Riding as Partners

They say there’s nothing quite like a long ride on a tandem to shine a bright light on a relationship. If the relationship is good, the ride will be too, but if the relationship has its problems, well…

Riding together on individual bikes is not too unlike riding a tandem as a couple. In other words, it can be a real joy or a real pain depending upon how it’s approached. We’ve been riding together for a number of years, and though we’ve experienced a few bumps along the way, we’re fortunate to have a harmonious relationship on the road in which we read each other’s subtle cues and ride together with little effort and zero conflict. We only arrived at this on-road relationship through many, many miles of practice, and lots of talking about how to better communicate and take care of each other while riding our bicycles. Following are a few of the things we think are key to riding smoothly and safely as a couple:

Someone needs to lead and someone needs to follow – It’s usually best if a ride leader is determined before departure to reduce the likelihood of confusion or conflict on the road. Typically the more experienced rider leads.

The slower person determines the pace – The slower person should always determine the ride pace, even if they’re in the following position. It’s the leader’s responsibility to be sure they don’t drop the follower or inadvertently push the pace beyond the comfort level of the slower rider.

The slower person should be on an equal or faster bicycle – If at all possible, the slower rider should be on the faster bike to reduce the speed differential between the two riders. It’s common to see the less-experienced, less-fit rider on the heavier, slower bike, which only undermines the pacing rule above.

The less experienced rider sets the comfort level of the route (traffic levels, infrastructure, distance) – It’s up to the less-experienced rider to determine what type of roads they’re willing to traverse. The leader should never pressure the less-experienced rider into situations in which they’re uncomfortable.

The leader always defers to the less experienced rider unless it’s a safety issue – A less-experienced rider may not understand what they’re getting into and find themselves feeling overwhelmed once they’re on the road. It’s imperative that the leader defers to the follower and respects their need to turn back, take an alternate route, or whatever is necessary to reduce their unease.

Develop a consistent method of communicating (hand signals, voice, visual) – It’s important to learn each other’s signals and cues. Agree upon a set of simple hand signals to indicate upcoming turns, slowing, debris in road, car-behind, etc.

A sure way to put a quick end to a riding relationship is to simply head out the door without a clear understanding of each other’s expectations. Acknowledging each other’s expectations and agreeing upon a plan for the ride, while always putting the other rider’s needs above your own, is the most effective way to ensure a healthy, long-term riding relationship.

14 Responses to “Riding as Partners”

  • Riley says:

    Been reading your blog for a bit and decided to post on this after having a partner riding experience with my inexperienced gf on the streets of Beijing. We had a fun time until we got to a really busy section of town and my gf got really uncomfortable and I got really frustrated. Eventually, I figured out that I really had to lead and take control of the situation once I did that she felt a lot more comfortable. I think that riding together is like you said almost a metaphor for the relationship, if you can communicate and trust each other it will end well if you can’t it won’t. Just my two cents.

  • David says:

    Met my wife in the bike shop where I work. Two years later our Honeymoon was mountain biking in Vermont for two weeks.

    I bought a tandem when our kids were almost 6 and 3 1/2 years of age but could not get the wife to join me on the tandem, not once. She had lost all interest in bicycles of any sort and sad to say, she had lost interest in me.

    In 2000 she moved out, leaving the kids and I. My divorce was finalized just this past May.

    My kids and I ride either our Tandem or Triplet everyday.

    We are a cycling family of three.

    I can’t think of a better way to raise children.

  • ksteinhoff says:

    A good riding partner is hard to find.

    I rode with one gal from work for a couple of years. She was about 2 mph slower than I am (and I’m slow), so we used voice-actuated FRS radios to talk going down the road. If the signal started breaking up, I’d either stop until she caught up or would circle back to meet her. She was a little timid, though, and didn’t ride far enough out in the road to keep from being buzzed, which made her even more timid.

    Mary, another co-worker, was the best partner I’ve found. She was a novice rider who picked up traffic skills very quickly. She could hold a line and wasn’t bothered by cars whizzing by. Because she was 20 years younger and about 60 pounds lighter, on many days she was the faster rider. On some days, we’d ride together; others, we’d each ride our own pace and meet up from time to time. I’ve written about her accident before. I really miss her.

    I ran into a person I call my “first reader in the wild” in my LBS. She’s a swimmer who runs and wanted to polish her bike skills for triathlons. She’s riding an ancient beater bike that’s older than she is. On our second ride, I said that we needed to establish a “safe word.” When she heard me retelling a war story, she should say “aberdeen” and I’d stop. That would keep her from being bored and free me from the burden of having to keep my facts straight.

