Captain, My Captain! A 100 Mile Tandem Jaunt with Chris Kostman
Oh where to begin. Well, let me try it this way. During my last stay in Boston, my friend Chris Kostman came over to visit from LA and we rode 100 miles together on a tandem bicycle. Though I know Chris through the bicycle industry (he is a race organiser, ultra cyclist, and owner of AdventureCORPS), prior to this visit we had never actually cycled together, spending our time instead walking the stuffy hallways of bike show venues.
Admittedly, we make an unlikely pair. He: an outrageously athletic, squeaky clean, slightly weathered Californian golden boy, who says things like "shades" (instead of sunglasses), and "bogus," with a straight face. Me: a pallid, shoulder-shrugging New England-Euro hybrid who speaks with an indeterminable accent and shows up to dinner in tattered mismatched ensembles. And yet, somehow we click. We click in an easy, unforced sort of way that has kept the friendship going for more than 4 years now, despite the distance and the infrequent meetings.
Okay, so that all sounds very nice. But why meet now, and why the tandem ride? Ah. Well now we approach the essence of the story. So you see, this one time we were talking on the phone and somehow the idea came up that wouldn't it be nice to ride Paris-Brest-Paris together, on tandem. I forgot who said it first. But this detail is less important than what happened next: The other person didn't laugh, but instead was silent for a few seconds and then declared it a marvelous idea. There was only one problem. Well, okay, a whole slew of problems, but in the interest of time I will limit myself to the crucial few. For one thing, I was now living in Ireland and Chris in California, so we couldn't exactly train together. Neither of us had completed a ride longer than 200 miles in recent years (okay, so in my case never, though Chris used to do things like RAAM back in the day). And finally, we had never cycled together. After some level-headed discussion, we decided that none of the obstacles were necessarily unsurmountable. But that before we went any further in our Parisio-Brestian fantasies, we should at least find out whether we're tandem-compatible. Given that I was already planning a trip to Boston and Chris would be nearby for a racing event around the same time, we decided to meet up especially for this purpose.
I asked my former cycling club (which shall always be my cycling club in spirit), the Ride Studio Cafe, whether the demo Seven Cycles tandem they keep in the shop would be available during Chris's visit. It was, and it also happened to fit us both fairly well.
The day before our big ride we picked up the tandem and took it for a 20 mile shakedown spin. Here I should mention that my previous tandem experiences consisted of this and this. Both were lovely, but short. This shakedown ride would actually be my longest tandem ride to date. By contrast, Chis has over 20 years of experience captaining tandems, which includes setting the 24 hour off-road tandem cycling record in 1990. Like I said, we make an unlikely pair!
But it hardly seemed that way when we got on the bike and began to pedal together. The novelty of doing bikey things with Chris dominated my impressions of the shakedown ride; we just basically blabbed the entire time with me occasionally interjecting to give directions. I am not sure how much I even noticed the actual bike or thought about our compatibility at this point. But as nothing broke on the bicycle and we didn't bicker, we figured things were looking good for our 100 mile ride. We fiddled with the gears a bit and decided we were all set.
Prior to Chris's visit, we had discussed what type of ride we wanted to do. Would we focus on speed and performance, or on sightseeing? Since we'd never cycled together before, we decided on the latter. And, as Chris does not often get to visit New England, I designed a route that wound through the scenic northwestern suburbs of Boston, taking in paved backroads, dirt roads, mountain views and historical landmarks dating back to the Revolutionary War. The distance was just under 100 miles, with 4,000 feet of climbing.
Our Seven loaner tandem (titanium frame, steel fork, disc brakes, 700Cx35mm tires) was designed for mixed terrain long distance rides, which made it perfect for our trip. We did not change a whole lot about this bicycle's setup other than using our own saddles and luggage. I also requested drop handlebars for the stoker's position, instead of the bullhorns the floor model was fitted with.
By the time we were through with it, our bicycle looked totally pro - a glorious mish-mash of clashing colours and textures; with twine and canvas not neglected in the mix. We were ready to go!
As the stoker of our tandem, my main responsibilities would be (1) holding myself in a way that did not disbalance the bike, (2) contributing to the captain's pedaling efforts, and (3) navigating. Having thoroughly enjoyed my previous tandem experiences, I was not nervous about my role and had a pretty good idea of what to expect. The only question marks were how I would handle the distance (I was told by several experienced stokers that the miles are harder on one's body on the back of a tandem than on a single bike), and whether Chris and I were compatible as tandem partners.
There are many things to consider when choosing your tandem captain. And one seldom-mentioned aspect is their clothing. Think about it: You will enjoy a view of this person's back for hours. It is important, therefore, that you like the back of their jersey. That said, I appreciated the texture and aesthetic of Chris's wool Velo Cult jersey. The fuzzy relief of the text in particular offered a rich visual experience, inviting a thorough, meditative examination of the tiny red loops of thread during the quieter parts of the ride.
A pair of snazzy, old-school cycling shoes on a captain can also be fun for the stoker. For some reason, catching glimpses of these in my peripheral vision as we pedaled made me feel as if we were cartoon characters and always put a smile on my face.
