This story originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
We were squashed in a sea of over 500 bicycles, staged near the back of the pack. It was the third day of a mountain bike stage race in Breckenridge. Sam had captained the first two days, and in keeping with the way we have always ridden the tandem, we switched places. Today I was up front. It’s easier for me to stoke, especially in competition, even when it’s just the two of us (although this experience is shifting with time). I know my job and I do it well: tuck in, watch Sam’s muscles quiver, his back, his hips, his shoulders. Over the years, there’s been less need for talking. I can see his elbow move out and know we are about to shift gears. I wait to see the muscles in his legs let up, we pause and shift, and his muscles fire and my muscles fire. I try to match his every move — ease up when he eases up, give power when he gives power, lean, coast, ratchet. It’s an incredible dance! We fly despite occasional crashes.
But I wasn’t stoking today. And while stoking is easier and more comfortable, it’s not where I grow, where I debunk false stories, where I see how alive my self-critic is or how centered and trusting and confident I am. It’s not where I see that sometimes the stories my mind tells aren’t true, and that my husband does trust me, as implicitly as I trust him. He stays back there when we are on tight, steeply exposed singletrack, the mountainside falling away hundreds of feet below us. Yes, he too has to breathe, he has to practice trust, but he does, and his words of encouragement are as constant as my cues. He loves me through the battles I have with myself, with the conditioning I’ve inherited. And each time I captain, some of this conditioning is dismantled. It crumbles away never to come back.
It would only be a couple of minutes before the flag lifted and this mob of bicycles started moving up the road, toward the mountains, toward the trails. Despite knowing that my best is enough and we were doing this for us, I still felt nervousness in my belly. We stood out on the tandem, now even more because I was in front. We started near the back because of the way our minds make assumptions. Because without even knowing it, that’s what our fellow cyclists were doing — some assuming that we would be slower, that we would get in the way. Some assuming that we would be faster (maybe), some assuming that it’s crazy, that it’s harder. Somehow I felt the weight of all these assumptions landing on me, and I wanted to disappear into the stoker seat.
I closed my eyes. I took a few slow, deep breaths. I smelled the deliciousness of the crisp mountain air and remembered why we’re here, why we’re doing this — to be great teammates, to bring encouragement and smiles and support to other riders, to spend several hours in the beauty of the Colorado high country, to expand what is possible, and to ride with grace.
We moved forward like salmon swimming upstream out of a pinch point in a river. I was awed at how natural it felt now that we were in it. Of course, I too knew how to find our place, to pass other cyclists on the singletrack, to shift gears and hold an even pace in a line of riders. Other than the smooth, even power, I could hardly feel Sam on the back of the bike. The stories and fears dissolved; there was no space for them now as every ounce of my attention was consumed by the task at hand.
The singletrack was really narrow and the mountainside steep. Sam’s words of encouragement kept pace with the cues I sent back.
You got it!
Holy s*#t — great line!
Okay, we got this!
And we do!
I burst into tears of joy, of fatigue, of gratitude, of feeling loved and supported when we crossed the finish line that day — five hours of being teammates I won’t ever regret.
“What are you doing back there?” Sam asked, mostly in curiosity, as we pedaled down a lonely gravel road, resting in the floor of an abundantly green mountain valley — mist moving in and out of the furry peaks rising above and holding us in.
“I was scratching my nose and then grabbing some water,” I said.
Thus began the learning. When stoking (this is especially important on singletrack), your every move reverberates up to the front of the bike, threatening to change its course. Scratching your nose, grabbing a water bottle, putting on sunscreen, looking over your shoulder, peering over the captain’s shoulder, unintentionally weighting your handlebars, leaning out of sync with the captain, sitting up, and on and on. We have learned over the years, through trial and error, the subtlety of this dance.
To ride tandem and enjoy it does not require a meticulous level of attentiveness, especially on a paved, open road. At times, the stoker is doing all sorts of things: looking at the map, making snacks, taking photos, applying sunscreen, stuffing away layers, etc. However, the magical feeling of being completely in sync — on a climb, on curvy singletrack through tight trees, while accelerating out of a corner — is beyond words. “Glorious” certainly doesn’t do it justice. We are over 330 pounds of moving weight, which, when not in sync, is awkward and sluggish, to say the least. Yet, when we are in sync, the experience provides a nimble sense of lightness with unfathomable power.
