Tuesday, August 23, 2011


What led me to make that fateful decision, to utter those words, I do not know. Caught up in the moment, infatuated with the intrigue, and a momentary loss of sensibility, I said it. "Oooo, Chris, can we ride the tandem together?!" The deed had been done, there was no taking the statement back. Without a second thought, Chris replied, "Sure, if that's what you want to do."

Did I really want to ride a tandem? Me? Control freak extraordinaire! Too embarrassed to go back on my word, I numbly agreed to whatever bike adjustments Chris suggested in preparation for our virgin voyage. Stepping out into the crisp cool night air, I let out an audible sigh. What in the world have I done? Guess I will find out tomorrow.

Our scheduled ride was the Col du Sanetsch and Col du Pillon, starting from Sion and ending in Aigle. Without the usual rider's meeting to clue me in on statistics, road surface conditions, and what happens after the inevitable gallery, we were blind sheep following our master. I was literally attached to the leader and would follow wherever however he led.

Kate had recently been baptised in the tandem pool and offered up crucial advice. Sit on the back like a sack of potatoes and don't do anything. Don't lean, don't move around, just sit there. Hmmm, don't do anything? This is going to be much harder than I anticipated.

Chris and his wife, Heather, make a superb tandem team. I have ridden quite a few epic routes along side them and seen first hand the power and speed this dynamic duo can dish out. The two of them made it look effortless, but that's how it works with a good athlete. They make the difficult and challenging look like the most natural thing in the world. Chris can climb anything whether he's on a tandem or a 50 lb clunker. Secretly I wanted to tap into that power band and figured being his stoker would be my only chance.

Our group consisted of me and Chris, of course, and 2 others; Kate and Warren. One small thing of note, this was Warren's first encounter with a road bike and first ever mountain pass and he was my ward. Instead of me riding alongside to show him the ropes and hand out helpful tidbits, I would be dealing with my own first time of learning to ride a tandem. How could I have been so stupid not to think of this before I opened my big mouth? Here I was supposed to be watching out after him making sure he didn't get a scratch, and now I'd be rendered helpless to take care of him whatsoever.

I begged Kate to keep an eye on him for me. Tell him what to do! As a seasoned cyclist, it's so easy to forget the simple things that must be learned. Somebody has gotta tell him how to draft, hold your line, how to shift, how to spin, how to pace, remember to drink, take in the calories......all the basics we take for granted. In retrospect, it was a godsend for both our sakes that I was no longer the Chaperon. I worry obsessively when Warren gets on a bike and would have driven him mad with incessant chatter, commands, and advice to follow. No, this was the best thing that could have happened to us both.

I have the utmost respect for tandem riders and realize it's not an easy feat. However, until you walk in someone else's shoes, or, in this case, ride, you cannot fully appreciate or comprehend exactly what they must endure. This was my moment to taste a slice of humble pie and learn first hand what it takes.

A tandem has 2 riders, obviously, though Chris has been known to ride the tandem solo. The cyclist in the front position is referred to as the Captain with the rider in back called the Stoker. To be the Captain requires far more coordination and wits than I could ever muster, and honestly I was more than happy to relinquish control and be a quiet, submissive, obedient Stoker. Just as you don't need 2 cooks in the kitchen, you really can't have 2 Captains on one bike. It just doesn't work that way.

I would never jump on a tandem with just anybody. Chris is one of the few persons I feel completely secure in placing all my trust, and that's what you have to do. You have to trust your Captain 101% or it's going to be a long ugly ride. Early the next morning I clipped in to the pretty red steed and yielded all power and control to my Captain. Let the adventure begin.

Five minutes later I was ready to abort the entire mission. Trust or no trust, I was scared out of my mind. Where was the eject button?! Agh! This seat had no controls. There was no eject button!

Our ride had not officially started, we were simply riding down to the rail station to catch the train to get to the ride start in Sion. However, that 10 minute dash was a horrific eye opening experience that had me questioning whether I would survive the day. Chris knew this route like the back of his hand. Seconds counted as we had barely a minute to spare to catch our train. He whizzed along with the traffic through the twists and turns trying to make the green lights all with complete control, but to me it seemed like a chaotic suicidal end to my otherwise blissful life.

