How a tandem bike brought my cycling career full circle.
If it’s true that an addict is the last to recognize his own addiction, that may be especially so when the compulsion is ostensibly healthy. But rock bottom is rock bottom, and mine came on November 20, 1999 — appropriately enough, near the lowest geographic point in North America, on one of the country’s most isolated roads.
I crouched against my bicycle, overwhelmed by stomach cramps and exhaustion. Traversing Jubilee Pass, and the remaining 70 miles of the Death Valley Double Century ride, seemed impossible. I wished a passing car would wreck my bike, so I could end the event without actually quitting.
A tandem bicycle approached, and the couple asked if I was alright. Despite my own doubts, I assured them I was. They continued on, and soon faded on the horizon, but the woman’s voice carried back through the super-clear desert air: You know, she said, he really isn’t a very good cyclist.
Her words stung, and my first instinct was to defend myself. I’d logged tens of thousands of lifetime miles. I’d been an avid cyclist since my teens in Seattle, and used to enjoy nothing more than spending hours on the open road. Attending graduate school in southern California, with its spectacular canyon roads and consistently good weather, my love for the sport reached its zenith. An annual series of “double century” (200 mile, or 320 kilometre) rides called the California Triple Crown proved especially addicting, and by the mid-1990s I was travelling all over the state to participate in ultramarathon events. I’d finished fourteen CTC rides, and nine others back in Seattle, usually in strong condition.
But now, clutching my bicycle and unable to stand erect, I had to admit that the woman on the tandem was right. Those 23 doubles were ancient history. I wasn’t a very good cyclist. Not anymore. What was I even doing here, pretending I still was?
I’d sent in my registration, and paid a non-refundable hotel deposit, when I’d thought I could still get in shape. But with a toddler and infant at home, my training had dwindled to near-zero. Even so, I hadn’t been able to admit I should sit this event out. I had to go. I had to do it. I couldn’t pass up Death Valley.
Somehow, I climbed back in the saddle. Somehow, by sheer force of will, one agonizing pedal stroke after another, I managed to finish. But the many miles of lonely pavement had given me hours to think and reflect, and I knew I had to choose: going forward, I could either be a good cyclist, or I could be a good father. With kids this young, I couldn’t be both.
The next day, I drove home to Los Angeles and hung up my bike.
Years passed. We moved from California to the rural Midwest. The kids grew. Another one arrived. My bicycle disappeared under dust.
Then, sometime in 2007, my wife and I were discussing options for sports activities that didn’t involve hours of shuttling children to practices and games. I offered to get my bicycle out of mothballs, buy nice bikes for the kids, and take them riding. She liked the general idea, but was concerned about them swerving into traffic. Curious as to whether a child’s bike could be physically attached to my own, I did a quick Google search.
The results changed everything.
I learned that there was a far better way to take children cycling: as the stoker in the back seat of a tandem captained by the parent. The stoker was a full participant, and fully involved in cranking the drivetrain. But if he or she needed to ease up, the captain could simply work harder to compensate. Furthermore, all kinds of adjustable components, such as seat posts and handlebar stems, were available to help kids fit comfortably. And for the shortest children, like our youngest, a second set of pedals could even be mounted near his seat and connected with a chain to the main cranks.
Intrigued, my kids and I decided it was worth a try. I found an old tandem that was in good condition, set the back seat up to fit them, and we were all hooked from the first ride. I loved being back in a saddle again, and the children enjoyed being able to ride fast on a real road machine. They didn’t have to worry about falling behind, or swerving into traffic. And they were always close enough to carry on a conversation without shouting.
We were soon spending long hours exploring rural roads, and getting waved at by every passing vehicle. I scoured eBay for child-sized cycling clothing, and soon had my “team” fully outfitted. Their only disappointment was that just one of them could ride at a time.
Weeks turned into months, and I discovered something remarkable: I was feeling good, getting into great shape, and I was doing it with my kids — not at the expense of spending time with them. Training was no longer a separation, like it had been in California. It was now a connection. I lost track of the number of one-on-one conversations I had with each of the kids as we spent long miles together on the open road.
We began attending regional tandem rallies, where we could connect with hundreds of families like ours over the course of a weekend of riding. And this summer, in what would prove an unforgettable adventure for our family, the three oldest kids took turns stoking our tandem the 204 miles from Seattle to Portland in a single day.
Somewhere along the way, it struck me that things had come full circle since that November day in 1999. A couple on a tandem had helped me stop pretending I could be both a good cyclist and a good father. At the time, I hadn’t thought it was possible to be both. And perhaps I might have continued thinking so forever. But now a tandem of my own had shown the way to bring everything and everyone together.
Christopher Blunt writes from Michigan, where he and his family live on a fifteen acre farm.