If you’re considering buying a tandem bike or captaining for a blind stoker, here are some tips from an experienced blind cyclist.
First, let me get the terminology out of the way. The captain is the person on the front of a tandem bike, or a bicycle built for two. The person riding the back is called the stoker. The captain steers the bike, and the stoker, well, stokes. There’s not much to do from the back except pedal and be charming company for the captain. I know of some stokers who have installed the gear-shifting on the back, but this really only works well if the stoker can see what’s up ahead, or the captain has really good communication skills. I prefer to let the captain shift the gears, because he can see, and I cannot, but I do like to be warned of a gear-shift, so I can let up on the pressure on the pedals.
Riding a tandem bike has been compared to driving a limo, especially if you’ve only ridden a single bike. It takes a little more upper body strength and awareness of the time it takes to stop, start, and turn.
The most important skill you can bring to your tandem partner is good communication. Even before you get on the bike, talk to your stoker about which side of the bike you like to mount from, which foot you put down when you stop, and which way you like to let each other know you are ready to pedal.
Some people like to say, “One, two, three, go,” but I find that unnecessary and awkward. Typically, after we’re in position to start, my captain asks, “Ready?” and if I’m ready, I just say, “Ready.” And off we go. New captains, who are insecure in their ability to handle this job, often start by pushing off with a foot on the ground, much like you did when you were a kid on your first bike. This actually is a very inefficient way to start. Agree on which pedal you want in the up position for starting, and then push down on it, and immediately get your other foot in the pedal and PUSH. Doing that thing with the foot on the ground slows you down and can cause you to tip over.
If you’re captaining for a visually impaired stoker, you’ll need to announce when you’re getting ready to turn, and which way. If your stoker leans the wrong way, you could wind up in the ditch. Let her know if you need to slow down and when you’re going to stop. Say “slowing,” and “stopping,” just as you do when you ride with a group. Say “shifting,” when you need to shift gears. You don’t need to say if you’re shifting up or down.
Some stokers like to do the signaling for a turn. I like to, for two reasons. First, it makes me feel like I’m contributing something to the team effort, besides stoking. More importantly, that allows the captain to keep both hands on the handle bars.
Some captains prefer for their stokers to stay seated when they stop, while others, especially those who are not much bigger than their
stokers, prefer to have their stokers put a foot down as well.
After you’ve become comfortable with the tandem, you can enhance your blind stoker’s enjoyment of the ride by describing what you see along the way. After all, when you go for a bike ride, unless you’re a hammer-head, a big part of the experience is enjoying the scenery. Even if there’s not much to describe, you can always say, especially inOhio, “Corn fields on the left, and soy beans on the right.” I like it when my captain tells me if there are kids waving, so I can ring my bell and wave to them.
Tandem cycling is a great way to ride with someone who has a different skill level from yours. Neither one can get ahead or drop the other. It’s also a terrific way to share the joy of riding with a visually impaired person, who otherwise would never be able to ride.