Not since Paul Newman wheeled Katherine Ross around on handlebars has doubling up on a bike looked so good.
Tandem bikes, once curiosities for bike bugs, are becoming regular fare on the Centennial Trail, area club rides and in growing families.
They’re still rare enough for Michael Conley to hear: “Look Ma, a two-headed bike.”
But with mountain, road and touring tandems available from $600 to $7,500, more riders are choosing to double up. Many are time-pressed riders maximizing their cycling time with socializing. Others have sight or other physical limitations. Others do it for the same reason old Butch Cassidy did.
“Romance,” said Conley, owner of North Division Bicycle Shop, who tandems regularly with his partner, Eileen Hyatt. “It’s romantic.”
“This is a much more intimate way of cycling,” said Joan Berkowitz, after her first tandem outing with her husband, Don. “Look, I can pinch his butt.”
“My butt needs it,” her spouse said with a grimace.
In what writer John Schubert calls the ballroom dancing of bicycling, tandem riding is a duet of pedal and push, bump and brake, lead and follow.
The “captain,” in front, steers, brakes and shifts, while the “stoker” in the rear usually rings the bell, signals to traffic and pedals mightily.
Because the pedals are in synch, there is no real coasting - contrary to the hundreds of people who’ve told Ian Ledlin that his wife Betty “isn’t doing anything back there.”
“It’s the oldest joke in the world,” said Ledlin, a Spokane attorney. “She’s the real motor and she forces me to work a lot harder trying to keep up with her.”
In the eight years the Ledlins have ridden tandem, they’ve gone from contacting a handful of riders for regional tandem events to contacting more than 90 today.
Spokane even hosts its own tandem mini-rally: a Labor Day ride to Rathdrum for pancakes at the Lions Club.
“The exposure in Spokane is finally catching up with other Northwest cities,” said Mike Aho, recreation supervisor for the city of Spokane. “The riders who started riding bikes as college students are now looking for a different experience and they have the financial means of buying them.”
You can find good quality 21- or 24-speed tandems for $1,300 to $2,500. You can rent single-speed tandems at Quinn’s in Riverfront Park for $10 an hour. (Quinn’s will also have a buddy or side-by-side three-wheeled tandem available this summer.)
But for $19, beginners can tandem through a summer evening and have a barbecue to boot through the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department.
The city, which bought tandems in 1988 for disabled riders, last year doubled its fleet to 12. It sponsors a series of popular rides for teens, women, seniors and conventioneers.
Sandy Johnson, 56, tried tandem riding through the parks department and liked it so much she’s now on her second tandem. Last weekend, she and boyfriend Howard Flake rode in the 235-mile Tour of the Swan River Valley in Montana.
They talked, spurred each other on and soaked up scenery. Riding in the stoker position, Johnson could also read maps, peel bananas or open orange juice. They never lost each other in the crush and whacked hours off their time riding individual bikes.
Although the tandem’s weight makes pedaling uphill more difficult (you need low gears), on flat roads and down hills tandems can easily hit 55 miles per hour.
And therein lies the rub.
“At 55 miles per hour, I’ll be crouched down trying to be aerodynamic profile, and my wife will be sitting up holding her jacket open to slow us down,” Ledlin said.
The true give-and-take of tandem riding may be in how matched the riders are, how well they communicate and who sits where.
The stoker in the rear must be willing to give up the front view and control of the bike. The captain must be willing to yell “bump” or “shift” and mount the bike like a greenhorn would a horse: Ideally, by whipping your foot over the front so you don’t catch your leg on the rear handlebars.
Who rides where? In his book for the Burley Design Cooperative, “The Tandem Scoop,” Schubert recommends experience and skill should decide. The rider who is more experienced should go in front, and barring that, the one who is more decisive, or who is taller and heavier.
For Laurie and Duane Nelson, it’s obvious.
Their 3-year-old daughter Anna Lee rides behind her mother. The pedals and handlebars on their mountain tandem have been adapted to fit her 32-pound body. She has a helmet and bike shorts that match her mom’s. But she also has a seat back and seatbelt - in case she falls asleep.
The Nelsons were inspired to get Anna Lee on the tandem after seeing children riding with parents at regional tandem rallies. This weekend, Tea For Two in Victoria, B.C., will attract more than 400 teams.
At 35 to 45 pounds with oversize tubing and a long frame, tandems can be difficult to transport - especially for small car owners or those trying to use a roof rack alone.
Outings do require a partner. Special care is needed on sharp turns, wet or sandy pavement, sewer grates and railroad tracks.
For ill-matched partners, tandems are “bikes designed by divorce lawyers,” quipped one rider.
“A tandem is a test of a relationship, no question about it. It’s an exercise in cooperation and trust,” Conley said.
Still, few other modes of transportation are as effective at making children’s heads swivel for a second look.
Johnson has come to love her tandem so much that she forces herself onto a single bike out of fear she’s becoming dependent on her partner.
Bruce Steele, head of transportation for the city, owns mountain, touring and road bikes, but uses his tandem more than all three. “It’s something my wife and I can do together.”
Even beginners find themselves pumping harder, picking up the lingo and calling everything else on the road a “half bike.”
“Tandem riders,” Conley says, “have a sense of humor.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: MORE SPOKANE EVENING BIKE RIDES Homemade honey mustard dressing, grilled chicken and a leaning tower of corn bread were waiting at the North Bank Shelter at Riverfront Park. “This is my kind of bike trip,” said Kathy Whiteaker, sitting down to a spread. Sign up for the city of Spokane’s evening rides, and Joy Shannon will spend the time you’re biking cooking dinner over coals - even pineapple upside down cake. “I have the best job in the world,” said Shannon, who cooks for the city’s outdoor recreation program. Among the pickings this year are the following tandem bike outings: Women-only bike and barbecue, July 21 and Sept. 13 ($19). Seniors-only bike and barbecue, June 21 and Sept. 12 ($19). All adults bike and barbecue, June 22, July 14, Aug. 24 and Sept. 14 ($19). Teens-only, July 14 (no barbecue; $9). Groups of up to 14 can also rent the six 21-speeds. The city includes helmets and a staff escort for $99. For more information, call 625-6200. All class sizes are limited and non-city of Spokane residents must pay a $2 fee.