When my wife and I completed a 40-mile bike ride down the Jersey Shore from Ocean City to Cape May, NJ, one morning some years ago, we were quite pleased with our accomplishment.
Then we met up with my old boyhood chum, Ken Gass, and his wife, Francie, who stopped in Tucson earlier this year while biking their way across the United States, and found that 40-mile morning workouts were easy days for them — they would average almost twice that, day after day for six weeks, pedaling from San Diego to St. Augustine.
And they were doing it on one bike, which presented its own share of challenges and rewards. Here is Part I of their entertaining and instructive tale of adventure, grit, and how to keep a marriage together on a bicycle built for two:
By Ken and Francie Gass
For 44 days — from the end of February 2021 until early April — we hopped on our tandem bike and cycled 2,804 miles across America.
Along the way, we climbed 73,400 feet and averaged 72 miles a day at a speed of 14.7 mph, with one rest day roughly every week.
Our Southern Tier bike route — the shortest of the three established cross-country cycling routes — took us ocean to ocean from San Diego, California, to St. Augustine, Florida.
We crossed deserts, battled high winds and sore body parts, took on the challenge of conquering Texas (18 days!) and Ken’s fear of bridges, and negotiated the complex and entirely separate duties of two riders on one bike.
And we’re both in our 70s.
We didn’t do it alone — we were supported by a company called Cycle of Life Adventures, and we had five other riders (all baby boomers!) and two support staff along for the trip.
And, in case you’re wondering, after six weeks together on a tandem bike, we can honestly say that we are still in a healthy, happy marriage.
Where did we get this crazy idea?
In late January of 2020, we had just come home from a tandem trip to Central America and were still on a high from a fun adventure. The Coronavirus was barely in the news.
We saw an ad for riding the Southern Tier Route across America and thought it sounded like a great way to celebrate turning 70 and 75 in 2021. So we sent our money to Cycle of Life Adventures for a trip that was to begin 13 months later, in February 2021.
We like being physically fit and we enjoy reasonable challenges. This felt like a reasonable challenge because it was a fully supported ride and Ken was an experienced cyclist. He had ridden 9,000 miles on his bike in 2019. Francie had ridden 2,500 miles and run 650 miles.
Francie clearly was going to need to get more cycling miles in if she was going to enjoy this epic trip, but we had a year to train. And as it turned out, the pandemic was a great time to train….there wasn’t much else to do! Riding our tandem meant we were outside — away from other people.
We spent 12 months gradually increasing our mileage, following the guidelines from Cycle of Life Adventures. And we later realized that training for this ride was nearly as significant to us as the ride itself.
We had to be self-motivated. We had to push ourselves to get out in nasty Pacific Northwest winter weather and be home before the sun set at 4:30 p.m.! We were proud of ourselves and our sense of forming a team with a common goal had begun.
This team identity may seem obvious, but when two people who approach the world as differently as we do…
Ken: I’m ready, aim, aim…Francie: “no fire” Ken: And Francie is ready, fire…Francie: “oh, aim!”
It takes time to become a team.
It is now January of 2021…the pandemic is in full swing. We don’t learn until mid-January that the tour is a for sure GO and then we are panic-stricken about getting two doses of vaccine before we leave.
Following the Cycle of Life Adventures guidelines, we are training three days in a row, one 70-plus day and two 40-50 mile days (we rode over 600 miles that month). We are physically ready and we get our second dose of vaccine on a Tuesday, fly to San Diego on Thursday, and start our ride on Saturday.
How does a tandem bike work?
- The Captain of the bike sits in the front seat, the Stoker sits behind.
- The left pedal and crank arm of the Captain and Stoker are connected by the timing chain –keeping their strokes synchronized. They either both coast or both pedal!
- The Stoker’s right crank is connected to the rear axle by the shorter drive chain that transfers the work of the two riders to turn the rear axle and propels them down the road.
What makes our Co-Motion Equator a touring tandem are its:
- Load-tolerating steel alloy frame;
- Threaded steel couplers in the frame that allow it to come apart into thirds for packing into two rollies accepted as normal airline baggage;
- Two hefty disc brakes for stopping power;
- Ample mount points for carrying packs and extra water bottles;
- Two hassle-free, oil-free carbon belts (not chains) lasting at least 11,000 miles (the life of our bike);
- 14 internal gears in the rear hub — no finicky external derailleurs or shifters, mechanical or electrical –- and a handy twist-grip shifter upfront.
