There’s an oft-cited maxim among couples who ride tandem bicycles: “Wherever your relationship is going, a tandem bike will get you there faster.” In other words, a tandem bike is a great place to find out whether your relationship is skidding into failure or speeding toward success. Like a strong marriage, say couples who ride together, tandem biking requires cooperation, communication, trust, and determination.
It was just these parallels that inspired husband and wife Szifra Birke and Jay Livingston to write a memoir titled “In Tandem: Pedaling Through Midlife on a Bicycle Built for Two.” Published earlier this fall, it offers both inspiration and practical advice about the joys of tandem riding.
Birke, 72, and Livingston, 74, of Lowell, were still a long way from considering marriage when they first hopped on a bike together. They met in their late 40s after Birke was widowed and Livingston divorced, and Livingston in particular was interested in finding an activity they could try together.
Twenty-three years later, it has become a focal point of their marriage — and the way they understand one another.
“There are endless ways in which the tandem is a good metaphor for a relationship,” said Birke. “You can be riding along a beautifully paved road and hit an unexpected patch of gravel. Both partners have to concentrate on maneuvering through it if they don’t want to fall.”
And when they do fall on the bike? “We’ve learned not to point fingers,” Livingston said. “Once we’ve determined we are both OK, we get back on the bike and keep going.”
For Jennifer and Steve Hart of West Concord, tandem cycling provides more of a contrast to their personal relationship than a mirror of it. The couple, in their early 60s, are partners not only personally but also professionally, as principals of an architectural firm.
“I’m mostly in charge on the tandem, which is otherwise not the case,” said Steve Hart, who takes the front — or “captain” position — on their bike. “Steering, shifting, braking, navigating, cadence, gearing, all that is up to the captain.”
“Whereas in the rest of our life, I’m generally the one steering things,” chimed in Jennifer Hart.
For many couples, the appeal of tandem biking is that it evens the playing field between spouses who may typically operate at different activity levels. “When Jeff and I got married, we were both enthusiastic bicyclists, but he was a lot faster than me,” recalled Kelly Chiu. “We also train for marathons, but again, we run at different speeds. The tandem is the great equalizer. When we ride together, I’m not getting left in the dust anymore.”
Chiu and her husband, Jeff Roth, who are in their late 40s and live in Newton, are among many Greater Boston couples who trace the origins of their hobby back to Ed Sassler, head of tandem sales at Wheelworks in Belmont. Sassler runs workshops and offers test rides for those considering investing in a bicycle built for two.
According to Sassler, the price range for a basic tandem at Wheelworks is about $5,000 to $8,000, including recommended accessories. He discourages purchases of used bikes because models change so often and older parts can be impossible to replace.
“What I hear most often among couples who come in to try out a tandem is that they want to spend more time together,” Sassler said. “The first thing I do is put the stronger rider — the one who will probably ride as captain — in the stoker seat so they can see what it’s like back there. It’s hard to be the rider not in control of the bike.”
But the stoker — or rear rider — has plenty of responsibilities as well, Sassler said, including riding consistently while following the captain’s lead despite often being unable to see the roadway ahead. “A happy stoker equals a happy team,” Sassler said.
For Joe and Kathy Marino of North Andover, sharing a bike isn’t just fun — it’s a necessity, allowing Kathy — who at age 61 is visually impaired — to get out on the road. “My eyesight is not strong enough for me to ride a single bike,” she said. “And it’s no fun spending an hour in the gym when you could be out riding. I may not see all that’s around me, but Joe or the friends we ride with will describe the scenery for me. And I’m actually more tuned in to the mechanics of the bike. If something doesn’t sound right, a part is clicking or some debris has gotten caught in the spokes, I can tell Joe we need to stop and check it out.”
“The bike fills many roles for us,” agreed Joe Marino, 59. “It provides us with couple time, when it’s just the two of us out on a ride enjoying each other’s company. Other times we make it more of a fitness-oriented experience, and we ride hard, without a lot of chatting. And it gives us a social life, because we’ve made so many friends through the tandem group we started, New England Wicked Tandem Society, or NEWTS.”
Shelly Zelbow of Stoughton still remembers the event that inspired her and her husband, Alan, to switch from individual bikes to a tandem. Before the days of cellphones, the two were riding on Memorial Drive on one of the Sundays it was closed to traffic. They got separated in the crowd, and it took them over an hour to find each other again.
Now in their 80s, the Stoughton couple has ridden their battery-assisted tandem bike all over New England as well as in D.C., Gettysburg, Pa., Savannah, Ga., and Florida.
“It definitely helps if you already enjoy being together a lot,” remarked Glenn Pransky, 66, of Sudbury, who rides with his wife, Terry Snyder.“We’re 18 inches apart for hours on end on the bike.”
“I’ll recount a book or movie to Glenn while we ride,” said Snyder, 67. “And Glenn’s a historian, so sometimes he’ll provide a running commentary about the history of the area we are riding through.”
Dave and Kay Bullis of Milton also see potential parallels in the tandem experience.
“As psychologists, Kay and I are fond of pointing out it’s a great metaphor for a couple’s life,” said Dave Bullis. “Going uphill, we do the hard work together. Then we can both reap the benefits as we coast downhill.”
The Bullises, both 59, have been tandem biking together for over three decades — since they were graduate students in California — but the activity took on extra significance to them during the 2020 lockdown.
“It was very important during those months of the COVID pandemic to get out of the house together and be free of the feeling of being caged in,” Dave Bullis said. “Biking together provided us with a real respite.”
“It’s a learning curve to get adjusted to each other’s styles of biking,” said Ellie Garvey of Concord. She and her husband, Mark, both in their early 60s, are relatively new to the wheels, having bought a used tandem bike just this past summer.
“We discovered that my style for over 50 years has been to pedal hard and then coast, whereas Mark prefers consistent pedaling. But we’ve adapted to riding together.”
Certainly not every biking enthusiast wants to be part of a pair. Some find the lack of individual control untenable, and many dedicated cyclists are loath to give up the higher speeds they can hit when riding alone.
But cycling as a pair has some unexpected advantages. “I store all my snacks and sunglasses in Steve’s back pockets, and can take them out as we ride,” said Jennifer Hart. “He’s like my glove compartment.”
In fact, Hart said she and Steve opt for tandem style in their other favorite sports as well. “We also have a tandem kayak and a tandem rowing shell,” she said. “What I’d really like is if someone would come up with tandem Nordic skis.”
Szifra Birke and Jay Livingston will be reading from their memoir, “In Tandem: Pedaling Through Midlife on a Bicycle Built for Two,” at the Pollard Memorial Library, 401 Merrimack St. in Lowell, and by Zoom at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 16, and at the Andover Bookstore, 74 Main St., at 12 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 19.
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at email@example.com.