Monthly Archives: September 2013

A Couple’s Guide to Pedaling in Tandem

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice online edition on September 22, 2013.

You’ve probably seen that unhappy couple on the bike path or on the road. They start off together and within seconds, one partner has zoomed ahead while the other struggles to keep up or gets left far behind. It doesn’t have to be that way. On a two-person tandem bicycle, a couple that rides at different speeds on individual bikes can stay together and chat easily for the whole ride.

Riding a tandem requires teamwork, though. The front rider (captain) does all the steering and braking, which means earning and keeping the trust of the rear rider (stoker). For most tandem bikes, the riders must pedal in synch at the same rate, which means compromise. When teamwork fails, the two-wheeled romance of a tandem can turn sour, earning tandems the harsh nickname “divorce machines.” A popular adage goes “Whichever way your relationship is going, a tandem will get you there faster.” How a couple rides a tandem together both reflects and intensifies their relationship, for better or for worse.

My husband and I bought a tandem as a wedding gift to ourselves. Our plan to ride it away from our wedding was far from unique, although our route for the post-wedding procession was a long twisty descent down Mt Hamilton. An epic windstorm kept us from riding that day, but we do take the big beast out from time to time and have mastered the necessary skills: how to start without wobbling, how to turn at slow speeds, how to stand on the bike to get over a rise, and most importantly, how to communicate and work effectively as a team. Well, 97% of the time anyway.

The usual advice on tandem success tells the stoker to “trust the captain” and tells the captain that “the stoker is always right.” To me, that advice falls short. The truth is that it’s all about consideration. The captain has to earn the confidence of the stoker to be an effective leader, and that only happens when the stoker believes his or her requests will be respected by the captain. Both partners need to be willing to follow.

In short, successful tandem teams are successful partnerships, which is what successful marriages are. I’m not an expert on tandems or marriages or even partnerships, but I’ve done 50+ mile rides in both the captain’s and stoker’s seat. I’ve finished every ride on good terms with my partners and learned a few things in the process.

Here are a few things I’ve learned as a captain:

  • Talk, talk, talk about what you’re about to do, especially with a new stoker. “I’m shifting”, “Coasting now,” “Bump ahead,” “Turning left,” “Standing.”
  • Encourage feedback from your stoker. “Is this gear comfortable?” “Was the speed OK on that downhill?”
  • Apologize if you make a mistake or do something your stoker isn’t comfortable with.
  • The turning radius and stopping distance required are much larger than you might expect.

Here are a few things I’ve learned as a stoker:

  • Be patient when the captain does something you don’t like. He or she wasn’t doing it to make you mad.
  • Be gentle when you ask the captain to do something differently. Lighthearted humor goes a long way.
  • Not having to steer gives you freedom to take photos, eat, stretch, etc. Just don’t wiggle too much.
  • For a quick power boost, you can stand and pedal while the captain stays seated. Just don’t rock the bike.

These tips are just a start. There’s a lot more specific advice on riding a tandem out there, but honestly the best way is to hop on, give it a whirl and work out the rough spots on the road. You’ll definitely learn a thing or two about yourself, your partner and your relationship, for better or for worse. And you can always ditch the bike.

By the way, tandems are not just for couples, they’re also a good option for parents and kids. They allow the parent to maintain safe control of the bike and the kid to still be an active participant. They’re great for school drop-off routes that have more challenging roads along the way, and you won’t need to leave a kid’s bike at school. They make three-person triple tandems too. I spotted a father with two empty seats and two child helmets dangling off the handlebars on Middlefield Road one morning during school drop-off time.

How to Get Started

Rent a Tandem. If you and your partner have never ridden a tandem before, it’s a good idea to try it out before making an expensive commitment. If you can’t borrow one from a friend, you can rent a tandem in San Francisco from most of the bike rental companies catering to tourists. Most offer upright “comfort” tandems. Blazing Saddles also offers light-weight road tandems, a triple tandem and one that puts the child in front.

Wherever you rent the bike, walk the bike to a calm, less congested area before you hop on. You’ll probably be wobbly at first and you don’t want to hurt yourselves or terrorize the people around you. You may find it easier to ride in Golden Gate Park during its Sunday road closures than in the busier Fisherman’s Wharf area.

Buy a Tandem. As a specialty item, only a select few bike shops carry tandems. Walt’s Bicycles in Sunnyvale offers both new and used tandems, including a lovely vintage Schwinn tandem. The Bicycle Outfitter in Los Altos sells more performance-oriented tandems, from road race worthy ones to ones designed for child-sized stokers. Both shops will let you test ride their tandems. The Bicycle Outfitter also offers daily rentals of two of their bikes. Finally, there’s a small but steady market for used tandems. After all, not all tandem bicycle partnerships work out.

Have you ever ridden a tandem? If so, what were the biggest challenges? If not, would you consider it?

Tandem Legs

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Adventures in Bay Area Bike Share

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice online edition on September 9, 2013.

It’s been just over a week since the Bay Area Bike Share pilot program opened for service in five cities: San Francisco, San Jose, Redwood City, Palo Alto and Mountain View. So far, 3000 people have bought annual, day or three day memberships to ride the bikes (including me) for a variety of reasons. Last week I chatted with people riding bike share bikes around town and asked them what they thought.

