by | Feb 1, 2008 | Features

Story by Robert Virden

For the past 25 years my “other vehicle” has been a bicycle. It has been my tool to develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle and to enjoy the natural beauty of the River Valley and Northwest Arkansas — a philosophy also conveyed to my wife, Jo Anne.
Our household always had at least three bicycles: my road bike, which was light weight and built for longer distances on pavement; my mountain bike, which I liked to ride in cooler weather on logging trails in the Ozark National Forest, and a kind of hybrid or comfort bike for my wife.
Now my wife doesn’t take cycling as serious or to the level that I do. While I would be riding three to four times a week like I was training for the next Tour de France, her idea of a bike ride was a little more on the recreational side. She would prefer a short leisurely ride around town, which certainly would not put you at the level with Greg LeMond or Lance Armstrong.
This created a dilemma-of-sorts for me. Each time we would go out and ride together, I would use my mountain bike — which would pull double duty as a city bike — and she would ride along on her comfort bike. Since her strength and endurance were not on the par with mine, I would find myself struggling not to run off and leave her during the entire ride. She enjoyed the rides, it was fun and a work out for her, and I was glad to do it.
A few years back, I was out with a group from Clarksville for our typical Saturday morning ride. In passing, I related my dilemma to the group. One of the members of the group happened to be recently divorced. He invited me to use a tandem bicycle which he was no longer using. I took him up on the offer and my family riding experience has never been the same.
What was so beautiful about the initial tandem experience was that I began to realize that the two riders could have a completely diverse strength and fitness level but still have fun and receive an outstanding workout.

My wife soon realized the physical differences between riding a single bicycle and a tandem are minor, but quickly learned that the emotional differences involve TOTAL submission. As the rear rider or stoker, she was under complete control of the front rider or captain. Deciding when to start pedaling, when to stop pedaling, how fast to pedal, what course to take, and when to brake are all actions subject to the discretion of the captain.
Placing two riders on the same machine implores a sense of team work from the time you prepare to shove off until you are ready to stop and dismount. Close and frequent communication between the captain and the stoker is a must.
Lack of such communication can become a source of conflict. It was easy to see that riding a bicycle built for two would require some additional techniques, skills, and insight for safe handling. Fortunately the internet provided an excellent source of information on tandem bicycle selection, riding techniques and maintenance guidelines.
Jo Anne and I enjoyed the experience so much that we decided to invest in our own tandem bike. We chose to purchase a mountain frame tandem with 26-inch wheels, as opposed to a road type tandem which typically has 27-inch, or the metric- equivalent wheels which use harder, thinner tires. This would give us the option to place a slick road-type tire on the rims for pavement. It also provided the option to mount wider tires, with a minimal aggressive tread, for riding off road on hard-pack sand or gravel.
As our total ride time increased, we soon became comfortable with each of the roles we needed to play as a member of the team.
My role as captain is to assist the stoker in mounting and dismounting, steer the bicycle, assess the terrain, shift gears, and obviously to supply force to the front pedals to power the bicycle.
My wife, as the rear rider or stoker, adds her force to the rear pedals in unison with the captain. She, in turn, supplies her portion of the power to the bicycle. Also as captain, since the stoker has limited forward vision, I’m obligated to inform the stoker of any approaching rough terrain and to communicate any sharp changes in pedal cadence.

Ideally, for maximum performance, you would like your stoker to contribute maximum effort, but this is not always the case especially when your stoker is your wife. More times than not, it’s just too easy to relax and enjoy the scenery and let the captain do the majority of the work. So usually my expectations are to just let her relax and only demand additional effort when we are in the process of climbing a hill. Any additional effort on the flat sections can be considered more or less just gravy.
Little did my wife know that when she agreed to the purchase of a tandem, it would not sit in storage, only to be brought out a couple times a year for a short spin around the neighborhood as she perceived. Now she uses our tandem biking several times a week, plus her daily recreational walking, to address health issues that required frequent and regular exercise to help keep under control.

Probably the greatest advantage we’ve found to riding a tandem is the constant companionship of having your partner always with you, together sharing conversation and the sights of the road. Multiple vacations have been spent with the tandem loaded in our truck or van. We’ve traveled along the KATY Trail in Missouri, spending nights in one of the many romantic bed and breakfasts along the way.
We’ve taken part in numerous organized bicycle events throughout Arkansas and have raised over $600 for the American Diabetes Association while taking part in the Northwest Arkansas Tour de Cure. We’ve even traveled to Florida and toured Highlands County during the annual Sebring Tandem Rally. There are many scenic vacation opportunities or organized rides just waiting to be experienced from a tandem bicycle.
Now OUR “other vehicle” has become a tandem bicycle.


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