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Pink Lycra & Matching Socks

Tandem bike racing

100 Muddy Miles of Tandem 

by Ryan Delaney and Kurt Rosenberger

RYAN: There are plenty of stories about how riding a tandem has strengthened relationships, or how the encouragement of a cheerful stoker has pushed a flagging captain through a low point on a century, but even though my captain and I have been friends for years, we’re not here to talk about that.

Six hours into the 2012 Shenandoah Mountain 100, I leaned the wrong way and our bike dropped over the edge of the trail coming to a skidding, muddy halt. Kurt, our captain, put a foot down and said “Let me try something”. In a minute, I found myself walking, in the rain, up an hour-long singletrack climb. Kurt pedaled our bike alone up the mountain and out of sight. I wouldn’t catch up to him till I found him waiting at the top, anxious to try and get down the other side without wrecking us. If I had been coherent, I would’ve asked how I got into this mess.

In the summer of 2011, I was still scrambling to recover the fitness I lost in grad school. I was planning to just stay home and barbecue on Labor Day like a normal American.

That all changed when Kurt called me up one evening in August to sell me on the idea of stoking his tandem for 100 off-road miles.Kurt laid it on thick, showering me with the hypothetical positives of racing a tandem in the dirt, “We can buy matching socks!” I was sold.  After the three-martini haze of happy hour lifted, I remembered the other things he had said; “No, I’ve never ridden one either…how bad could it be?”

The morning of the race, we took our first ride together: from our tent down to the start line. There were only two other teams in our category, and all six of us realized that all we’d have to do was finish to get on the podium…awesome! We took off, and it seemed like we had been riding together for years. Kurt is an incredible bike handler, and as a local, knew all the right lines. It surprised a lot of folks to be passed on downhill singletrack by a tandem and two dudes in matching pink lycra. After a heated late-race battle, we rolled into the finish with a comfortable lead, got into our podium shirts, had a little champagne, and promptly hung the tandem up till next Labor Day.

In retrospect, not riding the thing for a year seems stupid, but we had gotten our first Shenandoah Mountain 100 win based purely on friendship and Kurt’s ridiculous downhill ability, so we weren’t worried—until we saw the wet forecast for race day. Still, flush with memories of victory, we suited up, and 364 days and 11 hours exactly after we hopped off the big machine, saddled up and rolled down to the start line. Then things got very real, very quick.

KURT: Ryan’s recollection of how things unrolled during our two years of tandem racing, though mostly accurate, leaves me looking sadistic. Bike racing is about discovery. Anyone who’s raced hard knows it can take on spiritual qualities. Sadist? No, but maybe I get a little masochistic when faced with an elevated heart rate and a timing chip.

Tandem racing is not like this. You aren’t going to find any catharsis when you can hear your buddy wheezing over your shoulder. There is no happy place that you can retreat to on that last climb of the day. Anyone who has raced an endurance event knows that beyond the physical stuff, keeping your mind and emotions in check is the real challenge. Tandem racing throws some social responsibility on top of all of that. “I’m okay…is Ryan okay?” “I’m thirsty, Ryan must be too”.  “Ryan, I want to keep going, can we?”

The broken record in my head spins faster than our shared wheels. For me, racing on a tandem became performance art. It’s about the spectacle, the hilarity and yes, the matching outfits. The idea was always that it’s supposed to be fun. 2011 was, so why wouldn’t 2012?  Hurricane Isaac?  Sure we’ll get muddy, but this is mountain biking!

Seven miles in, we took the first hard turn of the day: lean bike, turn handlebar, bike goes straight, wheels wash out, riders touch ground.  “I’m okay, are you okay?  Back on the bike!” As the day went on, “let’s get back on” became “let’s push for a little”.

Ryan and I had some highs during our long ride, and plenty of lows. At times, the highs and lows aligned nicely and we commiserated or celebrated together. At times, our highs and lows were out of sync, which is when I usually kept my mouth shut.

Fourteen hours later, with borrowed brakepads and lights, we crossed the line for the win. We were the only category winners still on course during the podium ceremonies, so we missed out on our moment of champagne-soaked glory. The fun we had last time was buried somewhere in the mud out past Aid Station 5. We slid off the bike, exhausted from fighting the bike, the weather, the course, and each other.

While we washed the mud off at the hand pump near our campsite, we dissolved into laughter. In the midst of these long races, you can get obsessed with finding a reason you’re putting yourself through the ringer, but really all you need from it is a story to tell, and the satisfaction of pushing yourself to your limits.  You can bet we’ll be talking about this ride for years with grins on our faces…but you won’t catch us dead on a tandem next year, either. •

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