I recently rode the 113-mile El Tour de Tucson bike race on the back of a tandem bike. Let me start by saying tandems suck. A person who shows up to a mass-start race on a tandem bike either has a buddy who is blind, or is too much of a wuss to race on a single bike. In other words, if you’re racing on a tandem and you’re not blind or piloting a blind cyclist you’re a wuss. And if you’re married to the person on the tandem with you you’re a double wuss.
Now that I’ve clarified that I’m a wuss for racing on a tandem, let me get on with my story. I rode on the back. The person on back is known as the “stoker.” I call the back seat, “the bitch seat,” since I thought of myself as the driver’s bitch. No offense to any of you bitches out there. Calling it the “bitch seat” has nothing to do with the fact that you always see a woman on the back of the tandem. It has nothing to do with the fact that in all my years as a cyclist I’ve never seen a woman on the front of a tandem in which a man is on the back.
So I was the stoker. A buddy of mine, pro bike racer Gord Fraser, was the “captain” (guy in the front seat). It was an honor for me to ride on the same bike as one of pro cycling’s best field sprinters. Gord has participated in the Tour de France, and won stages in some of cycling’s biggest stage races, including the Midi Libre and Criterium International.
After spending a grand total of five days as the stoker on a tandem, I’ve come up with a list of reasons why a person would want to ride on the back of a tandem:
1. You enjoy riding, but you don’t really care much for looking at the scenery.
2. You’d rather stare at someone’s butt crack for 5 hours––at really close range––than enjoy the scenery.
3. You enjoy riding but think it would be a whole lot more fun if you didn’t have to steer.
4. Control is not an issue for you. In fact, you love it when you have absolutely zero control.
5. You love the feeling of having a red-hot ice pick twisted into the precise spot where your hammy attaches to your glute.
6. You’ve always wanted to be a Clydesdale, but you don’t weigh enough. Not only does the combined weight of you and your captain qualify you in the Clydesdale division, it also allows you to feel what it’s like to tote and extra 160 lbs. up a hill (it wasn’t that hard.)
The only good thing about riding on back of the tandem, except for the fact that it was incredibly fun––and the sensation of speed on the flats and downhill was awesome––was the fact that I got to ride with Gord. I finally got to experience what it felt like to have a sprint. I finally got to experience what it was like to ride fearlessly through the peleton, albeit with a turd in my cycling shorts. He put that bike in spots that my tri-geek mind never even imagined to be spots. I was so far from thinking the spot we ended up in was a spot, that I didn’t freak out until about ten seconds after we landed in the spot. Let me tell you, because I watched it happen (“it” happened so fast that I didn’t realize I watched “it” until I thought about “it” whilst writing this story), I realized the mind of a sprinter thinks fast.
Sometimes, if I really concentrated and focused on what the tandem was doing, and where it was going, I felt out-of-body. As if I was a helmet-cam attached to the helmet of this crazy person, and I was filming a scene for “America’s Most Crazy Cycling Videos.” I’m convinced that the way he was able to maneuver like that is because Gord is able to anticipate where people are going to steer their bikes, before they actually steer. He’s able to process microscopic body movements of the cyclists around him and evaluate, instantaneously, where each of those people think they want to steer. It’s super-intuition which allows Gord to be in places before the people around him “finally” get around to implementing the steering that they were thinking about but hadn’t done yet. This in turn provokes statements like, “How’d he do that?” or “Where’d he come from?”
All field sprinters must have this capacity. If you’ve watched the finish of a flat stage of the Tour de France, you know what I’m talking about: organized chaos.
The acceleration was amazing, too. Especially when you consider that tandems don’t have great acceleration. Many times he told me we were going to attack, or sprint. He asked me if I was ready, and I told him I was. He said go, and by the time I started to stomp on the pedals, I couldn’t because I was too busy trying to keep from flying off the back. I kid you not. No matter how much I tried to anticipate the acceleration, I was never prepared when it happened. By the time I caught up and was able to pedal, though, the sensation was amazing. We literally flew by people, a rush that was previously foreign to this triathlete. I could see cyclists sprinting for all their might, and we would just pull away like a Ferrari from ’72 Volkswagen Beetle. When it comes to sprinting, I’ve always been the Bug. It was nice to be the Ferrari.
As the stoker, my only job was to shut up and pedal. This was hard for me––the shut up part anyway. Ironically, communication is key to successful tandem riding. The key is not to communicate unless you’re telling the captain you’re about to do something. All extraneous conversation must be curtailed. In other words, I had to stifle myself. I am prone to mindless ramblings. For some reason what seems funny or interesting to me, and occasionally Gord, while riding individual bikes doesn’t seem the slightest bit funny or interesting when we’re riding the tandem. So I made like Edith Bunker.
Because there are two people on one bike, every move I made that was independent of Gord disrupted the steering of the tandem. Take it from me. You don’t want to disrupt the steering of an accomplished pro cyclist. If I blew a snot without telling him beforehand, the whole bike swerved. If I looked behind me without telling him first, the whole bike moved. In fact, now that I think about it, even when I told him these things, the bike moved. For some reason, however, it seemed that as long as he knew the bike was going to move, it was less of an issue. Communication, baby.
The problem I had looking behind me was that I would lose my balance, because I couldn’t anticipate movements of the bike while looking backwards, since I wasn’t steering. I never realized how much being able to steer helped your balance in situations like that. Sometimes Gord would ask me how it looked behind us. When the bike swerved, Gord would ask as politely as he could, what exactly was I doing back there. I would tell him I was looking. It became so hard to look without losing my balance that sometimes he would ask me how it looked and I would just tell him it looked good, even though I didn’t look. And then sometimes I would instinctively look back when he didn’t ask me to. The resulting loss of balance and subsequent swerve would cause issues having to do with the communication thing. When he would ask me what I was doing, I’d tell him, “Nothing.” I know I lied. He knew I lied. But it was the best answer I could think of at the time.
And one other thing: because you’re not able to stand up and pedal whenever you want, your back and hammy-glute area gets real painful. Kind of like if someone was holding a Bic lighter underneath those areas. I was so glad when Gord said we were going to stand up, as this temporarily doused the flame. At one point during the race you have to dismount and run through a riverbed. I’ve never been so happy to run in my life. If I had my choice I would’ve run 26.2 miles instead of climbing back on the tandem. Gord didn’t want any part of the running thing, though. Cyclists don’t run unless they absolutely have to. It’s faster to ride.
We made it to the line intact, despite my countless thoughts to the contrary over the course of 115 miles. I got to experience a side of cycling that I had only previously made fun of (now I’m the butt of my own jokes). I got to experience what it feels like to be a sprinter. I got to experience what it feels like to be an awesome bike handler. I got to experience searing pain in my hammy-glutes for four hours. I suppose I could say I have a new respect for tandem riders. But after all this . . . I really don’t.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Gord and Jimmy won the El Tour, dropping Kent Bostick, Robbie Ventura of US Postal, and Matt Decanio of Saturn––all top level pros. This is because tandems are in fact faster (on fairly flat terrain) than single bikes. While it is not necessary for regular Riccitello readers to have his point deciphered, for the less Riccitello-savvy: You are not a wuss if you ride a tandem, but he feels like a wuss for winning on one.