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Tandem Cycling: Twice As Fun and a Great Twosome Workout

Posted Jan 14 2012 12:27am

Up until a year ago I was never a cyclist – far from it. Though I do teach a monthly spinning class and own my own spin bike, I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was in college and I rarely rode back then  - or since . But a couple of years ago, much to my surprise and  initial dismay, my significant other whom I had recently met, showed up on one of our first dates on a tandem bicycle and announced that was our transportation to dinner.

Needless to say, riding a tandem bike with a virtual stranger  takes a lot of guts and a lot of trust, but despite my first reaction, I unexpectedly found myself enjoying it. We rode at sunset to a restaurant on the beach and he pointed out the sights along the way. Right away it was apparent to me that tandems attract a lot of attention. Older adults in particular seemed charmed by the sight of us pedaling together.

Since that first ride we’ve “tandemed”  more than a thousand miles together. We’ve done two metric century rides and even rented a tandem bike in Spain when we were there for the Duathlon Wold Championships last September. Over the past year we’ve transitioned  from a leisurely pace (though we still enjoy that at times) to a more competitive one and we’re thinking of training for the US Masters Cycling Championships in the mixed tandem category. We also plan to try a duathlon that offers a tandem category. For those of you who are runners, I highly recommend tandeming with a running partner after a run. It makes a great way to cross-train and emphasizes the opposing muscle groups of those emphasized with running. I also find that it stretches out my running muscles – particularly those of the lower legs.

Now for a little history on tandem cycling. Invented in the late 1800s, bicycles built for two were originally designed for the man to steer from the back so that the woman would have the better view. Nowadays, the larger rider or the “captain” (usually the man in a mixed gender tandem) sits up front and is responsible for steering and controlling the tandem. The “stoker” is the person in the back – usually the female in the duo. I love the name “stoker” because I’m always asked if I’m really working in the back. I always take offense at that because in reality we stokers are the engine of the tandem – so no, we are not slacking off back here!

Tandems are an ideal solution for partners of different riding abilities who want to ride together – which is our situation. While I’m definitely working when I’m riding – I’d never be able to keep up with my expert, world-class cycling partner if we were riding single bikes. Tandems are also great for blind riders or riders with some physical limitations that may keep them from riding a single bike. In fact, we watched a paraduathlon competition in Spain where the blind athletes competed on tandems and it was so inspiring. But tandems can also be a great way to go for 2 strong riders to train.

Today the least-expensive tandem models start around $500 and weigh 50 pounds, while the top-of-the line bikes weigh much less and range from $2,500 to $12,000. Climbing uphill on a tandem is more challenging and slower than a single bike, but you can make up the difference on the downhill when you zoom past the single cyclists.

There isn’t much data on calorie burning and tandem riding. It’s definitely not half the effort of riding a single bike, but like singles cycling the energy expenditure depends on the intensity of the effort, the speed and terrain of the ride, and the weight and gender of the rider. The average of 35 calories per mile (10mph) for single bicycling is probably a good ballpark for tandeming as well.

Tandem cycling can be great for a relationship – but communication is essential. I find it is also helpful for working through relationship problems. For example, you can broach delicate subjects without the initial pressure of eye-to-eye contact. Engaging in physical activity together also provokes conversation  - even if it’s just discussing the events of the day. If you have a chance, borrow or rent a tandem and see for yourselves how much fun you can have on a bicycle built for two.

Be Well,


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