Sunday: On my way to Caltrain I met Brett, who was coming back from a ride on the Stevens Creek Trail to Shoreline Park and back. That’s a longer trip than the 30 minute free ride period so he paid $4 for an extra 30 minutes, but he didn’t mind. “I’m not a biker,” he said, “I’m trying this out to see if I like it before I buy a bike.” He was smiling as he docked his bike and headed for the Farmers Market.

Wednesday: On my way to work I ran into Alex and Dennis as they were undocking bikes at San Jose Diridon station. It was Alex’s third day commuting with bike share and she was thrilled. Before bike share, she took Caltrain from San Francisco, either bringing her bike aboard or taking a shuttle for the last mile to the office. With bike share, she won’t risk getting bumped due to overcrowding on the bike car, and she won’t miss the shuttle if her train is late. Like Alex, Dennis lives in San Francisco. He only works at his company’s San Jose office occasionally. Having a regional system that works in both cities is important to him.

Thursday: On my way home from work I met a man near the VTA Light Rail station who was heading home on a bike share bike. “I’m lucky to have a station near my home,” he said. I didn’t have time to ask him which station before he rode away, but he was headed toward either the bike share station at Rengstorff Park or the San Antonio Caltrain Station.

What about me? Unlike Brett, I already have a bike. Unlike Alex and Dennis, I don’t have a bike share station by my office. And unlike the last guy I met, there’s not a station by my home. So when did I use my annual membership? On a trip to San Francisco last weekend with a couple of friends. We had lunch in North Beach, watched a bicycle race at Levi Strauss Plaza and stopped in at the Ferry Building for a little shopping.

We learned that bike share is a great way to get around San Francisco’s downtown and waterfront, but made a few mistakes that show there’s a slight learning curve to using the system. The instructions on the Bay Area Bike Share web site and on the station kiosks are a good start, but to make your first trips more trouble-free than ours, here are a few things you should know.

Undocking the Bike
With my annual pass, checking out a bike is quick and easy. I pushed my key fob into a slot on the bike’s docking station and pulled back firmly on the handlebars to release the bike. Make sure the bike’s kickstand is up first, though. I banged my shin on the kickstand the first time.

A day pass requires using the kiosk at the station, inserting a credit card, giving them your mobile phone number, and going through a lot menus on the screen. In the end they give you a 5-digit code that you punch on the left side of the bike’s dock. For trips later that day, you’ll need to go back to the kiosk and insert your credit card to get a new 5-digit code. My friend Deanna had a few frustrating minutes trying to reuse her original code before realizing she needed to go back to the kiosk to get a new one. At least there are fewer menus to click through on the second trip, though.

Watch the Clock
The thirty minute no-extra-charge period goes by quicker than you think, so don’t play tourist and stop for photos too much along the way. To maximize time, plan your route and where you’ll dock your bike near your destination before you punch in your code or push in your key fob. You may want to adjust the seat height, put your bag in front holder, and put your helmet on before you undock the bike. And don’t forget to note your start time.

Docking the Bike
Docking the bike at a station near your destination sounds simple–you just push the bike into an available dock–but it’s easy to do it wrong. The trick is to line the bike up straight before pushing it in, hold both handlebars and push it in hard. You’ll know you’ve done it right if the dock’s green light turns on. To be sure it’s docked, you can also tug back on the bike to see if it releases. That’s the only way we could tell for sure at a few docks that were facing into the bright sun’s glare.

Dock Surfing
If you realize you may run over the 30 minute time limit, or know you’ll need more than that to get to your destination, try dock surfing. Dock surfing is simply swapping out bikes at an intermediate station along your route. If you’re a nervous Nellie like me and don’t want the stress of rushing, plan for an intermediate stop. With an annual pass, it’s pretty fast to grab a new bike.

Bike Malfunctions
One of the bikes my friend Michelle undocked was stuck in the lowest gear and wouldn’t shift. We returned it to the nearest station, pushed the repair button on the dock, and turned the seat around backwards. So if you see a bike with the seat turned 180 degrees backward, don’t try to undock it.

Download the App
Download the Cycle Finder app on your smart phone before your first trip. It shows station locations and number of available bikes and open docks in real time. It’s pretty basic but useful. If it only integrated recommended bike routes it out be outstanding. I kept finding myself flipping from map to map to navigate to the station in North Beach that was closest to our restaurant.

Security and Theft Prevention
Once you undock a bike you are responsible for the bike until it’s docked again. So don’t leave the bike unattended or locked anywhere other than an official station, and make sure it’s docked correctly. Also, with single and three day passes, don’t let anyone see or hear your code number. If you are slow to type it in and undock a bike someone could use it before you. The same is true of an annual members key fob. Guard it carefully and report it immediately if lost or stolen.

Have you tried the Bay Area Bike Share yet? If so, where did you go? Do you have any advice for other users? If not, where can you see yourself using it?

RESOURCES
Bay Area Bike Share web site: https://bayareabikeshare.com/
Bike Fun Photos from San Francisco http://bit.ly/13ym1bX

Deanna Bay Bridge Wide

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