Sunday, October 12, 2014

Captain, My Captain! A 100 Mile Tandem Jaunt with Chris Kostman

Tandem Century 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. 

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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. 


Chris Kostman at the Ride Studio Cafe
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. 

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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!

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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. 

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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.

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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!

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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.

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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. 

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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.

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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. 

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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!

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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.

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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.

Tandem Ride to Sterling, MA
…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.

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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. 

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
I tend to live with one foot in a dream world, and the logical part of me isn't at all sure riding Paris-Brest-Paris is feasible next year. If we do go for it, the plan is to complete the shorter of the qualifying brevets next year individually (me in Ireland and Chris in California), then meet up in Boston again to complete the longer brevets on tandem together. By then we will have to figure out The PBP Bike as well, making sure its gearing, fit and setup will suit our needs optimally for the event, as well as for travel. As far as the bike, I am thinking we could go one of several ways. Chris may be getting a Ritchey Break-Away road tandem for himself and his wife later this year, which could work for the two of us as well. Or I could try to finagle a longer-term loaner from Seven (the demo bike really was amazingly comfortable). Or, we could go a different way entirely and attempt to get our hands on a vintage French randonneuring tandem. With his old-timey shoes and his preference for downtube shifters, Chris would be right at home!

Tandem Century with Chris Kostman
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. 

37 comments:

  1. Very interesting experience! I winced, reading of your unclip > crotch crash.

    My own experience - very lucky that Adam has a narrow backside! ;) And, I'm not sure I agree with what you were told about tandem miles being harder on the body, but it's a mixed bag: the fit of my stoker 'world' (yes!) is not as good as on my Enigma, but the overall effort is definitely pooled and shared. So, I tend to find at the end of a ride that most of my body is a bit more tired/achy than if I'd ridden the Enigma, but my legs are less so. This means if I've been having a hard time with my knees in the days leading up to a long ride, we go on the tandem.

    Oh, and communication is key. Our cadence styles are very different, exactly as with you and Chris, but we've learned which direction to make the necessary compromises and to what degree, in various circumstances. It takes practice, but pays off. If I were fit enough (my knees being the weakest link) and if we had a tandem that fit me a bit better, then I'd definitely have a go at PBP with my partner.

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    1. P.S. Adam has just read this and said "no way is he doing PBP". So that's the end of *that* dream!

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  2. You look happy. Glad.

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  3. So you crashed - was it the huge, huge deal you made it out to be not so long ago? Well, it merited a footnote in this post, so I suppose not.

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    1. It was okay. Slow speed though. I guess they were good initiation crashes, as far as these things go.

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  4. Good things come to those who wait. This post was fantastic and definitely worth waiting for. Good job Velouria! :)

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  5. Cadence is only a big deal if neither rider is willing (or able) to change. Where there's a will, there is a way.

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  6. If you do ride PBP I will definitly watch how you fare! But i am not too concerned: riding with that guy must be like having an electric assistance on the bike.
    Since i live near Paris I plan to ride to the city of arrival and maybe cheer the riders a bit. I would love to see that tandem in flesh!

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    1. Riding with that guy was actually a surprisingly mellow experience, both on the tandem and through the town on single city bikes at other points in his visit. I suspect he is one of those cyclists who switches between performance mode to casual mode at the drop of a hat, and does not mix the two up.

      Seeing the PBP start in Paris must be quite something, especially with so many people now taking part!

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  7. Following your links, it occurs to me that you have only ridden tandems made by Seven Cycles. That might prove a hard act to follow. Choose your PBP bike wisely and don't let a 600K brevet be its maiden voyage!

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    1. A 600K maiden voyage would of course be pure madness. We were thinking the 400K.

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  8. I have those checkerboard tires on my Mercian, I haven't crashed on them yet(when I do it probably wont be the tires fault) but when I do I can blame it on them and say "everybody" crashes with these. They don't ride too bad but when they wear out I'm getting some of those fancypants extra light tires from Jan Heine.