But, silliness aside, I think it's important for the stoker to get comfortable; to feel like it's their own little world back there. Achieving a position that's as close as possible to the position you have dialed in on your single bike is helpful - though on a tandem this presents its own challenges. For instance, for stokers who prefer drop bars, an important thing to consider is handlebar width - in relation to the "width" of the captain. This is not something that had occurred to me prior to this ride, but if you look at the above picture it becomes obvious why it matters. On a tandem, the stoker's handlebars wrap around the captain's saddle, which places the stoker's hands, when on the hoods, very near to the captain's hips. If your bars are too narrow, you can find yourself groping your captain's behind! Normally I ride with drop bars that are 40-42cm in width, but on the tandem we went with a 44cm bar. However, even that proved not quite wide enough, and, in the course of our ride, my thumbs would occasionally rub against Chris's hips - something that, over 100 miles, was not only an annoyance but resulted in my thumbnails being buffed flat. Over the course of a 700 mile ride, I imagine this would have "buffed" my nails down to the meat, as well as worn holes in Chris's shorts! So essentially, this means that to ride with Chris I should use handlebars at least 46cm in width - substantially wider than what I find optimal on a single bike. Not a dealbreaker for us as tandem partners, but a compromise.
Of course the important measure of tandem partner compatibility is cadence. And here is where the fun begins. While I tend to spin at a high cadence when cycling on a single bike, Chris pushes a considerably higher gear and pedals at a slower rate. Somehow we had not known this about each other prior to getting on a bike together, and the realisation of it in action had comedic effects - in particular when climbing hills. As we soon discovered, if we went with Chris's pedaling technique the only way I could contribute adequate power was to stand up; I could not push his gear if I stayed seated. This resulted in an interesting climbing technique, whereby Chris would pedal seated and I would stand behind him, chatting away into his ear and quite content to pedal in this position. On steeper, harder climbs, we of course both stood up (scary stuff on a tandem!!), but on longer milder drags we became this rear-tall creature, with me towering over Chris and enjoying open views of the landscape.
We also tried my pedaling style on multiple occasions, with Chris switching to a lower gear and adapting a faster cadence. However, on hills this was not always possible, as the Seven demo tandem was geared a bit too high. Funny enough though, I kind of liked our rear-motor method of skipping up hills and was happy enough to do it for surprisingly long stretches. Whether it's sustainable over a 1200K brevet is another question!
As I write all this, it strikes me that my two dominant impressions of our tandem ride were that (1) we had a good time together, and (2) I was extremely comfortable on the bike over the 100 mile distance. And that these impressions are so strong, I have to remind myself about the potential incompatibilities described above and about the problems we experienced.
For one thing, we had a crash less than 10 miles into the ride, when the tandem wiped out beneath us as we attempted a turn in deep sand on an unpaved part of the route. I remained clipped in, and the bike fell on top of me, not so much hurting me as surprising me. The incident stunned both of us, as neither Chris nor I are in the habit of crashing, sand or no sand. So we're going to blame the tires that came with the bike - neither of us huge fans of this particular tread.
The other thing was a bit more serious. Not quite half way through the ride, we were powering up a steep paved climb, both of us standing up and pushing hard in a high gear, when - and this has never, ever happened to me before, so it was a huge shock - I yanked my left foot right out of the clipless pedal. Since I was standing up, leaning forward, and putting in a big effort at the time, this resulted in a rather spectacular tumble, whereby I first fell onto the nose of my saddle with my pelvis, then bounced off of that and crashed smack onto the top tube. In the midst of these flailing acrobatics, Chris managed to keep the bike upright and bring it to a stop. And then for a few long seconds we just stood there trying to process what had happened. I felt no pain yet, only annoyance, cursing my stupidity for not having used my own pedals - the ones on the demo bike must have been worn out. Eventually, we recovered our composures and got going again. And only in the bathroom at home later that night did I see that my entire crotch and inner thigh area was one all-encomassing black bruise! I also had a series of lesser, interestingly-shaped bruises, from where the tandem had fallen on me during the sandy crash earlier.
…All of which makes it kind of interesting how I could have felt so good and cheerful on the bike throughout this ride. As far as comfort and energy levels, this was by far the easiest 100 mile ride I've ever done. The route I put together combined two local 100K rides that I used to find quite challenging as far as climbing, but which now felt like a lazy, easy jaunt. Part of it must have been due to an overall increase in my fitness over the years, part of it the ultra-comfortable bike (titanium plus fat tires? ooh la la!), part of it the food (more on this later), and part of it Chris's powerful captaining. Whatever the reasons, I am not complaining.
We reached Mary's famous lamb in Sterling, MA, then the Fruitlands in Harvard, MA, with very little strain - to the point that, at the Fruitlands I felt a bit disoriented and wondered what happened to the big climb that led up to the scenic overlook! Did we take the wrong road? I kept warning Chris there'd be a climb, and then suddenly we had already reached our destination. Stopping for photos, coffee and scenic exploration ("Can we cycle to Thoreau's cottage through these woods?"), we were in no hurry to complete our century, so the ride took us about 10 hours. Our rolling average was 13.8mph, which isn't too bad for a relaxed, sightseeing ride either. And throughout this, we talked to each other non-stop, with zero lulls in the conversation.
Are we compatible as tandem partners for a ride as big as Paris-Brest-Paris? There are disparities in our pedaling techniques, experiences, fitness levels. But on this ride we've shown not only an easy willingness to compromise, but also an ability to take things in stride and to continue getting along when things went less than smoothly. Who knows, that might prove more important than starting out with matching cadence.
So…thanks, Captain! I had a wonderful time. It was epic, never bogus. And always remember your shades.