Trading Places

Saturday 30 August 2014, Filed in: General

Seasoned front tandem rider, Dom Irvine, has traded places read his story about being the person on the back.

C’mon, admit it, you’re like most other people I’ve met. The thing that puts you off about being a on tandem is being The Stoker - the person at the back. Staring at someone’s backside whilst having no control over where you are going. Hardly a recipe for fun is it? Or so I thought….

You see, I’ve been The Captain (the person at the front of a tandem) for years. I love it, I mean I really really love it. It’s a complete blast. But I’ve never stoked. This year I got a new tandem partner. He’s a bit bigger and a bit faster than I am and logically it makes sense that he rides at the front. Actually, given our ultra endurance focus the real benefit is being able to swap positions such that we can both be The Captain or The Stoker.

And so I found myself climbing aboard the back for the first time. Sure, I’d been round the block a few times on the back with friends. But this was a proper ride where the average speed over the 80 or so miles would be well over 20mph. To say I was anxious was an understatement.

The experience was a revelation. So fellow Captains, here’s what it’s like.

The view The human eye has a horizontal field of view of about 180 degrees. The rider in front consumes a small part of that. Move your head and your eyes and there is a lot of world you can see whilst riding that isn’t the jersey in front. More importantly, because I wasn’t having to worry about the road in front of me I saw things I’d never seen on rides I had done many times. It was really enjoyable. Of course, if all you do is stare at the jersey all you will see is the jersey. So stop looking at it and look elsewhere.

Concentration As The Stoker, because I wasn’t having to concentrate on where the pot holes were or the right line on the road, or the gears, I had so much more capacity to think, relax or focus on other things. This was the biggest revelation of all. Imagine being on an exercise bike in the gym but outside with a constantly changing view - that’s how it felt. It was great. I found myself really relaxed and enjoying it - I could focus on getting the power down and enjoying the view.

You can do other things The route we planned was closed due to military exercises taking place on Salisbury Plain. With space to think and concentrate, we kept riding whilst I read the map on my phone and created a new route. You simply can’t do this at the front. If the Captain gives up the navigation to the Stoker they also benefit as they have less to think about.

As a Captain, I know how nice it is to have food handed to me whilst riding that it is prepared in way that is easy to eat. This means pre-opening energy bars, or passing small handfuls of sweets forward. As a Stoker I could get this just right. This helped create the sense of teamwork and rather than being a burden (as I had assumed as Captain) it felt good to be contributing in more ways than simply pedalling.

You have a better sense of teamwork I always thought as Captain you had the best sense of how you were performing as a team. It turns out the Stoker is much more tuned in. You can see and feel when you are both out of sync whereas the Captain can only feel it. This means as a Stoker you can do things more easily to adjust how you are riding to get the fluidity back into the teamwork.

What wind? At the front of the bike there is almost always a headwind. It’s either a genuine headwind or it’s the air rushing past as you fly along at speed. Either way its a draughty place to be. As Stoker, wear one layer less than the Captain is wearing - you won’t need it. You are sheltered from the wind. It’s quieter, warmer and much more pleasant - especially riding into driving rain.

The Captain doesn’t want to get hurt either It’s like plane travel. There’s nothing I can do about how the pilots fly the plane. What I do know is that they want to get home to their families at the end of a shift and therefore stay safe. In the same way, The Captain doesn’t want to crash - it hurts! My fear of not being in control of these factors was assuaged by the knowledge that he would be riding the bike within his abilities in order to stay upright. Thinking like this enabled me to be more relaxed.

Will I stoke more? Yes. The revelation to me was that I enjoyed being a stoker as much as I did being a captain - I’d never admit it to my riding partner, but it was so much less stressful than being the Captain. It’s a very different experience than captaining the bike.

Many of the concerns people have about getting on the back are simply unfounded. So if you are a tandem Captain, take my advice, if you are a similar size to your Stoker, swap positions, it’s a joy.

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