Monday, August 4, 2008

Tandem-Sucking: A Primer

Sunday I was finally healed up enough from the Rocky Mountain 1200K to join a group ride with my friends at the Harpeth Bicycle Club. This was their infamous "Pancake Ride" - a gentle 25-mile meander out-and-back to Puckett's Grocery in Leiper's Fork for buckwheat pancakes washed down with Gatorade. I rode over to the start in Franklin from my house to stretch the mileage up to Randoboy levels.

The Pancake Ride is so popular because a lot of folks use it for recovery from harder efforts on Saturday. It's a pretty flat route, with one semi-harsh-but-short bump in the middle, and the roads are pretty lightly travelled at that time of day. Some folks do it hard, but if you feel like doing a nice 15-mph spin you will not be alone at the tail of the pack. We had about 40 riders at the start Sunday morning - pretty good considering it was almost 80 degrees then and promised to go over 90 before the day was out.

Any time you get a "fairly flat" route, the odds are good that you'll get at least one tandem. For those that don't know what a tandem is, it's a bicycle built for two ... you know, "Daisy, Daisy" yadda-yadda. Speaking of which, am I the only one nowadays that always thinks of "2001: A Space Oddysey" when I hear that song? I hear HAL singing it, then slowing down, and slowing down, before he dies and the guy in the nehru jacket suit (which we are ALL supposed to be wearing now, according to Stanley Kubrick, plus we should be taking vacations on the moon) explains to us the real meaning of all the stuff that happened earlier in the movie. Except the thing with the monkey-men. He never explains that. Or the creepy space baby at the end.

But, anyhow, a tandem. It's usually two riders - the guy up front is the captain and the person in back is the stoker. Once you start noticing them you will eventually see some built for three and four riders. There are some made for even more riders, but at that point you're approaching clown-car kind of stuff. The bottom line is, however, this: The power-to-weight potential for a tandem is Huge.

"Oh come on," you say. "It's usually a couple of geezers in matching jerseys from some week-long tour. Sure, they're cute, especially with that little bell. But why talk about power-to-weight ratio when it comes to Captain HAL and Stoker Daisy on their big clunky bike with the high-spoke count wheels?"

Yes, you'll say that. Until you're zipping along a flat stretch of the local charity century with the "elite" peloton, thinking that you are Hincapie as you hold a steady 27-mph on this flat stretch into the wind, strung out two-abreast. Then you hear the little bell -- ching-ching ... ching-ching -- as three tandems cruise past, the stoker on the back of each nodding a polite "good morning" to everybody as she tucks behind the captain's back and churns the pedals like Lance. I think Daisy just gave you your answer, true, and that answer is "Buh-bye."

And, yes, normally you'll get to the signature climb of the event and pass those tandems back as they churn up a 10% grade at 6 mph, renewing your self-respect as the hairy-chested (but not hairy-legged) bike stud you know that you are. You smile a little to yourself, and maybe your compadres, but you keep pouring it on all the way up because you know, damned good and well, that gravity works and that if you are not way the hell ahead of those two-headed beasts before they start down the mountain they will boom past you like an overloaded semi with overheated brakes and you will not see them until the next rest stop, where they will be topping off bottles and mounting back up while you queue up for water behind the metric rider who is already wearing the event jersey.

Or, you can be smart and suck that big wheel. "Horrors!" you say, and recoil. Yet, why is that that you are willing to let the local cat 2's sit up front and swap off pulls for you, but you refuse to glom onto the wheel of the tandem train? If you must, you can still zip around them when you get to Mount Ridiculous and pretend to be Pantani as you head for the top. When they pass you later on the way to Brokeback Ridge you can even still grab back on and sit in that huge tandem vortex for the next six miles, recovering for the next attack.

As a sometime tandem captain, I can tell you this: We expect it. We know that there ain't no hole like a tandem hole, and that only a fool or a masochist lets us glide by without grabbing that easy draft in the late morning heat.

So, since Sunday was hot and the Pancake Route is a good tandem route, I was a tandem wheel-sucker. As I was cruising along in the draft, barely having to turn the pedals, I noticed a number of mistakes being made by my fellow "single" riders in the pack. Therefore, I decided that it was time for me to finally write this blog entry to explain to my readers the guidelines for ...

Riding the Tandem Train
  1. Don't get between tandems. If you've got a string of tandems up front, leave them up front. Just like "real" bicycles, they will tap out and fall back and let the next tandem pull. When they do, let them back into the paceline behind the last tandem. Also, if you see one of the tandems let a gap open, don't assume that somebody is cracking. Tandems do not stop like "real" bikes, so we often let small gaps open up while we eat, drink, corner, and so forth. If we really crack, we will usually holler something like "We're off," or "Goodbye, Bill -- We'll see you at the rest stop" before we pull out of the line. Yes, this can make things tough on those behind us as they close the gap, but usually the tandems up front will slow down a bit as they decide what to do ("Robert and Carol are off." "Should we slow down?" "Nah, it's only three miles to the rest stop" "Yeah, I gotta pee. Let's keep going."). Singles wouldn't do this, but would instead put the hammer down and laugh at the poor souls on the wrong end of the gap. Tandems are (usually) less mean.
  2. Don't pull for us. Yes, you probably could give us a bit of a break, but the dynamic of a single versus a tandem is such that it's not worth the trouble - you don't make enough of a hole and your pacing is just off enough to make us less efficient. I know that your Puritan work ethic demands that you give rather than just receive, but this is that rare situation where no payment is required. You can let Daisy cut in line for the port-a-potty at the rest stop if you really want to contribute something.
  3. Get out of our way, particularly on the downhills. Like you, we hate to use our brakes, particularly since we just worked very hard getting up Heart-Attack Hill and need to stretch out our cramping quads. That cute little bell is our nice way of saying, "Fast-mover coming through, Clyde, so get your little carbon fiber toy all the way to the freaking right!" Some of us don't have a bell or a horn, and must instead yell "On your left!" The "putz" at the end is implied.
  4. Don't do dumb stuff in front of us. You can do dumb stuff behind us, since it rarely affects us, but do not start through the intersection and then loop back because you decide to return to the rest stop for one more chocolate-covered Oreo. Tandems, obviously, do not turn like singles. We're bigger, in case you didn't notice. And there is a lot of coordination involved, since we have two riders who are both spinning away. When the captain has to quickly stop spinning and hit the brakes the stoker gets jerked around. And if you do something stupid that makes the tandem fall down, when Daisy gets up she will kick your skinny little a$$.
  5. Don't entertain us. Telling the captain that "she's not pedaling" may have been funny. Once. Probably millenium ago, like when the monkey men were jumping around the black obelisk. And then the joke got told again and the Daisy monkey stoker picked up a big bone and Blammo! You can tell us how cute we are in the matching jersey/helmet/shoes/socks, or how you just love the little bell (so long as you are heeding the above warning of the little bell), but leave the comedy to the professionals.

Follow these rules and you, too, can start doing sub-five hour centuries without redlining the heartrate. Break the rules, though, and you may find HAL and Daisy flicking snot-rockets at you before they ratchet up the pace and drop you on the side of the road in a swirl of dust, with a forlorn "ching ... ching" vanishing into the distance.

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