To sit on the back of a tandem bike, to be the “stoker”, is a strange and sometimes scary feeling. The first time I did it a few weeks ago, I thought, “Oh no. This is not for me…No steering, no brakes? An obstructed view of the road?” And the trail felt somewhat alien and turns extra sharp. A weird sensation, but as my body got used to the motion and my mind adjusted to the fact that I had little control over the vehicle that was moving me through space and time, I grew to enjoy the feelings of strangeness and fear. There is something liberating to turning yourself over to another and to rely simply on the push and drive of your legs, without the added distraction of the thinking about the course, the next turn, the zigs and zags of a bike route. I found myself able to relax into the back seat, close my eyes, and just revel in the feel of wind on my face, the sound of tires on road and the steady rhythm of my legs as they worked the pedals.
Being a stoker got me thinking about trust. To be in the more vulnerable back position on the tandem requires that you trust, completely, the person in front. He is responsible for shifting gears, gauging pace, communicating changes and, most importantly, watching the road for two. Giving up control is a terribly hard thing to do but on the back of a tandem you have to relinquish it and trust. Easy to say but far harder to do, especially when the bike is gathering momentum and speed down a hill. All the stoker can see is the back of the man in front and the road rushing under the wheels. It reminded me of the lurching terror I experience on a roller coaster. I know I have chosen to get on the ride and that ultimately I will enjoy it, but for a few moments, as my body is hurtling unchecked through space, I feel my stomach churn and say to myself, “What the hell was I thinking getting on this ride?”
So yesterday was my first metric century and we did it on a tandem. We pedaled through the lush green landscapes of Pennsylvania farmland and past through several covered bridges, the wooden planks making a satisfying creek as we rolled over them. We pushed past countless herds of cows, sleepily grazing and swaying under trees. There were sheep and horses and acres of wild flowers and row upon row of corn. Occasionally, I spotted a farm dog sitting in his front yard, yawning as we spun past. Along the path we yielded to Amish buggies full of parishioners going to services, the clip-clop of their horses filling the morning air. Mennonites joined us briefly on the road, cycling too, girls in colorful dresses, bonnets on, and small boys in pants and suspenders wearing stove-pipe hats. The farms rolled past and many porches housed Amish families watching us roll by, the day’s entertainment. We waved and smiled. They waved in return.
The roads were long and undulating, the hills few and far between, just enough to get the blood moving in the veins and wake up the tired legs. “Push. More,” the hills urged us to move along the rural roads. I fell into the rhythm of the ride, watching Walt’s back move in front of me, studying the asphalt that crunched beneath our tires. While the stoker must give up control, she has the added bonus of being able to either look much more closely at the landscape or go inward, closing eyes and feeling the experience through the body. Each choice brings a different feeling of peace, joy, exhilaration and motivation.
Our bike traversed the 60 miles in about 4 hours, the only imperfection to the day being a light rain that insisted upon falling, covering the road in a patina of slick moisture. My water-resistant jacket clung to my body and goosebumps rose on my arms and legs. As we ticked off the miles, my body grew heavier, my lungs working a bit harder to pull in air and my legs, from the calves up to my gluts, burned with a warm, solid ache. A good ache. The kind of ache that tells you you have done something and that your body is happily tired.
I heard a volunteer directing traffic call out, “Only 2 more miles to the finish.” I got a third wind and tried to pick up my pace. At the finish line we peeled our wet bodies off the bike and shook out our rubbery legs. I was contentedly tired and proud that I had done the full 60, even though I knew it was mainly Walt’s energy that propelled us. We wandered the end-of-race party, collecting snacks and treats to refuel and then drove back in the grey drizzle. We talked about the pleasures of a long hot shower and looked forward to a Sunday afternoon spent lazily on the sofa, in tandem, but side by side.