by Bill McCready
Should my stoker continue to put a foot down at signals and/or help to launch my tandem from a stop?
Bill’s Primary Rule of Tandeming settles this and most related questions. It’s very simple. Only five words to remember. After discovering The Method nearly thirty years ago, I perfected the present wording of Bill’s Primary Rule of Tandeming a few years later. Use it to settle all tandem disputes. Are you ready? The next line you read is Bill’s Primary Rule of Tandeming:
The Stoker makes no mistakes.
From this primary rule virtually all other points of tandem etiquette can be derived.
Actually Bill’s Primary Rule of Tandeming sounds better when you put a dramatic pause between the third and fourth words:
The Stoker makes… … no mistakes.
I was never in the Navy, but I’ve been told if a steersman runs the ship aground while the Captain is asleep in his bunk, it’s the captain’s fault. My rule of tandeming is one step better. Instead of fixing the blame on a tandem’s captain, my rule simply absolves the stoker. When a problem does occur, a tandem captain is invited to attempt to shift the blame to such things as traffic, terrain, equipment, atmospheric conditions or even planetary alignment. But pox on any captain who would ever be so wrong-headed as to malign a stoker!
(This from someone who has ridden as captain and stoker with thousands of partners.)
What does this have to do with starting and stopping? Plenty. Stokers aren’t responsible for balancing the bike (why should they be?). Asking a stoker to put a foot down when they can’t control the brakes is expecting too much. Having them help with the re-launch when they can’t steer is even worse. Besides, once you eventually come to truly believe “the stoker makes no mistakes” it becomes clear that stopping and starting the tandem is not their problem.
And while I hope this posting causes readers to smile… I am NOT joking. If you want me as a stoker (and I’m a good one) don’t expect me to uncleat at signals and don’t give me any brake levers. As a stoker I pedal, contribute to worthwhile conversations and (when advised) provide hand signals. If you’re not abusive and ask nicely, I’ll advise you of traffic or tell you what gear you’re in. And if you overlook the occasional misdirection, I’ll even agree to help navigate. But please don’t presume that I can somehow choose a line through a corner, assertively weave though traffic, select the proper gear or stop the bike at a signal. Face facts — I can’t steer or see the road in front of the front tire. In short, it isn’t my job to “drive the bike” and I therefore refuse to take responsibility.
Some people might think The Method demeans stokers. Bull. The best tandem teams are not composed of riders who somehow crimp their individual styles enough to coexist on a two-seated bike with only one set of controls. The best tandem teams are TEAMS where each rider appreciates their individual role and responsibility.
And this is especially true if you ride with a spouse. When the average married man strikes his thumb with a hammer, he immediately blames his wife. Wives, because of superior intelligence, soon learn to leave a room when husbands open a toolbox.
So two decades ago, when I bought a bike shop and started introducing married couples to tandems, I soon realized that the method I had developed long before marriage (I bought my Parsons racing tandem before my sixteenth birthday) was truly The Method for married couples. If you want your stoker to continue to ride tandem with you, don’t EVER point the finger of blame. And the best way to avoid blaming your stoker is to start by understanding that it really isn’t ever their fault: The Stoker makes no mistakes.
Because of dozens of lectures I’ve presented at tradeshows, rallies and dealer meetings over the past fifteen years, The Method is now taught to most beginning couples when they visit an American specialty shop (Malcolm is from the UK). The very first sentence of my riding instructions to beginning couples may help illustrate my central theme of this posting: “The captain straddles the bike with legs spread wide and locks the brakes.” I then explain that a captain needs to remember to do this so a stoker won’t knock them over or roll the bike forward as they climb aboard. I then tell the captain that if he forgets these instructions and, as a result, is goosed by his saddle and falls onto his top tube, it’s not the stoker’s fault.
After I’m sure the captain understands that his backside and family jewels are at risk, I continue with: “And the captain must keep their legs spread until the stoker has both feet in the clips.” At this point I turn to the prospective captain and say, “Let’s see if you’re still with me on this. Whose fault do you suppose it is if the pedals somehow spin around and bloody your shins?”