    P.B.P. sounds like something, if one is at all tempted, one should just commit to and do if they get the chance. I can't quite imagine making that happen right now but if it suddenly seemed like an option to sneak off to France and give it a try I'd be on it...

    GO V, GO!

    Spindizzy

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  9. Ouch!!!

    What a great post, thanks for sharing this. I'd be doing well to hit 13.8 solo over that distance on a non-leisurely ride, so props.

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  10. I loved the description of your hand position in relation to your pilot's backside! So true. Occasionally my Stoker like to let me know they are still there by letting their hands drift to close to my "hips". :-)

    Re the cadence thing. I think it's up to the pilot to accommodate the Stoker here, especially as you are the spinner. Constantly pushing against a bigger gear than you like is going to wear you out quicker than him. Cardiovascular effort is easier to recover from and that's where the majority of the extra cadence will come from. I'm a spinner but my Stoker is not. Given they don't ride any kind of distance other than on the tandem we are working on slowly bring their cadence up to match mine. So, at the moment we tend to ride along at about 10 rpm less I would on the half bike and many more than that if we are going downhill....

    I remember reading that a pilot is someone who navigates, steers, changes gears and brakes. All at the command of the Stoker, who is correct in all things. :-)

    I hope you end up going for it as I would love to read all about the journey, both to the starting line and what happens once you get there.

    And I'm really envious of your riding a Seven. It looks so nice.

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    1. Whereas Chris normally navigates when he captains, this time it was me because he did not know the area and the route. Navigating from the rear of the bike was interesting, as I could not always see the turns coming up. Often I was visualising the route from memory and going by feel. It worked out pretty well though, and the only time we took a wrong turn was at an intersection that had been redesigned (the roads physically altered and moved!) since I'd last been there and since the maps were last updated.

      I do not mind pedaling at a lower cadence and it does not seem to wear me out, except when I have physical difficulty pushing the gear. A logical compromise for us might be to meet in the middle, making sure to have gears low enough for hills.

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  11. A few weeks ago, there was a post on Jan Heine’s ‘Off the Beaten Path’ blog about cycling books which Jan had been particularly influenced by. He happened to refer to the Ibis BowTi. I went to Ibis’s site and read through their ’30 Stories’ (well, 24, so far). One of the ‘stories’ was about the Ibis Scorcher, a wild ‘retro’ fixie built long before the fixie craze, which was reviewed by none other than Chris Kostman, who gave the Scorcher – and himself – quite a workout. I’ll bet he remembers that bicycle!

    http://www.ibiscycles.com/info/303030/10_the_scorcher/
    http://www.ibiscycles.com/images/uploads/wygwam/1193ScorcherBG.jpg

    There was another story on Ibis’s blog about a genius bridge/bicycle engineer called Rick Jorgensen and his Tango tandems (he also engineered a tandem for Ibis). As with Chris, you could learn so much from that fellow, about everything to do with bicycles, not just tandems.
    http://www.ibiscycles.com/about/303030/8_tandems/
    http://www.obatik.com/assets/Images/Biking/ibis-articles/article_rick_jorgensen.pdf

    You’ve pictured Chris wearing a Velo Cult t-shirt. In 2010, Sky Boyer and his crew at VeloCult in Portland restored a lovely late-1950s Motobecane swoopy stay mixte. It featured a connector between the twin stays and the down tube (a pressed steel pillar featuring the Motobecane logo), and aluminium kick-plates to protect the stays where you step through. Whoever designed it was probably also involved with the Kaptein mixte, which featured similar design cues, and Kaptein was part-owned by Motobecane, but whoever it was had a real talent for design – like you!

    http://velocult.com/2010/05/restored-motobecane-mixte/

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    1. I remember that mixte, they did a beautiful job. Velo Cult used to be in San Diego, which is how Chris came to know them.

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  12. Great report! Sorry about the bruises, but methinks you could use them as the basis of a tall tale that would keep the girls at the local pub gossiping for years...

