Clovis News: Sports

Some riders do Climb to Kaiser on tandem bikes

As if cycling 155 miles up some of Central California's steepest roads isn't hard enough.

Each year, a handful of hardy souls insist on making the Climb to Kaiser even tougher. By riding it on a tandem.

"Making it up those hills on a tandem is like moving an aircraft carrier," ride co-coordinator Deanna Cox said. "Not an easy feat."

The course for Saturday's 34th annual ride -- from Alta Sierra Middle School in Clovis to the top of 9,200-foot Kaiser Pass in the Sierra National Forest and back -- turns even the fittest legs into Jell-O. That goes for two legs, and even more so for four.

Why? It starts with simple physics. While high-end road bikes weigh 15-18 pounds, tandems range from 30-35, said Tom Halperin, the tandem expert at Rubber Soul Bicycles.

That's double the weight to slog up climbs whose steepness rivals anything Lance Armstrong will encounter in next month's Tour de France.

Of course, tandem teams tackle those hills with four legs instead of two. But that doesn't mean they generate twice the horsepower.

"It's difficult to harness the power of two people," said Dale Johnson of Clovis, who will be riding his second Climb to Kaiser on a tandem with his wife, Jane. (Both also have finished on single bikes.)

"Everyone has a different pedaling style, and since we're linked together neither of us is going to be at our most efficient."

The Johnsons are close, though, thanks to the thousands of miles they've ridden together. This year alone, they've already finished three 200-mile rides called double centuries.

Like all tandem teams, Dale and Jane have separate roles.

The rider in front, called the "captain," is responsible for steering, shifting gears, braking and calling out features in the road such as potholes or sharp corners.

The rider in back, called the "stoker," is responsible for monitoring traffic, shifting weight on downhill corners and, often, navigation. Some stokers even get a third brake to help control speed.

"It's also my job to wave at people," Jane Johnson said with a laugh.

Tandems have an advantage over single bikes on flat sections of the Climb to Kaiser and even some small hills thanks to extra momentum, Halperin said.

Problem is, the flat road and rollers run out pretty quickly. By the time the tandems get to the base of Tollhouse Road at mile 38, the route tilts uphill.

"When you're on the flats, it's a lot easier [on a tandem]," Halperin said. "One person is always drafting, and both people can feel the advantage. Once you start climbing, that goes away."

To get up a steep hill, tandems typically use the lowest possible gear. Most have triple front chainrings and use the smallest (along with the biggest cog on the back) to make pedaling as easy as possible.

Except on a lung-busting climb like Big Creek, which ascends 2,000 feet over 3.5 miles for an average grade of 10% (some sections are as steep as 20%), using low gears also means you're going to be pedaling for a long, long time.

"Big Creek is horrible," Jane Johnson said.

Added Dale, "It's going to take us an hour to get up that hill."

Because of their disadvantage on the hills, even strong tandem teams typically take 2 hours longer to finish than comparable single riders.

The extra time in the saddle can be both good and bad.

When things are going well, the sense of teamwork and cooperation adds to the experience. But when things are going badly, tempers can flare -- especially if one rider thinks the other isn't pulling his or her share of the load.

Most tandem teams have rules. Halperin, for example, gets a not-so-friendly tap on the shoulder any time his girlfriend thinks he's going too fast.

"To get along on a tandem, you have to be compatible," he said.

Nick Lucich and Chris Hamilton of Fresno are an excellent example. They've been married 32 years and will be riding Climb to Kaiser together Saturday for the fifth time. Including single bikes, Lucich has finished 19 times since 1991.

"They say whatever direction your relationship is going, a tandem will accelerate it -- good or bad," Lucich said.

Lucich and Hamilton once bought a tandem from a couple that was recently divorced.

No word whether that couple broke up because of the Climb to Kaiser.