, and her position is called a stoker. She provides extra power, just like those firemen feeding the boilers. But why do you ask?”

My secretary pointed to this newly-arrived poster that had just been taped to my office door. A colorful tandem bicycle had been sketched across the poster, but it was the text at the top that was the real focus. “MR. MERZ, WE HEAR THAT YOU HAVE AN AMAZING STOKER!” It was obvious that Claudia’s mind had gone somewhere else. I don’t know if I have laughed that hard ever since! //

Ed Merz and his wife Georgia are retired educators and long-time Spokane residents who frequently ride and travel with their Bike Friday Two’sDay folding tandem they bought in 2006. The tandem team upgraded to electric-assist in 2020 and hope to keep pedaling together for years to come. Ed wrote the article “10 Spokane-area Hills to Climb Before You Die” for Out There back in 2015. You can find that story at Outthereoutdoors.com.

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