So I’m sorry if John Schubert bowdlerized my instructions when he wrote “The Tandem Scoop.” Do I believe John was restating my instructions? Absolutely. I remember when John visited Bud’s Bike Shop in 1981 and learned The Method. My memory is especially vivid because I was Schubert’s first stoker. A year later John purchased his first tandem (a classic marathon-style Santana) which he still rides with his lovely wife, Anne. John and I have argued tandems often through the years and I sincerely was honored when he mailed me an inscribed copy of his excellent book. I recommend it highly.
Exceptions (?) to The Proper Method
I’ve received nearly 50 responses to “The Proper Method.” I’m glad most of you enjoyed it. A very few respondents wanted to insist upon or ask about exceptions to Bill’s Primary Rule of Tandeming: “The Stoker makes no mistakes.” Here are some additional thoughts:
John Dante correctly remembered a further portion of The Proper Method from when I taught him to ride a tandem at a rally some years ago. This has to do with using your hip to hold the bike in a more vertical position. I omitted this from my earlier brief (by my standards) posting — since a lot of you seem to be enjoying this thread, here’s a further portion of my instructions to new tandem riders.
My test-ride sequence includes a short ride with the each customer. I always ride with the prospective stoker first and 98% of the time this is the wife/girlfriend. During a pleasant ten-minute ride I make it a point to warn women “guys develop bad habits while riding single bikes.”
After we’ve finished her test ride, it’s his turn to be my stoker. I ask her to stand-by and watch while we get started. After repeating the basic “here’s how the captain gets on the bike” demonstration I gave ten minutes earlier, I tell him he must get on the same way his wife did earlier — by putting a foot on one pedal and swinging the other foot directly onto the opposite pedal — like getting on a horse.
When the husband is totally clipped-in (if he’s wearing cleated shoes, I’ll insist he lock-in), I ask him to raise the left pedal halfway for me. As soon as the pedal is cocked I turn to his wife standing next to us on the curb and say, “Remember how I warned you that guys develop bad habits from riding a single bike?” As she nods I raise my left foot to the pedal and slowly start to lean the bike to the right.
"I don’t know why," I state (as the bike leans further) "but for some strange reason guys always want to…"
At this point I’m usually interrupted by frantic movement from a panicked stoker, who more often than not, has managed to free his right foot and plant it on the ground. I calmly turn to him and say, “Stokers are supposed to leave their feet in the pedals — go ahead and clip back in, I won’t drop you.”
After he hesitantly reholsters his foot, I turn back to the wife and continue from the beginning… “Remember how I warned you that guys develop bad habits from riding a single bike?” She smiles as I again start to tilt the tandem towards my right foot. By now she understands my joke and is struggling to control her composure while her husband fights panic on a bike that’s leaning ever-further earthward. “I don’t know why,” I continue “but for some strange reason guys always want to lean a bike waaaayyyyyy over before they start to ride. And if you’re the stoker, it feels like the captain is going to drop you. But you shouldn’t worry when he does this to you — and he will do this to you — it only FEELS like he’s going to drop you. Of course I didn’t do this to you when you were on the tandem because there’s a technique a captain can use to get started without leaning the bike. And once I’m sure I’ve gotten your husband’s attention — have I got your attention back there? — I’ll demonstrate the proper technique.”
Because the tandem is now leaned at a precarious angle, husbands are invariably eager to learn my no-lean starting technique.
What is this technique? Simply use your hip to anchor the top tube.
Captains should NEVER EVER rely on arm and shoulder strength to hold up their stoker: doing so causes you to need to lean the tandem, which in turn causes the stoker to want to put their foot down. Fear or mistrust — NOT a sense of teamwork — is the real inspirations for those stokers who unclip at stops.
(In the following lesson I’ll continue to follow the customary practice of left-footed starts — If you lead with your right foot, simply exchange my rights and lefts).