    I’ve done most of my riding alone, but a good riding partner motivates me to go places I haven’t gone before and makes for fun.

  • Stephen says:

    These aren’t bad rules for non-racing club rides, either. I dropped my membership in the local club after they dropped me again and again. I’m not a slow rider, but I wanted to hang out and ride with other riders. However, they just took off, and if you ddn’t keep up, then piss on you.

    I wish my wife rode more often. I guess I just need to take the bull (or bicycle) by the horns, and just load ‘em up and head down to the local trail. When the weather gets a mite better. I really don’t enjoy these long, hot, humid summers down here in the Dumb South.

  • heather says:

    I’d add that, particularly with longer rides, prearranging to meet up /catch up at certain points (at the top of a hill, at a particular intersection, etc.) is also helpful. My husband is a foot taller than I am and no matter how hard we try, there will always be times when he ‘drops’ me for a bit, just because his wheels are bigger and covering more distance than mine with every revolution. We ride close together most of the time, but it’s helpful to pick catch-up points to allow us to ride at a comfortable speed, particularly on hilly stretches and then converge again.

  • andy parmesan says:

    i like the side by side tandems, i like tandems in general. let me use a sailboat analogy to illustrate a point..
    i believe it’s chinese sailboats that use offset sails, set in a diagonal from each other (catches more wind than in-line sails) where the mainmast is perhaps centered, but the lesser masts fore and aft are off center. i like asymmetry in general, i don’t know if i’d like
    staring at the same part of someone’s anatomy. there’s beauty all around and all over
    in nature and in bodies

  • Helton says:

    Alan, if there’s a bicycle bible, the “riding with spouse/girl-boyfriend/significant-one should contain exactely these rules!

    Got married 2y ago, and have “inherited” a now 7yo boy who loves biking. We have had some great rides to now, but not so few very bad ones, too… I’d like to add other recomendations:

    – Never underestimate the difficulties a beginner may have: for us die-hard bikers who spent most of the life messing around with cycling, some beginner difficulties seem laughable, but (apparently) they aren’t. The most experienced, te most patient we have to be.

    – The leader may guide from behind – It’s sometimes more comfortable for the leader (the one who knows the route – to ride behind: the slower pace is automatically set, the less experienced is always under sight, the ROAD is always under sight for the beginner (no surprise potholes etc.), it’s easier for the back rider to give instructions… But NEVER give more than one “let-me-teach-you-how-to-ride-better” advice per hour or you’ll get abbandoned!

    – Get used with lighter rides before going to the hard ones: if you plan touring, either on the road or off, it’s always a good idea to have ridden a lot on parks, light traffic streets, etc.
    -Specifically about the advice above, avoid riding in heavy traffic, it’s much much harder to develop any communication skills with that damn noise!!

    – If a discussion related to the ride arrives, the most experienced MUST be as calm and agreeable as the other is nervous. Most the time it works, even if half an hour is needed to calm down (better than turn back with a black cloud overhead…)

    – The stronger / more experienced rider must carry as much weight as needed to match speed and resistance levels. Most the times, it means carrying all the weight except a bottle of water.

    – Avoid turning a “couple ride” into a “riding around with all my other bike friends”, at least the first times you are riding together. It’s too too easy to lose focus in your partner and/or let her(him) behind at times… It is frustrating…

    We plan to acquire a tandem soon (to ride with our boy, either – he’s getting heavy and I am training less each year :( , but my wife’s skills are getting better with time (she rides at my pace when I am carrying our boy), and tandems are a lot of trouble to carry around (car, bus, train…).

  • Molnar says:

    Heather, I’m probably almost a foot taller (and even a few years younger!) than Manuel Fuente, but I can guarantee you that I never would have dropped him. Height is really not much of an issue in cycling, aside from finding a frame that fits, which is one of its virtues.

    I pretty much agree with everything Alan said, but I also agree with Helton that, as long as drafting isn’t an issue, leading from behind makes life easier.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    Those are good points. My husband and I love cycling together and we have a good time. He is the stronger and more experienced cyclist, but that has not caused any disharmony in our trips. We like to cycle next to each other and talk, and it’s usually more about the scenery than speed. Also, his being an experienced and confident cyclist allows us to go through areas where I would not be comfortable to ride alone yet. Then later, I am more comfortable cycling there alone as a result of already having gone with him.

