Everything you know is wrong

When I first started riding tandem with my two kids, before we even took off I read this screed: Captain Training.

After that, of course, I knew everything there was to know.  I quickly threw away the existing pedals on the bike and installed some cage and strap ones before we started riding and we followed the starting procedure to the letter (no mean feat balancing two kids on the back, the whole floppy contraption swaying ominously between my legs).  Still, we muddled through and our our 15km/h adventures became regular and enjoyable on that cobbled up mess of a bike.  I thought I was a pretty good captain as we had a zero crash record and riding a tandem had become a lot of fun.

After admau contacted the bike club and I agreed to try captaining for him, I did suddenly feel a certain amount of self doubt.  There’s a big difference between bike path riding at 15km/h and screaming down the open road at 60.  I figured I had better ride his ex-Exsight Apollo tandem by myself just to get a feel for it.  Suddenly I felt like I was in well in over my head.

Upon collecting that bike from the removalists storage facility my heart sank.  It was a flat bar tandem (like my own horrid contraption) but with the dreaded grip shifters and 26″ wheels on fat Schwalbe tyres.  It was unloved – the back wheel was buckled and the spokes showed much evidence of the chain slipping off the cassette and jamming between there and the spokes.  The synch chain was sagging sadly between the cranks and the brakes were maladjusted.  Picking it up to put on the car rack elicited a surprised grunt, it weighed 25kg even with it’s sagging saddle bag largely empty of anything useful.  After some discussion, we dropped it at my house so I could run the spanners over it, fit my preferred pedals and take it out for a solo ride to see if there were any nasty surprises.

My own home made tandem has a rather nasty hump in the middle (a legacy of the slightly incompatible angle of the head tube of the rear bike and the seat tube of the front bike) which gives the front fork a different angle than it was designed for.  I got used to the point where the steering angle “flopped” the front wheel and avoided it as much as i could.  I was very disappointed on first riding the Apollo that it suffered from exactly the same problem.  The frame and the fork just didn’t feel like they were designed for the same bike.  However, it was rideable once the back wheel was trued and the brakes adjusted.  it wasn’t nice, but it was rideable.  I was not feeling terribly confident that it would be very stable with two grown men on it.

Then, while struggling uphill by myself it suddenly occurred to me that admau and I may not be very good riding buddies at all.  What if my overbearing and opinionated demeanour annoyed him?  What if he was a reactionary nutcase?  Would bad taste and filthy humour be out of bounds? Politics?  Religion?  I was no longer worried about the technical aspects of tandeming, it was the social ones that would probably be my undoing since my mouth generally runs about two gears ahead of my brain.  So I asked admau a few personal questions to see which topics of conversation might be out of bounds but he turned out to be good humoured about pretty much everything.  However, he did send me some links on how to aid him to navigate around while we were not on the bike (not something I had even considered) and we agreed on taking a first tentative ride.

Details at this point are hazy although we started relatively smoothly and we didn’t fall off. Once rolling, our movements were clumsy and uncoordinated as we hadn’t yet found a suitable rhythm and I really didn’t expect the hills to be quite so difficult.  Really difficult.  I am not much of a climber as it is but I had gotten into the habit of not looking at the top of any hard climb so as not to become overwhelmed by it.  You can’t do that with a tandem though, it’s much easier for the pair of you if the captain makes some kind of estimate of each hill for a stoker who can’t see it, so they can dole out their efforts accordingly.  Which means looking at the top.  Which means despairing that you might have to stop half way up it and do the walk of shame (and possibly topple sideways as the bike wobbles to a halt).  None of that happened but it was a hard habit to break.  Our first rides were understandably short and slow and the extra effort I was making to muscle the recalcitrant and ill-handling Apollo upright seemed to suck all the fun out of riding it.  Then, something magic happened: as i gradually unlearned my bad habits, the coordination became easier and the bike started to get faster.  Which made it fun.  Lots of fun.

Once we had been riding regularly, some odd comments started to come from acquaintances.  Things like “you’re so generous with your time riding the tandem”.  Which were at odds with what was actually happening.  Tandems are the most fun you can have on a bicycle whoever the stoker is.  The circumstances that lead a stoker to the back seat are irrelevent as long as they keep churning those pedals with determination, even in the face of being told “we are still climbing, and it’s getting steeper, and I can’t see the top”.  What else could you ask for in a riding buddy?

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