    The garage inventor in me wonders if a tandem could be built that has different gear reductions for captain & stoker. Probably some balance issues with that, since front & rear cranks would be constantly cycling in and out of phase. I did a quick search on internally geared cranksets, and discovered the 2 speed FSA Metropolis (Patterson), Truative HammerSchmidt, Schlumpf, and 3 speed Efneo. Unfortunately, most of these seem to incorporate too wide a ratio to solve your cadence mismatch.

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  13. I guess being in the industry allows you things most of us will never sniff. Lovely that you get a bike and sponsorship for potential endeavors. Go for it, write about it, learn from it…I'm trying to afford a fucking new tire for my lovely bicycle!

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    1. That's true in some cases. However, anyone who'd like to ride a Seven tandem and lives in the Boston area need only to grab a partner and head to the Ride Studio Cafe - ideally informing them in advance they'd like to take out the bike for the day to make sure it is available. The demo bikes are there for anyone who'd like to ride them; no sales pitches involved and no industry affiliation required.

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    2. Hey Anonymous,

      If you don't mind nice used tires let me know what size you want and where to send it, you pay the shipping and we'll hook you up. I'll send you a set if I've got em'.

      All the hikers/climbers/cyclists and other like minded folks around here sort of pool their lesser gear and I seem to have become the tire guy. You would not believe the pile in my basement. We all look out for each other and you can be a member at large, all you have to do is promise to come ride with us if you ever roll through Harrisonburg Va...

      Spindizzy

      BTW, I think V might be an urchin like the rest of us...

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    3. Thank you, Spindizzy. 700x28 or 32. My bike is my only means of transport and I've no income the last two years. Do you like art? I live on trades and constantly doodle…..not sure if it's art, but…..https://www.flickr.com/photos/61932626@N07/....let me know.

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    4. Cool, Stand by...

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    5. Your flickr doesn't suck. At all.

      Contact me at http://redbarnbike.blogspot.com
      Go to orders and put attn. Spindizzy in your message.

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  14. Yes! I just knew that PBP thing was still circulating amongst your neurones and would eventually re surface if I waited long enough! I'm already looking foward to cheering you on from the roadside in Brittany. ALLEZ V, ALLEZ !

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  15. It's me again, I've just found this old oscar egg tandem near me .Pick it up the day before the ride! http://www.leboncoin.fr/velos/715269125.htm?ca=6_s

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    1. Oh man, I bet that planes like crazy!

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    2. Yes but think of that as part of it's old world charm. The division of the road into two parts is fairly arbitary around these parts anyway, so no need to worry...

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  16. Then of course there's this Follis, ta chainset , 650B, maxicar... http://www.leboncoin.fr/velos/638010511.htm?ca=6_s

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  17. Nice post, it would be nice to know some more details of the route so us local folks can visit some of the sights.

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    1. I've been thinking of posting it, along with tourguide-like landmark descriptions. Stay tuned.

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  18. That sounds like a great time, horrible technicolor bruises and all.
    I too vote for the Oscar Egg of the two vintage rides.

    I don't know anyone who has a Ritchey Breakaway tandem, but do know three experienced riders who have older and newer versions of the steel framed models. All are cherished bikes.

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  19. Say you wanted to be like Chris. What is the brand or where do you buy a pair of snazzy, old-school cycling shoes?

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    1. Although it takes more than wearing my same shoes to be like me, you can obtain the Italian cycling shoes I wear from this UK outfit: http://dromarti.com/

      I highly recommend them for both fit and comfort, as well as appearance.

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    2. Funny enough, Pamela Blalock wears these same shoes. They've become a familiar sight on rides!

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  20. only just now read your tandem-report. In fact I am not really a tandem lover... sorry. But I like very much that PBP 2015 is getting (maybe and hopefully) a target for you. With your love for cycling you will enjoy the unique athmosphere of PBP for sure. Hope you can do it to Paris and I hope me too, so that we can do a *meet and great* there, lol.

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