    Discrepancy in skill can either work for you or against you, and it is really up to the couple. One point I would add to your list, is that on a leisurely ride, it is probably not a good idea for the stronger cyclist to critique the weaker cyclist’s technique and constantly attempt to give them pointers. I often see male cyclists doing this to their less experienced female riding partners (it usually looks like husband & wife, or boyfriend & girlfriend pairs), until the women are close to tears and clearly not having fun. That’s a great way to turn one’s lady friend off from cycling!

  • Alan says:

    @Lovely Bicycle

    Your riding relationship sounds a lot like ours. Congrats!

    Good point regarding the more experienced rider giving too much instruction. There’s a time and place for it when the recipient is ready, but it can suck the joy out of a ride if it’s unwanted.


  • Saddle Up says:

    Careful what you wish for. I’m the hardcore cyclist, my wife is the dancer. She owns a couple of nice bikes and does ride but not to the extent I do. She has fallen a couple of times and is not crazy about being around traffic. It seems to work for us. I’ve said many times over the years “she’ll never like cycling as much as I do, and I’ll never like dancing as much as she does” (I hate it actually).

    Just the other week a couple of days before we left for a planned few day get a way in the Alberta badlands she says “why don’t we take our bikes?’ there is no traffic in the small town in which we are staying and it will allow us to explore the badlands with out having to use the car.” We had an awesome time, one ride was a 36km round trip in the bottom of the valley, it was like being on the moon, alone!

    A couple of days after we returned home she says “since I do what you like ie ride a bike I think you should try and do what I like and learn how to dance”. Darn foiled again!

  • Alan says:

    @Saddle Up

    Sounds fair to me. I have a sinking feeling I may get roped into ballroom dancing someday… LOL.

  • Alexis says:

    I love riding with my boyfriend, who actually taught me how to ride a bike six months ago. Sometimes he’s a butthead, but as long as we’re clear on the rules (I tell him that if I have to wait for his slow butt to get out the door he has to wait for my slow butt to get down the street) riding together is fun. We ride as transportation though, not really as fun. And I finally have a bike nicer than his!

  • beth h says:

    One thing you forgot to mention, which I have found helpful, is this:

    The more experienced cycling spouse MUST be patient — VERY patient — with the less-experienced cycling spouse.

    My partner and I have been together for eight years. When we started out she rode a heavy old mountain bike occasionally and I rode my nice upright road bike every day. My sweetie is not built like me at all — I am long-limbed and reasonably lean, while she is heavier, and has short limbs and a very long torso. She was intimidated by my cycling buddies who are also slim, fit and taller than her. But over time, she became more curious about my car-free life, and began to ask questions about what see observed. We started riding together. I was careful and patient, not wanting to scare her off.

    Over time, we began riding together more and more. Two years ago my partner was laid off from her primary job, and suddenly driving a car became more expensive. My sweetie began driving less immediately, and looked for ways to economize that included expanding our vegetable garden and riding her bike to farmers’ markets to fill in on what we couldn’t grow at home. This coincided with my interest in more competitive kinds of cycling, namely randoneuring, short track mountain biking and cyclocross.

    Today, we ride together about once a week, to a friend’s house, synagogue services or the farmers’ market. While we’ve never formally discussed our “riding relationship”, there are definitely times when I take the lead — such as determining the most hassle-free route and coordinating rides with other friends — and times when she takes the lead, like last night when I asked her to ride in front because my night vision is so poor that I need to see her reflective pannier to know where she is (and where I am!). Lately, because of my interest in cyclocross, she’s asked lots of questions about bicycle racing and we’ve even begun to watch bits of the Vuelta together on TV. (It’s only fair; when we got together she invited me to watch figure skating with her; we’ve become each others’ tour guide and color-commentator on our respective favorite sports!)

    As my partner grew more and more comfortable riding with me, I began to invite her to ride with me and some of my cycling buddies, who were all friendly and welcoming. And, much to my pleasure, she went for a mellow “coffee ride” a couple weeks ago with two of my bike club-mates while I was stuck at work on Labor Day — and had a grand time.

    Someday when finances are better I’d like to get my sweetie a nicer bike. Not that her B’Stone XO-5 is any slouch (it was a wedding present from me, to replace her ratty old mountain bike six years ago); but if money were no object I’d hand her off to my friend Natalie and ask her to build my partner a custom Sweetpea.

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