My heart was pounding out of my chest and I wanted to scream at every lean of the bike. Our speed was that of a bullet train, or so it felt, and my head started spinning as my brain synapses overloaded sending out conflicting urgent messages. "You're going to die, don't move, don't do anything, scream, make him stop, slow down, be still, don't move a muscle, dear lawd I want to get off, make it stop!" Any minute now I was going to hyperventilate, but I knew I couldn't afford to do so lest it disrupt my Captain.

Then the real panic set in; Oh, dear gawd, what about Warren!!!! Was he even with us?! Had he been able to stay on our wheel and avoid getting hit. I couldn't dare turn around to check. I muttered a desperate prayer, "dear God please take care of him! Let us get to the station in one piece!"

Barely making it to the station in time, there was no time to catch my breath. I asked hysterically, "Is Warren with us?" Yes, he was. Quickly we had to dismount, but wait, there's a certain procedure for that. I couldn't remember what to do. Chris calmly but firmly stated my instructions. Wait for him to unclip first and give the signal, okay, now I can move. I couldn't move, I was frozen with fear. Adrenaline rushing through my body, I came to my senses and got off the bike. We muscled our way through the crowd of people with Chris carrying the load. I was in a stupor and followed him. Buy the tickets, agh, we had to buy a ticket for Warren's bike. With my hands shaking I pushed the buttons on the machine, grabbed the tickets and ran toward the platform.

Chris had to disassemble the bike in order to get in on the train. Calm cool and collected, he could do the procedure in his sleep. Wrench out to unscrew the couplings, unhook the cables, you hold the front, he's got the back. Now, get on the train and find a hook for whatever piece of the pie you have. Easy as one two three, yea, right, he makes it look easy. If it was left to me, we'd still be there on the platform trying to sort it all out. I'm so happy he's the Captain.

I collapse in a seat and try to collect myself! Holy cow! This was nothing at all like I thought it would be. Not at all. Just breathe. I had at least 40 minutes to get myself together and have a little pep talk. You can do this. You can trust Chris, he's not going to kill us. At least we start out with a 3 hr climb. Surely the climbs won't be as terrifying as the downhill. Surely.

There were so many little things I didn't think of that had to be considered. For instance, you don't just coast whenever you please. You don't stand up or re-position your bored bum on a whim. You cannot slow down when you want, even when you want to take a picture. Uh oh. That's my usual MO for snagging all my photos on a ride. The downhills usually have the best panorama, so I get to the back of the pack, slow down, snap away, then catch back up to the group. Not going to be any of that today. I also coast when I take a picture; helps eliminate blur. Won't be taking as many pics as I thought I would. Here I thought being a stoker meant I could snap away all day long without a care in the world. Think again.

Riding a tandem is about communication. I had to listen for any commands he gave. I had to be alert and know when he was going to coast or need to shift. If he took a drink of water, I had to be on my post and not be taking pictures, otherwise, there would be no one steering our ship. Being a stoker is not the absent minded law-de-daw position people make it out to be! This requires a good bit of teamwork and cooperation.

Lucky for me the route sets out from Sion with a climb straight off. Without the breakneck speed of a downhill, I was calmer and able to process my new position sanely. Still worried about Warren, I constantly glanced back to catch a glimpse of him. I could hear Kate giving him sound advice and pointers. I hated not being able to ride with him and hoped against hope that he would survive the day. This was a brutal route for a beginner rider, let alone, a first timer. He was young, at least he had that going for him. Ignorance can be bliss, and the less he knew what he was up against then the better his odds were for survival.

My hand position on the bars was strategically placed right up against the back of Chris's saddle. The slightest move or re-positioning of my hands inevitably meant a bop on his bum. It occurred to me that as a Captain, he is probably quite used to this happening. After about the 20th time of inadvertently hitting him on the rear I said, "Chris, I'm not going to apologize for every time I hit you on the butt. I'm sure you know that's part of the territory of being a Captain and I'm not trying to get all fresh with you." He agreed to my logic and we had an understanding as long as there was no pinching involved. He draws the line with pinching. I had no intentions to engage in frivolous behavior as a Stoker and we carried on as I tried to be more svelte in my hand maneuvers.

