Riding as Partners

[I’m surprised by the number of couples I talk with who both ride, but choose not to ride together for reasons related to speed, performance, etc.; I happen to think they’re missing out on one of the most enjoyable aspects of bike riding. I don’t often republish old posts, but this subject has been on my mind lately, and I’ve written about it more than once, so instead of reinventing the wheel, here are my thoughts on the subject from last year. —Alan]

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.

15 Responses to “Riding as Partners”

  • Adam says:

    Tandems allow two riders of differing abilities to always stay together, help each other and output exactly as much effort as each likes.

  • Logan says:

    Excellent guidelines! When Tammy and I decided we wanted to marry we asked couples with more experience for exactly this type of advice. We celebrated our 7th wedding anniversary on a bike camping trip last weekend and we are thankful that we actually listened to each other and learned vicariously from the wisdom of others’ experience. Thanks for sharing! Cheers! :)

  • CedarWood says:

    “There you are. I came back to see what happened to you.”

    “Well, I saw this plant in the woods, and wondered what it was. (off the bike) Oh, wow, It’s a native rhododendron! What beautiful flowers!”

    “It’s odd that I didn’t see it when I rode past.”

    “That’s because you were going a hundred mph. You can’t see anything that way.”
    “How did you ride up that hill so fast with all those groceries? You were even sitting down! I had to stand up and it still took forever.”

    “I don’t like standing up because things sometimes bang around in the front basket, so I installed a nice low gear.”

    “Well, I’m still faster than you.”

    “Only because that bike has a taller top gear than this one. What’s your point? Aren’t we supposed to be enjoying this together?”

  • CedarWood says:

    When one partner has been formerly involved with racing bikes, the transition to utility cycling is difficult for both persons. For the record, I do like racing bicycles also. They are just not as practical for everyday use.

    For the other half, speed and lightness seem to matter more than function and form, even when the versatile utility bike proves it’s worth over and over.

    I’m not sure what to say sometimes, since it’s all been said at least once by now. So I mostly turn a deaf ear to negative comments about my speed and riding/safety habits. We have a good relationship otherwise.

  • Runjikol says:

    In essence it’s about sharing. :-)

    How nice is it to share something with someone who really appreciates it?

    And thanks for sharing this.

  • jim says:

    37years and we’re still riding together! The only thing I would add to your list is patience, but you obviously know that already, because all your rules imply it. We love the sharing part most of all. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

  • townmouse says:

    Or I suppose you can just say ‘take your cell phone, meet me at x, have a nice ride,’ and enjoy the sight of your other half as a diminishing dot in the distance…

    I make sure it’s me that carries the water. That way he at least waits for me at the top of the hills

  • Gilles says:

    Nice article !
    personally, I found a way to level performances: I carry my 2 kids behind my bike and my wife carries nothing on hers.
    This way with 50kgs behind me, we ride at the same pace :-)
    The only problem will be when my kids grows up !
    Maybe that the solution will be to get her an electric bike…

  • Wayne says:

    My wife and I met as a result of cycling; we met in Canada whilst cycling touring, and we rode together for the next 4 months. I continued riding south while she worked to save money to meet me again in Ecuador, then we rode for 8 months to southern Argentina. So in fact Riding as Partners was the basis of our relationship. Matching speed was easy on tour since we could distribute gear weight appropriately. All your recommendations are good, and we employed them all naturally, which guaranteed our tour-relationship and we subsequently married post-tour.

    We still ride together – though not all the time – and are able to enjoy ourselves. She has learnt to draft well (perfect on the flats), and on the hills (and there are plenty of them here in Switzerland), I always wait at the top – this is really no different from a ‘hobby’ group or club ride.

    We very much enjoy riding together; it’s so much better than being stuck together in a cage, though that happens infrequently as we have no car ;-)

  • Ryan says:

    Great guidelines. I am happy to say that my wife and I already do many of the key points you outlined when riding together. I do find it easier to stay behind or next to her because I can’t gauge my speed when out front very well, I tend to unknowingly go too fast.

  • Olivier says:

    I particularly agree with your point # 3 : I made sure to buy my wife a decent bike even though she claimed that she didn’t care and that it was not necessary to put that much money on a bike !.

    We should also always keep that in mind when we ride with kids : unfortunately they often have some very heavy bikes compared to their weight (but not only as children bikes are often heavier than ours)

  • Prentiss says:

    I agree with what Alan wrote. A few weeks ago my wife and I rode a tandem on a club moonlight ride of around 20 miles. I had wanted my wife to go but she was worried about the distance and speed. I borrowed a tandem and she agreed to do the ride. We both enjoyed the ride very much and she agreed to go again. Yes…

    We use to ride a tandem a fair amount, but that was 20 years ago; we even rode a century on a tandem. I’m hoping to get her back on the tandem on a more regular basis now, but I must be patient.

    Communication is key as well as understanding expectations. I try to keep the ride easy without pushing too much, plus I keep the distance to something she believes she can do.

    Last night we rode our Townies around the neighborhood doing 5 miles at a very leisurely pace. I’ve been doing training rides in the evenings, but last night I took the night off from training to do a comfortable ride with my wife. I still enjoy it and we get to do something healthy together. She enjoys the slow pace and just pedaling a few miles in the evening.

    It is nice to share my passion of cycling with my wife, even on her terms. It is definitely worth the time and effort.

  • Helton says:

    About tandems, I think not only the couple’s relationship must be fine, but also the riding “style” should be similar. I am more used to be in heavy traffic and ride a bit fast, while my wife is more cautious – she is not used to ride in “auto-mode” yet.
    Since we live in a urban region, riding the tandem is a bit worrysome for her, and a lot demanding to me. It seems the principle of “get the best of both” actually is more like “each personal stresses transmits to the other”.
    That is absolutely not like this when we ride on separate bikes, because even having less riding skill and experience, her speed is quite good and we can make long rides. As always, taking care of thirst, hunger and physical tiring is very necessary not to end up being worn out wen coming home.
    The bottomline is: when it comes to riding together, subtle details can be far more important than what seems to be obvious.

  • Spanky says:

    I’ve been cycling solo most of my life, and suddenly recently I find myself getting a bit lonely. Perhaps it’s because my kids (8 and 11) are getting bigger and I sense that they could be out there with me. I put together a bike for the older one, and, bribed with icecream, she occasionally cruises round town or down to the beach with me but she’s not really up to much. I think she feels insecure at getting left behind. I can’t slow down enough and still enjoy the ride myself!
    So I’m currently looking at getting a tandem to ride with greater security and togetherness with my kids, and maybe my wife if she starts showing any interest, with a view to doing some touring when they’re a bit older. I’m really interested in Da Vinci’s Independent Coasting System, which allows each rider to pedal at their own pace and cadence while both (obviously) going at the same speed. Naturally, if I get one of these magnificent and pretty expensive beasts it will be given the civilising EcoVelo Asthetic: Albatross bars, friction shifters, B67’s and so forth.
    I’m sure it will be a thing of great beauty.

  • Carfree and biking roundup and links for August 2010 | Carfree with Kids — Carfree with Kids says:

    […] you ride with a partner ever, especially a significant other? Then this post by Alan at Eco Velo is for you. He talks about how to ride together without wanting to kill each other, even if you have […]

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