All I could hear was the stillness that accompanies night, our breathing, and the gentle whoosh of gravel being metabolized beneath our tires. It was too dark to make out the subtleties of Sam’s form, despite the fact that his back was mere inches from my face. The steady grade of the old fire road was perfect! The drivetrain was resting in “number eight,” and we were standing, the bike rhythmically swaying from side to side, mirroring the rhythm of our breathing. As we leaned into the pedals, the loaded bike felt light, as if it was moving us up the mountain pass and not the other way around. I didn’t need to see Sam’s back moving, his shoulders swaying. It had become so familiar, I simply fell back into feeling, into trust. Sam kept the sway of the bike even, regular, and while giving power, I effortlessly matched the sway. We floated, in the darkness, to the top of the pass.
An earlier, less aware, less trained, less compassionate version of my mind would tell a different story. But the reality was that the road was made up of golf-ball– to softball-sized rocks and had many steep, punchy climbs. Regardless of who was in front, it wouldn’t be easy or graceful. So we hopped on and then quickly found ourselves hopping off again. We pushed for a while, and then we tried riding again. It was gorgeous. We were in the bottom of a gorged canyon. The walls were steep and rocky, yet somehow still covered in lush jungle vegetation.
While captaining years ago, Sam brought to my attention that the impact of being hard on myself expanded beyond my own bubble of experience. When I missed a line, or our wheels spun, leaving us no choice other than to hop off the tandem, the harsh tone and words spoken under my breath affected Sam. It made it hard for him to know how to support me and how to connect when this harsh voice seemed to dominate my experience. While this observation has nothing to do with the technicalities of riding a tandem, it has changed my life and my relationship with myself and my husband.
Now, when I miss a line, I say, “Whoopsidaisies.” And sometimes that’s followed by an eager, “Let’s try that again.” My internal monologue has changed from “Ahh! Come on, Katie!” to “Dang! Nice try, you almost had that!” When I expand this out beyond tandem riding, it is truly transformative.
We were leaving Ngawal, Nepal, a small village perched over a thousand feet above the valley floor, and heading toward Manang. I was captaining when we encountered some of the most exposed singletrack we had ever ridden. We were above 10,000 feet and the landscape was arid, the air thin. The trail cut into a steep, rocky mountainside, which descended unimpeded by any vegetation to the valley below. An earlier version of myself might have thrown in the towel before even trying. But, right now, I was present. I was aware of my riding ability. I could tell Sam was nervous, and instead of taking his nervousness personally or as fuel for a critical story, I simply allowed him his experience. This allowed me to tend fully to my job. While the exposure was high, the trail was in excellent condition, most of the time. My breathing was relaxed. My eyes looked ahead. The bike was perfectly balanced. Sam breathed, and we danced down the trail.
A teacher once told me to approach my life as a series of experiments. The journey of riding tandem with Sam is where I most aptly put to practice this advice.
We were scrunched in the single room of a small café with over 100 other people. The windows were covered in steam. We’d just completed an experiment — a 24-hour mountain bike race, solo on the tandem. Everyone in the room seemed to share a similar glow that perhaps resulted from the silliness of riding a bicycle in circles, through the night, in the rain and mud, or perhaps resulted from the energy of kindness and support that pervaded this event.
Sam’s dad had discovered this race and put it on our radar when he learned we would be touring in Scotland. Thus we toured with an extra fork strapped to our rear rack and some extra tires, thinking, “Why not try riding 24 hours?”
We were quickly absorbed into the incredibly friendly, family-like camaraderie of the event. A team of three and their friends set up camp near us. They offered to clean our bike in the middle of the night while also offering general encouragement and good company throughout.
We cheered each individual as they were called up to the “stage” to receive honors and awards for their performance in the event. Then, just as the awards seemed to be wrapping up, with all of the categories honored, I turned to Sam in confusion. “Did they just say our names?”
