Tandem cyclists peddle togetherness


The three people standing outside Arbutus United Methodist Church glance up as the first bicycles appear on Shelbourne Avenue on a hazy, still Sunday morning. Amazement registers on their faces.

Eight tandems are heading toward the University of Maryland Baltimore County for a 35-mile ride sponsored by the Baltimore Bicycle Club.

The teams of riders, dressed in loudly patterned Lycra biking clothes and aerodynamic helmets, pedal past like a small herd of exotic animals migrating to a distant plain. Each team's legs move in unison with a practiced, synchronized grace.

Leaning over the handlebars of their sleek, elongated bikes, the riders scarcely notice the gawkers outside the church. They're used to leaving stunned bystanders in their wake.

They even have a word for it: tandemonium.

"It's quite a spectacle for people watching us go by," acknowledges Carol Schexnayder, a teacher who has been riding a tandem with her husband, Brian, for seven years. "You certainly catch their attention."

But the Schexnayders, like most couples who own tandems, did not buy their bicycle for its novelty or mystique. Their motivation was strictly practical. The Catonsville couple loved biking together, but Mrs. Schexnayder had trouble keeping up on long rides. A tandem made it impossible for her to fall behind.

"We're together," she explains. "He's not always waiting for me or doing circles at the top of the hill."

Al and Ruth Schaffer, who ride their tandem for at least 90 minutes almost every day, bought their first bike in 1974 for much the same reason. But it quickly became a special bond for the Pikesville couple, particularly when Mrs. Schaffer was still home taking care of their four children.

Their rides were more than good exercise. Often, they were the only time the Schaffers spent alone together -- a time to talk, hug, fight or watch the sun set as they pedaled around northwest Baltimore County.

"Getting out on the bike was our best opportunity to communicate," says Dr. Schaffer, a 58-year-old dentist.

But togetherness doesn't come cheap. A tandem can cost anywhere from $1,200 to $5,000; and they're definitely not for everyone, tandem enthusiasts warn.

Despite the romantic images conjured up by songs like "A Bicycle Built for Two," some couples quickly come to hate tandems -- and each other -- after riding one.

"I've heard them called divorce machines," Dr. Schaffer says.

He relishes the advice of one veteran cyclist who thinks couples should make love, hang wallpaper together and ride a tandem before getting married.

If they still like each other after doing all three, the marriage will probably work.

"Tandem riding is like a marriage," agrees Evie Gardiner, who coordinates the tandem rides for the bike club. "When it's working, it's wonderful. When it's not working, it's lousy."

bTC The two-seat bikes, which were called boneshakers when they first appeared in the 1860s, require a lot of cooperation for a successful ride. Though there are two set of pedals, they are connected and must be rotated in unison. Riders have to synchronize their pace and agree on the gear, which determines how easy it is to pedal.

"It's real hard to keep your pace in sync," Ms. Gardiner explains. "You've got to cooperate -- communicate. It brings out skills that most people need to work on."

The linear design of the bike puts the rider in the front seat in charge of the shifting, steering and braking. This person, known as the captain, basically controls the bike -- its speed, direction and safety.

The rider in the second seat, known as the stoker, provides pedal power, navigates, signals and makes sure the gear shift is working. But he or she has little power over the bike's movement.

"You've really got to put all your trust in that front person," says Ms. Gardiner, 45, who serves as a stoker on her tandem.

Stokers who don't have confidence in their captains can get a little nervous when the bikes, which weigh 40 to 50 pounds, reach speeds of 50 to 55 mph downhill.

"I've been on bike rides when I've heard yelling and screaming," Ms. Gardiner says. "I haven't seen any hitting. No biting."

Ms. Gardiner, who is working on her master's degree in history at UMBC, took up tandeming in 1982 with an ex-boyfriend. When the couple split, she got custody of their custom-made bike.

She organized the bike club's tandem group, called CRABS for Couples Riding a Bike Simultaneously, three years ago to provide special events for tandem enthusiasts. Almost 100 of the bike club's 2,500 members own tandems, and the number increases every year.

But tandems are still a rarity, particularly when a half dozen or more set out on a journey. Just last month tandemonium broke out at the Aberdeen Proving Ground when a group of tandems passed a crowd of about 1,000 people.

"There was a show going on with all these big tanks," reports George Drake, who was on the ride with his wife, Mary. "But everybody was watching us."

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