More than 20 years ago, George and Linda Wells decided that bicycling together would be a perfect way to exercise and enjoy the rolling Morris County countryside near their home in Dover. They bought a pair of used bicycles. That was their first mistake.
George is a shade under 6 feet tall; Linda is at least a foot shorter.
“I couldn’t stay up with him,” says Linda. “She wasn’t having a good time,” adds George.
It’s a common problem with a fairly simple solution: a tandem bicycle.
George and Linda tested a few tandems, bought one, and together plunged into their new activity. They began joining other couples for excursions, called tandem rallies. In 1996, they helped start a tandem club that came to be known as Doubles of the Garden State (DOGS).
DOGS has about 70 two-person teams that assemble year-round, weather permitting, for group rides. The group includes mostly couples, including numerous empty-nesters. “Middle age tends to be the time most riders come to tandem,” says George. But the group attracts younger riders, too.
“This is something we can do together—and stay together,” says Diana Uribe, a teacher’s aide and yoga instructor from Pompton Plains. She and her husband, Percy, who works for a brokerage firm, have been DOGS for about six years. Percy used to race bicycles. Now he rides at Diana’s more laid-back pace.
Fern Goodhart, a Highland Park resident who rides with her husband, Tom, is blunt about the togetherness of tandem biking. “On tandem rides,” she says, “he’s stuck with me.”
Many group rides run between 30 and 50 miles and follow low-traffic, tree-lined roads in the most rural and scenic parts of Jersey—from the hilly north to the flatter south. There are also off-road rides for “dirty DOGS” on tandem mountain bikes, as well as rail-trail rides for “dusty DOGS.” (For a schedule of upcoming tandem rides, visit their website.)
All of the rides are noncompetitive. “Most of us usually try to find a way to include ice cream on the rides,” says Mark Cucuzella of Annandale, who rides tandem with his wife, Cheryl Prudhomme. Indeed, the DOGS website declares: “We engage in two principal activities: riding and eating.”
Most of the group lives in New Jersey, but there are DOGS from New York and seven other states—there’s even a couple that lives in Switzerland. Some of the group’s excursions take them to New York or Pennsylvania.
Not all riders are couples. For more than 20 years, Dave Snope has teamed with Susan Nicolich, a neighbor in the Hunterdon County borough of Califon. “One thing is to keep in shape,” says Nicolich. But she also likes the social aspect of the group.
Before they became the DOGS, the group was known as the New Jersey Tandem Club. Changing the name fit the tandem-club tendency of adopting corny animal acronyms. There’s the Chicago Area Tandem Society (CATS), for example, and even better, the Paired Iowans Going Somewhere (PIGS).
“It’s kind of a loose-knit worldwide community,” says George Wells.
Naturally, tandem riding generates its own terminology. The rider at the front of the bike is called a captain; the rider at the rear is a stoker. The captain is usually the better bicycle handler and often, but not always, male.
“When we’re under way, I’m in charge,” says George.
“Yes, sir!” replies Linda.
“It’s just fun,” adds George. “You’re never riding alone.”
It does, however, take some work. Just getting on a tandem requires some technique. Mel Kornbluh, of Tandems East, a bike shop in Pittsgrove, taught the Wellses how to get started. The captain straddles the front tube of the bike and squeezes the brakes, allowing the stoker to get on the bike. Kornbluh calls this the Method. Once both riders are on the bike, they do a countdown and start pedaling together.
“The first time, you usually have a couple of false starts where you don’t get any momentum,” says George. “But if you use the Method correctly, your chances of falling are minimal.”
On the road, the captain sets the pace. If George wants to go faster, he pedals harder. If Linda can’t maintain George’s pace, he can feel that she is lagging and backs off. The captain also applies the brakes and shifts the gears as needed.
On many teams, the stoker also downloads a route map or follows the route on a GPS mounted on the bike. The stoker can then warn the captain of upcoming turns and changes in elevation. The stoker might also be responsible for food and drink.
“It’s a team effort,” says George. Adds Linda: “That’s why we’re called Team Wells.”
Annual membership in the DOGS is just $10 per team. But entry into the sport is not cheap. Virtually all tandem bikes require some customization to compensate for the height differences between riders. Most DOGS ride bikes that run $3,000–$5,000, but some can be made for as little as $1,000. High-end tandem bikes can sell for more than $10,000.
Percy and Diana Uribe spent about $4,000 for their blue tandem bike. Considering how often they ride, they consider it a great purchase.
Most tandem bikes are designed for taller riders to be at the front. George has a 35-inch inseam, Linda, 25 inches. So the frame of George’s part of the bike is taller than Linda’s section.
On tandem bikes, as on normal bikes, a single chain links the pedals to the back wheel. But a tandem bike also has a sync chain linking the two sets of pedals. The pedals work together, allowing the riders to generate more power.
George recalls the day when he and Linda took their first test ride at the Tandems East shop. Over dinner at a nearby restaurant, they decided to make the purchase. The bike, they agree, has helped them grow closer than ever.
“Whatever direction your relationship is headed in,” says Linda, “tandem will get you there faster.”
And one more thing: “When the tandem goes down,” she adds, “you both go down.”
Contributor David Caldwell covers sports and outdoor recreation for New Jersey Monthly.Click here to leave a comment