- Nearly bullet-proof Kevlar belted tires. We had only one flat on our cross-country ride!
The weight of the bike, gear for the day, basic tools, and the two of us together came to 340 pounds — hence we called our bike the “Momentous Green Goddess”: slow to start, fast downhill, and relatively faster riding into a wind with two pedaling.
Who does what on a tandem?
Ken is the captain: His job is to pedal, steer, shift and brake.
Francie is the stoker: her main job is to pedal. Stoker may sound a lot easier, but you may have picked up on the fact that she is unable to steer, shift or brake.
As Stoker, Francie gets nervous when they go 35 mph downhill. She tucks in to reduce draft, but hangs on for dear life since she cannot brake. She truly has to trust Ken’s skills. Trust is what makes a tandem work.
Since Ken is the much more experienced cyclist, Francie does trust him. But she has also been known to say something like “ Don’t you dare go!!” when she senses he wants to turn left in front of oncoming traffic. It’s called verbal control, and she is good at it!
But Francie does more than just pedal…
- She signals our turns, lane changes and slowing or stopping;
- Alerts Ken to passing traffic — for example, “Stay right!” especially for semis and RVs with inexperienced drivers and large sideview mirrors;
- Waves to polite truckers who pull out away from us to pass;
- Spots wildlife and calls out their coordinates, such as “Eagle up at 1 o’clock”, and…
- Takes pictures pedaling hands-free (requires core strength).
Francie eventually felt confident taking both hands off the handlebar to take pictures, and got creative, taking shots over her head to get the others in our group riding behind us.
She even took pictures on the ginormous bridge over the Mighty Mississippi with a crosswind and approaching rainstorm, and we seated well-above the guard rail keeping us out of the river far below. Francie had no idea Ken was panic-stricken when riding on bridges — after 43 years of marriage!
Communication is key. You have to speak clearly and loudly. We have headsets on our helmets so we can hear each other above the traffic/wind noise.
What It’s like on a tandem ride
Okay, let’s go for a ride…Put on your helmets and cleats and hop on the imaginary third seat… Ken starts off straddling the bike, creating a stable base. Francie climbs on, with both shoes cleated into her pedals.
Ken: “Pedal Up”: Francie brings the left pedal to 3 o’clock, Ken cleats in on that side, holding us up only on his right foot, while Francie leans slightly left to keep us in balance.
Ken: Clear left!
Francie: Clear right!
Ken: Go! (We both push down on the left to get moving, then hesitate briefly for Ken to get his right shoe cleated in)
Francie: We turn right up here, correct?
Ken: Correct, clear left
Francie: OK, signaling right
Ken: Turning right
Francie: Car back (or as we said in Texas when a semi was behind us…TEXAS car back)
At every intersection Ken slows until we each have clear views… Ken: “Clear left”, Francie: “Clear right. ” And so it goes at every intersection.
Ken: OK, I want to get in the left turn lane…
Francie: You can change lanes now
Ken: – NOW?
Francie: YES! Signaling left! (pointing left hand down towards road)
Ken: OK, moving left
As you can see, you have to be quite specific.
Francie: This is minor, but I stay seated on the bike when we come to traffic lights. Ken has one foot clipped in and one foot on the road holding us up.
It’s not fun for him to hold up the bike and balance and start us going again. But it is also no fun for me to not get a butt break. I’m tensely keeping myself firmly planted on the seat!
The best advantage of riding a tandem is the lack of accusations: “You left me behind!” “What happened to you? You were right behind me!” We are always together and our teamwork is good for our marriage.
Editor’s Note: Wow — I would never have imagined riding a tandem bike would require such effort and coordination. It’s not exactly a jaunt in the park.
In the next segment, Part II of Two Boomers, One Bike, Ken and Francie face up to a variety of challenges as they pedal across country and assess the lessons learned along the way.
Authors’ Bio: Ken and Francie Gass are retired medical professionals who live in Bellingham, Washington, and are eagerly awaiting their next adventure.
I once tried to ride a tandem bike. Briefly! Balance and pedaling were both tricky.
The coordination required was surprising to me and so I am immensely impressed by Ken and Francie and what they accomplished! I note in the picture of their companions that they were the only ones in a tandem. — MB. firstname.lastname@example.org
Response: That’s right, MB — they were the only ones on a tandem. Riding the tandem was one of the most gripping parts of this story — it’s one thing to ride cross-country, another to do it on one bike and keep their marriage intact!
Wow, what an adventure, you two are amazing! — Todd Jones
Response: I certainly agree!