MG Thursday: The Language of Tandem

Some of you may know that Ed and I ride tandem a LOT together. I mean, a LOT. And it is such a wonderful experience most days. The two of us riding the same bicycle together mile after mile (after mile), coordinating each pedal stroke, getting sweet looks from the passersby (yes, isn’t it so sweet, bleah), and getting comments like “who does the pedaling” or “she’s not pedaling.” You get the idea. What’s not to love about a tandem?

Even though Ed and I may look like we are having the time of our lives, as though every movement and every pedal stroke we take is perfectly synchronized, in reality it’s not always that way. Sometimes I dedicate time to wondering if a small saw would fit in our Carradice bag and what would happen if I starting sawing off the back end. Would it work?  Would Ed notice?

With my mind occupied by saws in the Carradice, my feet tend to slow. It takes energy to think about such things! I’m often unaware of my drifting until something alerts me. These alerts usually come in the form of “Mary, is everything ok back there?” or “Mary, what’s going on back there?” The tandem captain thinks he is being crafty, but I know what he is really saying. He is saying “You back there, you are not pedaling.” How do I know this? Because not only do I speak English, but I am also fluent in the language of tandem, which is absolutely essential for any tandem team that attempts brevets.

Ed and I have been working on our tandem fluency since we began riding together. While on the surface tandem may appear to be a rather rudimentary way of communicating, in fact it is a complex mixture of concern, irritation, caring, and discord.

We learned the language of tandem through the school of Crista Borras and Chuck Wood, which meets every Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. for 100-mile classes. Weekend after weekend we have attended this school, practicing our pedaling and communication.

One of the more critical parts of the language of tandem is communicating how to stand. At first, Ed and I could not find the tandem word for standing. This led to frequent shouts of “Danger!” from the school of Crista and Chuck whenever one or both of us was spied elevating out of the saddle, as it was likely that tandem leaning and weaving was about to ensue. Soon enough, we taught each other the question “ready?” “Ready” is not really a question; it is a rhetorical term that means, “I’m going to stand now, and you’re coming with me.”

We remember the significance of “ready” 90 percent of the time. The other ten percent of the time it is interpreted in multiple ways by one or the other of us, which leads to inopportune leaning or jerking of the bicycle. It should be noted that Chuck and Crista are so fluent in the language of tandem that they never use verbal cues to stand; they simply rise out of the saddle and sit back down in a perfectly synchronized pedal dance. Those two are great tandem professors!

While some parts of the language of tandem are spoken, others are not. “Steering from the back” is one of these nonverbal aspects. When steering from the back of the tandem occurs, this is a message to the captain that perhaps he or she is not going the right way, or in the way the stoker would choose. I’ve noticed that steering from the back is an excellent way to get the tandem captain’s attention. It’s a physical gesture that can have the strength of five sentences or more, and steering from the back is almost never misinterpreted.

When riding single, I have absolute control over my bicycle. If I want to use the brakes on a steep switchback, I am free to do it. If I want to stop and eat a turkey sandwich, I can do that too. On a single, I do what I want to do when I want to do it on my bike. Not so on a tandem. A tandem melds your two riding styles together, and there is a certain degree of loss of control. I feel this is particularly true for the stoker.

Fortunately, another part of the tandem language Ed has learned are the phrases “Gersema-approved” and “not Gersema-approved.” This is another quick way of communicating satisfaction with the movement, steering, or perceived antics of the tandem partner.  And most of the time, Ed’s Gersema-approval ratings are pretty high.

Next time you ride with a tandem team, you might listen in and learn a bit about the language of tandem. See if what I tell you is true, or what other phrases and non-verbal communication you might learn. There’s a lot happening on a tandem. As Ed sometimes likes to say, “It’s a whole different level of effort!” Now what do you think that means?

3 thoughts on “MG Thursday: The Language of Tandem

  1. Another great article, Mary! How do you keep coming up with them? But … nothing about Tandem Team Meetings?

    Anyway, if we’re starting to spin out because I’m either a) too lazy to shift, or b) we’re just about to hit a steep bit that Jan can’t see, I hear: “Don’t like this!!!!”.

  2. Thanks, Nick! A tandem team meeting warrants its own post, I think. Look for it in the near future!

  3. Wow, such an old post! I think you got my attention. My wife and I have been tandeming for over 15 years now. We haven’t taken on the distances you guys are biting off though. I think our longest single day ride has been 77 miles. We just can’t find the time, but, your blog is inspiring us more and more! We have done some pretty good climbs, as we live in Northwest NC. I look forward to more articles and tales of your tandem hitting the road!

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