By Roger S Nelson
I intended this series of articles to be about communicating on a
tandem, hence the title. I mentioned the problems of misunderstanding one
another due to wind noise, the need to let slower bikers ahead know you're
coming, and some of my attempts to cope with wind noise. How do two people
on a tandem communicate. When I first got my tandem I asked a long time
tandem rider what signals he used. He told me that when his wife taps him
on the left bun it means "shift down". If she taps him on the right side
it means, "You're stupid."
The original tandem, a horse and rider, communicate by reins, body signals, and sounds. On a tandem bicycle, reins are generally frowned upon and body signals are not used too much (other than getting slapped up side the head). On the horse and rider combination, the horse (person in the front) generally takes orders from the rider (person in the back). This is because the rider is smarter (in theory) and has a goal and plan. I found out the hard way one summer than the horse usually has his own goals and plans, but I won't get into that, it's sort of embarrassing and involves several horizontally crumpled positions on the ground, unable to breathe, and at least one good shiner.
Back to the tandem. Like a horse and rider, the person in the front is bigger and stronger, since it takes extra strength to direct the weight of two people, pick the course around potholes and bumps, maintain balance, steer around corners, do the braking, and maintain the cadence (keep it in the right gear). So it's only fair that the person in the back do all the pedaling. Captain steers, shifts, and brakes. Stoker pedals. Sometimes during a hard ride I've been seen panting and sweating and people have mistakenly thought that I was actually pedaling. They just have no idea how hard it is to steer sometimes! The only reason my feet are turning is because the captain and stoker pedals are connected so they turn together to keep the stoker from kicking the captain in the heels.
A good stoker, being smarter, besides pedaling, can also navigate, do turn signals, unwrap energy bars for the captain, squirt other riders with a water bottle (if they are fast enough to pass), honk the horn, wave to people on the street, watch for cars coming up from behind, carry on a continuous intelligent conversation (in lieu of a radio), and lean sometimes to help the captain steer. I've had a couple of stokers who were so good at leaning that I almost didn't need to steer, all I had to do was say "Lean" and they could steer me around a corner as slick as, uh, manure. Also, I find it darn near impossible to make a tight U-turn on the tandem without some lean from the stoker.
A really good stoker can also hop on (or off) a tandem while it's still moving. She can also sit on the seat backward, play a guitar, and sing "On the Road Again" all while pedaling me up a steep hill. She would also wash my socks and clean the freewheel in her spare time. She would never even think about tapping me on the right side. Unfortunately, I'm still looking for a really good stoker.