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Let’s Open the Discussion of Tandem Bicycles

By George Hannan December 17, 2023 Lifestyle

I’m a member of a great online group for cyclists aged 70+. They are inspirational. A few days ago another member, Szifra Birke, posted a wonderful Presidential Archive photo of President Jimmy Carter and his late wife Rosalynn enjoying a tandem bicycle ride in Plains, Georgia, in 1980. View it here. Szifra also co-authored a book titled In Tandem – Pedaling Through Midlife On A Bicycle Built For Two.

Just Askin’

On the post about President Carter and the late Rosalynn, I posed a short question on the group timeline: ‘Why is Jimmy up front’?

Courtesy: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library

The reason for the question was that in most cases it seems we assume as a default that the man’s place is “in the driver’s seat,” so to speak. Things may have moved along somewhat since the 1980s in terms of gender equality, etc. But it’s worth probing the “default thinking.”

In the end though, there are some good reasons for the male ‘captain’, as the front rider is called, and the female ‘stoker’ at the back, which I’ll touch on below. Apparently, those are the recognised role titles for a tandem team! Comes from old steam locomotive parlance, or so they say.

But looking at the question I posed, there was only one response. It skirted the point I was trying to probe by simply responding that the ‘captain’ normally took the front seat, with the ‘stoker’ behind. Seems we were down the default road again.

A quick look at Google Images, Pinterest and other social media around tandem bicycles seems to confirm that in most cases the male takes the “captain’s” seat. So that part of the general impression would appear to bear out. I thought I would then try to tap into a few sentiments closer to home.

My partner and I live for our cycling, on our solo bicycles. We’ve racked up thousands of blissful kilometres on some magnificent cycling trails over the past years. Certainly, there are way more male cyclists than female. And that’s ok, it can only be from choice as nobody’s trying to discourage anyone from cycling, female or male. And barely a few tandems in all that time.

And This Is Why

A quick query to the ‘stoker’ of the only couple I know locally who own and use a tandem. Yes, female too. Why ‘stoker’? She said she loves to ride on the tandem. But also said she prefers to ride ‘stoker’ as she doesn’t have the confidence to ride ‘captain’. Steering, brakes, gears – all that sort of thing. Fair enough.

Jay and Szifra in Provincetown Sept 2019 with NEWTS_v1-kneesthighs black

Next, a query to my partner, what about riding a tandem? She says no way would she ride ‘stoker’ as she wouldn’t want her view of the countryside blocked. Anyway, I’m taller, so I could be ‘stoker’, and enjoy the view too! Sounds rational.

And to my mind that did make sense.

But solo cycling is very much our scene. Hence, we wouldn’t need to tease out any of the potentially touchy male frailties around who sits where on a tandem.

Stay On Script

But just to go back to President Carter and his late wife on the tandem for a moment.

Interestingly enough, there are plenty of photos in the public domain of President Carter, the late First Lady, and their children on solo bicycles. So clearly there’s a passion for cycling in the family.

But only the most out of touch would fail to appreciate the symbolism and optics around a photo of the President and First Lady on a tandem bicycle. After all, the media vultures, opposing political hacks, activists of every description, etc., wouldn’t hesitate for one microsecond to hijack anything that deviated from the standard script. So down the middle in terms of US culture of the day it had to be.

Nudge Forward

But my question was really directed towards the broader consideration of ‘default’ thinking and expectations around the sexes. Clearly, there are some preordained physiological functions and roles. Beyond that, things are changing at a rapid rate.

For example, all-female airline pilot crews are now common, as are female fighter jet and nuclear bomber pilots, female boxers – you name it. All across human endeavour, from the corporate boardroom to entrepreneurship, public service, politics, sport, military service and space exploration the gender balance is making progress.

And that’s a very good thing. There’s plenty of valid research which shows that gender balance and equality are very positive forces and something that needs to be supported by every reasonable person.

So while President and the late Rosalynn Carter are a very special case, I believe it’s always important to give the issue a nudge to keep minds alert and keep momentum moving in the right direction.

What simple but powerful questions have worked for you?

And if cycling, solo or tandem, is something you’d like to try, there’s a helpful guide for Golden Years beginners here.

You may also like to read 10 BIKEABLE CITIES IN THE USA FOR WOMEN OVER 50.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Have you tandem biked? With whom? Which role came more natural to you? Would you consider it a sexism to ride stoker? Or would you appreciate the experience either way? Do you think everything should always be considered in terms of gender?

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Gayle

My husband and I also ride a tandem. He is in the front because that section of the bike is sized better for him. When I ride in the front, the stretch to the handlebars is too long for me. When we ride, I refer to myself as the “Rear Admiral”.

George Hannan

Hi Gayle, thank you for reading and commenting on my article. Yes, I think that’s a much better title! 😅

Rita

My husband and I tried to ride tandem with me in front but that didn’t work out so well. I read something that said the person who weighs more should be in front and having my husband in front on the tandem works the best for us. But we predominantly ride our solo bikes as I like to have control on the bicycle same as I do on my motorcycle. I rode on the back of the motorcycle only twice – did not like it at all.

George Hannan

Hi Rita, thank you for reading and commenting. Wonderful, you’re obviously passionate about 2-wheel transport! We love our cycling too, and in my younger years I also enjoyed motorcycling very much. Often tempted to get back into it, but haven’t taken the plunge, as yet, who knows! 😊. Best, G

Delta

My husband and I had a tandem in the 80s and 90s and rode it all over the place. We each rode both positions and soon discovered that the bike was more stable with the stronger person in front. It was a lot of fun and we got a lot of attention.

sandy

I agree. The stronger person should be in the front. When I was a kid, my best friend had a tandem. I was the smaller of the two of us, by far. When I rode in front, it was really difficult. When she was in front, a breeze. That’s why men usually ride in front.

George Hannan

Hi Sandy, thank you for reading and commenting. It’s great to get practical experience feedback, thanks again 😊, best, G

Last edited 1 month ago by George Hannan
George Hannan

Hi Delta,
Thank you for reading my article and commenting, and that’s very helpful information, good to know. Absolutely agree, cycling is wonderful, especially in bicycle-friendly areas and cities. Best, G

Last edited 1 month ago by George Hannan

The Author

George Hannan is enjoying retired life in northern Portugal with his partner Tania. They prioritise healthy, active lives mainly through hiking and cycling in the beautiful Portuguese countryside. George is a keen reader. He also enjoys writing and blogging about health, activity and lifestyle, relating to people in their mature years.

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