“Watch out for the bus!” and “Don’t you see the stop sign?” I used to scream from the back of the tandem to my boyfriend Jon in front. That was in the beginning, when I was hesitant to trust, self-conscious about riding on a bicycle seat once perched upon by his ex-wife.
The tandem was gleaming white, ninety-six inches long, with six water bottle cages, and the name Cannondale in gold and black letters in two places. There was a jagged silver scratch along the cross bar where I leaned the tandem against a no parking sign and it fell, metal scraping white paint.
“Always have two points of contact,” Jon admonished me.
This two-wheeled vehicle carried us on rides around the cities where Jon’s job took us: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles once more. We took organized bike tours through five national parks and along the coast of Maine.
The vistas from the back seat were wide and spectacular, though Jon’s rear end and shoulder partially obscured my view, as if I were looking at images in which the photographer’s thumb repeatedly cut off the corner of the shot.
Throughout our first year cycling together, being unable to shift or brake, I struggled with control. Eventually, I came to understand the need for surrender. To sit behind him, and simply pedal. Quietly. The landscape came into sharper focus – a dog with his head through the broken railing of a battered porch in Utah, a red-tailed hawk circling the eucalyptus trees in Marin.
The pedals move in unison as you push down on them and then pull up. Single riders asked us if it was hard to coordinate. No, we told them, there are two chains that move simultaneously. No one moves independently. If one rider slacks off, the other has to work harder.
I was sensitive about the implication that I might not be pulling my share of the load.
“She’s not pedaling! Ha! Ha! Ha!” old men and teenagers would yell from trucks as they passed, laughing as though they had invented this joke. I worked out with weights, determined to match the giant quadriceps Jon sported.
Over the silence and the miles, we became connected, one unit, legs pumping. Our shadow looked like one entity, one dark amorphous creature silhouetted against the asphalt. Balancing the heavy bike, Jon remained focused, occasionally reaching his left hand back to pat mine.
There was euphoria in reaching the summits, triumph in clocking the final eighty-first mile on our longest ride. Screaming down a familiar hill in the San Francisco Bay Area, we hit sixty-seven miles an hour and laughed like 12 year olds in an amusement park. I trusted him to keep us safe.
“Wherever your relationship is going,” a retired couple in matching outfits on a yellow tandem told us, “a tandem will take you there faster.”
My only jobs were to pedal and monitor the Cat-Eye. I watched our cadence, average and maximum speeds, and mileage. By the seventh year we were together, the odometer read three thousand. We dragged the tandem through six moves in those seven years, beating it up a little more each time, despite the protective case we bought to transport it.
Black padding tape unfurled messily from my handlebars, like loose threads in a heavy hand knit sweater. I spent hours crouched over those handlebars, trying to crunch my long torso into the section designed for the tandem “stoker,” assumed to be smaller than the driver. Being the same height as Jon, my neck would become stiff from trying not to smack my helmet on his rear end, trying to fit the mould, the frame that had not been designed for me.
One Saturday in Los Angeles we went through the usual routine. We put our bike clothes on. Jon pulled the tandem out of the garage and put air in the tires. I filled the water bottles.
“I don’t feel like riding,” he said, and sat down on the living room couch. Sunlight crashed through the deck door and I squinted to see his face.
He wanted out, he said.
I knew there were resentments. When we moved back to L.A., I was in better shape and pushed his butt up the hills. In Hawaii, I had flirted with the trip leader. In Canada, he had prepped the bike, packed the lunches, and filled the water bottles. But I always expected us to work as a team, to fix whatever was broken, to ride through to the finish.
Jon took off his bike shoes, silver cleats making indents in the gray carpet. He was done, he said.
I begged him to ride with me anyway. I dragged him to counseling, swore I’d learn to be a better cook. Eventually he offered to move out, and I chose to go instead.
I found a temporary apartment, got out my barely used road bike, and hung it on the wall. It would be good practice I thought, to train on my own and get stronger for future tandem rides.
We continued the counseling and sometimes things got better, some days Jon agreed to go out on the tandem. I impressed him with how fast I could crank, how quiet and focused I could be.
I rode with my girlfriends and went out to breakfast on Sundays. I took a cycling clinic and discovered how to change my own tire. I joined a bike club and learned to shift through three chain rings, and stand on my pedals up steep inclines.
The tandem rides became less frequent, and eventually the counseling ended. We divided the art collection. He bought me out of the house.
By then I preferred the rides on my own bike – the speed I could gain, the responsiveness of the gears to my touch, the self-sufficiency of fixing a flat. I loved the lightness of the frame, and the ease of hill climbing with no one else to hold me back. I could make quick decisions and change course with the flick of a pedal.
He asked if I wanted the tandem, clearly hoping not, already dating someone new.
No, I told him. Just my seat and pedals. I got out my tools and removed them myself.
I went on an organized ride the other day. Made it all the way from Irvine to San Diego – seventy-four miles. With nothing to obstruct my view.
Reprinted from the anthology Bicycle Love: Stories of Passion, Joy, and Sweat, available on Amazon