We looked at each other, then around to all the smiling faces, and hesitantly started making our way to the front of the café. The cheers were deafening (in comparison to any of the previous awards), and when we turned around, we saw everyone standing.
We weren’t racing anyone else. There was no tandem category. We didn’t go particularly fast. And we even paused for a couple hours of rest in the middle of the night. But we’re learning that riding fast is not what it’s about. People are inspired by our example of being teammates, of doing something unknown and awkward and hard together, and smiling our way through it.
As we awkwardly stood up front receiving the warmth and love of the applause from this group of strangers, more than anything I felt humbled. I thought we had been riding just for us. I was reminded of a different lesson: we have no way of knowing how our actions may affect others.
We were at our best. We had risen early at morning, not because we had to, but because we wanted to, because we love moving in the darkness. We love watching the sky begin to lighten and the stars dim, breathing in, being in the magic and mystery of a new day.
We were at 17,872 feet, the highest elevation either of us had ever experienced, and we had our tandem. We practiced one of our favorite things — to be the first to arrive and the last to leave. We set up our stove and made hot drinks for our fellow humans: sherpas, guides, hikers, younger people, older people, commuters. We watched as the crescendo of the crowd built and then began to fade.
We were in no rush as we were looking at almost 9,000 feet of descending. Eventually we found ourselves the only two left at the pass. The sky was electric blue, the prayer flags thickly covering layers of rock, and the surrounding peaks rose up but seemed to be within reach.
Throwing our legs over the top tube, we shared a grin and a fist pound. We got this.
The trail was in reasonable shape as I guided the bike between rocks. I felt alive, centered, open, and undefended. Although I was captaining the bike with grace and skill, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like for Sam to drive this section.
An apt comparison would be riding a rigid bike with skinny tires on a technical mountain bike trail versus a full-suspension, plus-tired bike. It’s possible to do both with grace. It’s possible to thoroughly enjoy both. And sometimes it’s really fun to descend on the full suspension.
“Hey, sweetie, you up for switching places? You take the rest of the descent?” I asked.
It was my day up front. Sam would never have asked to trade, but I saw the excitement. The eager young pup.
“Sure!” he said.
It usually took a little while to settle in when we switched places. But not today. Despite readjusting seat heights in the middle of some tricky terrain, we hit the ground running.
It was clear we’d been training all of our lives for this moment.
When Sam is in the groove as a captain, his grace is breathtaking. We rode switchbacks tighter and looser than we’d ever ridden. As the bike turned, I saw the exposure, and I simply breathed. I breathed in the deep trust I have in my partner.
At the bottom of the descent, we raced through a minefield of hard edges, of lumpy rocks. The lines were tricky, and yet we moved with grace. We were riding more beautifully than ever before.
People ride tandem for all sorts of reasons. For us, it’s a joint experiment in expanding what’s possible as teammates and in exploring the technicalities of riding a tandem.
In our laboratory, we’re constantly asking questions. How do we lift the front end? Skid the back end? Hop together? Take a jump? Trackstand? There has been no end to the surprises. And similarly no end to the gifts when we park the bike yet keep our lab coats on.
Switching places on the tandem supports the cultivation of empathy — we learn what it’s like to be in the other’s shoes. We each know what it feels like to be fully responsible for both of us, while barreling down a gravel road at an easy 50 mph, navigating exposure or taking a tight switchback. On the other hand, we also both know what it feels like to have no control, to not be able to see where we are going, while barreling down a gravel road, navigating exposure, or taking a tight switchback.
When we’re struggling to find common ground, or we get out of sync in our marriage, we hop on one of our three tandems and find some empty gravel road or rugged singletrack or cyclocross race. The tandem teaches us and reminds us how to be excellent teammates and humans — the ones we aspire to always be but sometimes fall away from.
Being a tandem captain is like driving a delivery truck through a crowded marketplace, calling a contra dance while being shot out of a cannon, and driving a too-small truck with a too-big mustang bucking in the back.
Being a tandem stoker is like being an awesome dance partner, riding shotgun in a rally car, being the “flyer” in a cheer squad, and being a running back following your blocker through the line of scrimmage.