After a stoker signals their readiness by proffering the captain’s left pedal (my techniques for tandeming don’t require verbal commands, questions or answers), the captain changes from the “spread-em” position (to keep his shins from being bloodied) to the one-foot-in-pedal position. The correct way to do this is for the captain to bring his right foot closer to the centerline of the bike, then, after shifting all his weight to his right foot, he lifts his left foot up onto the pedal while simultaneously dropping his left hip onto the top tube. The captain now shifts 90% of his weight to the left hip. The bike is leaned only very slightly (maybe 5 degrees?) and the right foot remains flat on the ground. If you’re going to remain in this position for more than a couple of seconds, slide your hip back along the top tube until the nose of your saddle is wedged to the outboard edge of your left jersey pocket. If you’ve done this correctly (and it may take a little bit of practice), you should now be able to take your hands completely off the bars. The tandem can’t fall to your left because the top tube can’t pass through your leg, and the wedged saddle keeps the bike fro m falling to your right. The trick is to use the weight of your body (through your hip), and not your strength (through your arms) to secure the bike. Because the bike is anchored mid-frame instead of being held by pivoting bars at the forward end, the stoker can now do handstands on the rear saddle without knocking you over. While relative weight is a consideration, as long as your stoker doesn’t exceed twice your weight, holding them up should not be a problem.
In fact, when I captained my Santana Quint with fellow members of the Claremont City Council (three of the four didn’t even own a bike), combined stoker weight topped 750 pounds. We started with nine feet in the pedals and only my right foot on the ground. Because we rode in parades, there were lots of starts and stops. My four stokers not only left their eight feet in the toe straps, they were free to turn and wave to the crowds with both hands. If we had fallen in front of hundreds of constituents, whose fault would it have been?
Answer: The Stoker(s) make no mistakes.
Teams who “prefer” putting two feet on the ground at stops invariably do so because the captain has never mastered The Proper Technique. A captain who anticipates the stoker’s assistance will retain bad habits learned from riding a single-bike. When a captain leans the tandem at every stop, the stoker reflexively puts a foot on the ground. Does a stoker do this through a sense of teamwork? Nope, it’s self-preservation.
A couple of respondents believe The Proper Technique was developed to overcome stoker ineptitude. Others may think it’s a plot to feed a captain’s insatiable hunger for control. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Proper Technique was developed by all-male go-fast tandem teams as a competitive strategy to beat racers on single bikes. When I first started riding tandems, the guys I rode with all wore slippery-soled racing shoes with nailed-on cleats. With toe clips and old-fashioned cleated shoes it was necessary to reach down and loosen two toe straps before removing our feet . After starting we not only had to coast to get our feet in the clips, we had to then reach down and tighten both straps before sprinting. Here near LA, where long portions of our training routes had a traffic signal on every corner, a tandem with two cleated riders simply couldn’t keep up with singles in stop-and-sprint traffic. Initially, leaving the stoker strapped-in was a daring riding technique reserved for coordinated teams. Once we mastered The Proper Technique, we realized it’s easier and safer than the obvious method used previously.
Safer? Absolutely. Because stokers can’t see the ground or accurately gauge the exact instant the tandem will come to a complete stop, stokers will (sooner or later) misjudge a landing and make a misstep. And if the captain was depending on the coordinated effort of the stoker, the team will tumble to the pavement. While most teams will someday fall over at a stoplight no matter which method they use, this incident is far less common with teams who don’t rely on coordinated efforts.
But the best reason to use The Proper Method is not to win stoplight sprints or to avoid superficial scrapes and bruises. The best reason for the stoker to stay clipped-in is so both riders understand exactly whose responsibility it is to control the bike. Without this demarcation, in a moment of pain and embarrassment the average captain (like the average husband who hits his thumb with a hammer) might lash out at his stoker. There are hundreds of husbands with wives who no longer ride their tandem — avoidable mishaps and misplaced blame are problems all tandem riding couples should work to avoid.
This is why an inseparable relationship exists between The Proper Technique and “The Stoker makes no mistakes.” It’s impossible to absolve the stoker of all blame when the stoker’s efforts are required at every stop.
Are there any exceptions to Bill’s Primary Rule of Tandeming?
Nope. Not one.
If you think you’ve discovered an exception to “The Stoker makes no mistakes,” I’m certain a closer examination will reveal a captain who should’ve known better.