A decade of cycling in the West Oak Crit taught me how to be a smooth rider. Focusing on my pedal stroke, I worked on a consistent smooth cadence. Things began to settle in place and I came to terms with my new found position. Chris did all the decision making, I just followed behind like a baby duckling. On the switchbacks he explained the different techniques in taking the corner depending on the characteristic of the turn. It's sort of like the ole "wide load" coming through. It takes a slightly different finesse to whirl around a 180 degree bend on a double wide.

Chris complimented me on my cadence, "you don't have any dead spots, it's very nice and smooth." I beamed inside like a little girl who had just received the coveted gold star from her favorite teacher. Perhaps that would make up for my lack of downhilling abilities. I felt bad knowing Chris would hold back for my sake when we descended, but at least I passed the test climbing. I was very happy indeed.

Too busy concentrating on being a good Stoker, I completely forgot to pay attention to the climb. Was it long, hard, steep, easy, boring, short, I don't know. There could have been elephants on the side doing a dance and I would not have noticed. I just wanted to be a good stoker and put all my energies into being still and pedaling smooth.

"Calm, smooth, forward." These are the words I used to recount to Alexis when she first started racing mountain bikes. I would sneak in on the course and ride behind her saying the words over and over. Now here I was reciting them over in my mind to myself. It worked.

Kate is an instigator and a mischievous girl. She rode beside us in an effort to get us to up the pace. We fell for it and dropped the hammer on her. Chris and I made a strong duo and she could not match our power output. Kate laughed in delight, "ha, I made you do an interval!" That's fine, Kate, we will do intervals all the way if you want because we will dominate this climb! She knew our threat was real and she was no match for our power, but she still relished in making our heart rates sore. Cheeky monkey she is.

I liked being a part of something bigger than myself. Combining our efforts negated my weaknesses and boosted my strength. This could be addictive. It started to drizzle, but we forged ahead. It was a long climb and there was promise of better weather on the other side. We just had to get to the other side.

Warren had figured out quickly that to try and match our pace was suicidal. You have to find your rhythm and settle in. He was doing extremely well and exceeded any expectations I had. Every so often we would stop and regroup, but we never had to wait long at all for him. He was always within sight and I was radiant with pride over my little charge. The rain and cooler temperature added another degree of difficulty for him, and I could only hope that it would ultimately be a day of memorable epic proportions.

I have enough experience now in the mountains to know the passes can play tricks on you and mess with your mind. You think surely you are near the top, when in reality the halfway point is barely in reach. With the rain coming down harder, we stopped to put on rain gear or any article of clothing available to keep us somewhat dry and warm. Our tandem was the Sherpa of the ride with a pannier and various other bags holding every one's gear. I looked at the extra weight as a training tool. Chris is a very smart Captain. Weight means nothing to him on a bike because he can pretty much propel anything up a mountain with ease. He had so cleverly installed a fender on the back which was keeping my bum perfectly dry. Warren and Kate were not so fortunate. Neither did they have the luxury of a human wind/rain shield as I had. Yes, today I was digging being a Stoker.

After loads of switchbacks and tunnels we reached that stage of the never ending eternal stretch of climbing. "Will this climb ever end?" Well over 2 hours of climbing, the top has to be just around the bend. A black sky loomed around every turn. The hard rain had stopped, but there was no hope ahead of blue skies. I felt for Warren. This was the hardest bit mentally. You're cold, tired, wet and ready to get off the bike, but you have to keep pedaling. The Auntie in me wanted to coddle the little pumkin' 4 year old I remember, but the Stoker had to be concerned with herself. No time to be all soft and mushy. I was not alone battling a mental fight of perseverance like Warren. I had a Captain right there with me. I fed off his energy knowing he couldn't drop me and leave me to flounder on my own. We were a team and in this together, literally.

Being 'attached' to someone was so empowering! If I'd been on my own bike I'd be on the verge of falling apart, forcing myself to turn the pedals, screaming out into the air at no one every time I turned a corner only to see the road stretch further ahead. Instead I felt a comfort, a calm strength knowing we were doing this together. Just a week earlier I had been in that horrible place of climbing into oblivion wondering if it would ever end. We climbed the Fl├╝elapass, it was cold, windy, and overcast. Our legs were tired from climbing the Albula and the top of this pass just refused to appear. I did shout out to the skies, "are you kidding me? is this climb going to end?" It's a lonely feeling. There were no tandems that day. We were each lost in our own private world of torture, climbing alone, just trying to make it to the top.

I wondered what Chris was feeling, up front, taking the wind, making the decisions, steering our ship. Was it harder? Did he gather any communal strength or willpower from my presence? I did not envy his position. He asked if I wanted to know what the temperature was. "No, not really. You can tell me when we get through." He said he thought this was the last corner, then it will be the last stretch. But his mind was playing tricks too. It wasn't the last corner. After a few more times of pulling that stunt I told him to stop. We'll know we're there when we get there. Just stop it!

I was quite pleased when we made it to the top, but my pleasure was short lived. I realized it meant we would now be descending. I did not want to descend. I don't like this part. Focusing as hard as I could on the back of his helmet, I dared not think about anything, especially how fast we may be going. Like a woman in labor, I concentrated on breathing, stay relaxed, it's no big deal. You can do this. See, we haven't crashed! Slowly I grew more comfortable with the movement of the big ole lumbering tandem as it carved the turns and leaned in the corners.

The road took us through breathtaking scenery. I could contain myself no longer. Gingerly retrieving my camera from my back jersey pocket, I took a video as we gracefully glided down past a crystal blue lake framed with mountain peaks all around. Stunning! Then the grade got a bit steeper and I quickly stashed the camera away to brace myself for more speed. Chris took a right turn on a little path and all I could see ahead was a gravel road leading upward. Calmly he told me to maintain my position, he was going to shift down, just keep pedaling. Oh my, we're going off road on a climb, how is this possible? If Chris thinks we can do it, then I guess we can. With an adrenaline rush I put into practice my best calm, smooth, forward imitation possible. Next thing I know we had danced our way over the top of the gravel and pulled up to the restaurant. Wow! That was exhilarating!

We thawed out in the restaurant, spreading out our wet clothes between 2 fireplaces and drinking the best hot chocolate ever. The Chef explained with great pride his Fendant soup that was his speciality and we each ordered a bowl. With tummies full and bodies sufficiently warmed, we headed for the gondola.

Yea! No more descent for us! I scored big time! The small gondola held us and 4 others while our bikes hung securely from hooks on the back. Chris quickly took the tandem apart and it hung in pieces as we enjoyed stunning views of blue skies down towards Gsteig.

A nice ride along the valley and then too soon we started our 2nd climb, the Col du Pillon. This was nothing compared to what we had just done, but to Warren it was a climb nonetheless. He was spent. Chris and I motored ahead. We knew how to work together in sync and climbing was almost effortless with our combined strength. Warren found his pace and turned over the pedals. I could not have been prouder to see him come over the crest less than 10 minutes later.

There was a cable car at the top of this climb, but it was not for the descent. Unfortunately I would have to suck it up and endure this downhill. I told Chris not to go crazy. By now I knew the routine of how to get on and get started. As if I had been doing this all my life, I clipped in, my Captain clipped in and off we went. Finding a focus point I locked myself in place and didn't move a muscle.

This descent had some good long stretches with great visibility so Chris let 'er rip. When we dove into the turns I was sure my stare would bore a hole through his helmet. I refused to let fear get the better of me. Telling myself over and over that Chris knows what he's doing, I began to enjoy the ride. We might as well been going 100 mph. I felt as though we would take off for flight at any moment.

A series of nice switchbacks came up and Chris practically squealed with delight. "This is a nice one you can take real fast," he said. Okay, if you say so. It was a cool feeling, to be going so fast but knowing you have nothing to do with it, no control whatsoever over the speed. At the bottom of the descent we stopped to take stock of the rest of our crew. They were no where in sight. We dropped 'em like there was no tomorrow. You gotta go fast if you want to hang on to the momentum of a tandem on a wicked downhill. We killed it! What a thrill!

What started as a bicycle built for terror, turned into a thrilling rush! Not only had I learned how to ride a tandem, but Warren had completed the most epic challenging ride of his life. I was a proud Stoker with a fantastic Captain. What an experience, learning to trust, to feed off each others strength, to just be and let someone guide me. This control freak could get used to passing over the controls. I was Stoked for sure. Wonder what it's like on a dirt trail? I mean, how hard could it be?! ;-)

1 comment:

O. said...

Oh, how I missed your blog posts! This one definitely makes up for it. I imagine that "giving up control" has to be one of the hardest things to do on a bike. You are a pro. Thanks so much for sharing this adventure.