Dieter Loibner is back and at it again, this time finishing, dammit, an ill-fated Seattle-to-Portland adventure. Check-check it — this might be my favorite one yet! :)
It’s happened. We did it. Well, not quite. You know, Seattle to Stumptown, the uncoolest ride this side of Omaha. It is tempting to snicker about the chirpy commercialism surrounding the event, the less-than-challenging route, the legions in Lycra clogging the roads, the pace-line teams with sag wagons, the hammerheads on carbon time-trial machines and the paunchy dudes on their Townies with music blasting from Bluetooth stereos. But come to think of it: Beside charitable reasons, this kaleidoscopic cast of characters proudly showing off their individual style of riding a bicycle is the best, perhaps the only reason to do this jaunt that attracts 10,000 bicyclists year in, year out.
Yours truly and riding buddy Holden who’d forgotten more about bikes than I will ever know, were in the thick of it again, but trying a new wrinkle this time: We rolled up to the 4:45 AM start on a two-seater, otherwise known as a tandem. Curiosity kills cats, but it also triggers repressed ambitions. Why not put two butts on one bike, for a change? Opportunity to try just that came knocking when Holden’s brother David generously offered to loan us his Santana, which he and his wife Nancy had ridden from San Diego, Calif., clear across the country to St. Augustine, Fla. If two pensioners can do 3000 miles on this thing, we thought, what’s a measly 200 for us, with catered stops along the route? Well, not so fast. Actually fast, yes, but not to the finish. That’s right: We bombed out of the STP, because we were not up to snuff.
It happened at Vader, 130 miles in. On a botched shift that yanked the chain into the spokes where it jammed the rear wheel before exploding with a bang and sending bits flying all over the State of Washington. Before we knew what hit us, we were done, staring at a busted drive train and dialing 9-1-1 MOM to “please come and pick us up.” Then we packed it in and hiked out to Interstate 5. Agonizing. Disappointing. Embarrassing. Watching those zip by whom we’d passed along the way added insult to injury. But we were damn lucky, too. Because it occurred just after turning south onto Westside Hwy as we started to accelerate downhill. How Capitan Holden managed to keep the rubber down I will never know. But I saw the skid marks. Had this happened at full tilt (i.e. at 40 mpH which we clocked earlier), we’d have been toast.
So how did we end up in the DNF-column? Truth be told, we might have been challenged by our experience riding a single bike, assuming perhaps, that a decent finishing record as randonneurs is an insurance against failure. Yes, we practiced and we broke things that we subsequently fixed. And we did a couple of test rides, maybe 100 miles total. It went reasonably well, so we assumed, rightfully from our perspective, that all was going to be fine. But in hindsight there were two blind spots in that game plan: The gear shifters were on the forward handlebar, which in itself is problematic, because the captain cannot see the derailleurs. So he has to rely on the indicators, which were off on the Santana. Or he has to rely on the stoker to talk him through it. Making matters worse, the shifters were reversed (forward derailleur on the right, rear on the left) – and they were upside down. Why? Long story, but David acquired the taste for reversed shifters during a stay in Bangladesh and now has all his bikes rigged that way. Since neither of us knows much about Bangladesh, we were at a disadvantage here. However, we should have known that reversed shifters are a pain in the arse to operate, much like driving an English car on US roads.
Because it was not our bike, we shied away from correcting this quirk. We thought we were clever by calling our three chainrings “Ankeny,” “Burnside” and “Couch” for better distinction and I was the souffleur who directed the shifts from behind. But there was something else: Because there was so much new stuff to learn for tandem novices, we lost sight of the prize. Besides sorting through the gears, we had to find out how to maneuver a bike that has the turning radius of a bus; how to start and how to stop; how to coast and how to stretch and get the blood circulating in the butt; how to talk to each other, which wasn’t easy over the noise of the wind; and settling into a cadence that suited both of us.
On top of all that we were getting schooled in the most basic truth of tandem riding: Triumph or tragedy, both ciclisti are in this together. Everything we did individually, immediately affected us collectively. So the tacit agreement to skip a longer ride that would have revealed what it feels like to handle an unusual bike with unusual controls under the influence of bike brain, was a communal mistake. Had we done that, I’m pretty sure we would have tired of wayward shifts, grinding gears and chatter from the chain. I can almost guarantee that we would have reversed the shifters, which, as it turned out later, was a ridiculously easy 10-minute job.
By counting on past experiences rather than working down the list of issues to the bitter end, we left ourselves vulnerable to a mishap. But human rationale works in funny ways: Because our setup worked on the test rides, sort of, we assumed it’ll be good for an easy 200-miler like the STP. Well, the facts now tell us otherwise. And my loudmouth act of asking people to follow us via satellite tracker backfired big time.
Holden’s angelic wife Helene picked us up at the Vader exit of Interstate 5 and we drove back to the finish area at Lloyd Center to collect our bags. But what a sad walk it was from the parking lot across Holladay Park, seeing the first guys finishing and high-fiving each other with One-Day-Finisher badges dangling from their necks, while we traded snack coupons for sketchy burritos with stone-cold guacamole. Then we slunk away, beaten and humiliated.
But in the following days we regrouped. We fixed the Santana, installing a new chain, a new cluster, eight fresh spokes and we – finally, really – reversed the shifters. That might not fly in Bangladesh, but it worked for us. Despite doing it all without a shakedown ride, we were set to head out again the next Friday. Decked out in full combat regalia that included matching socks plus bib and bike numbers properly affixed, (we pretended we were still in this thing), we drove back up to Vader to tackle those last 75 miles to bring closure to a project that had shown our limits.
This town tried a few other names before settling on the current one, which was borrowed from a German resident. Erudite people might identify it as the birthplace of novelist Robert Cantwell, but these days when the STP is not coming through, it’s not exactly happenin’ in Vader. Which explains why we attracted attention as we assembled the Santana on A-Street across from the post office, with tumbleweeds rolling by on their way to Portland, riding a juicy tail wind. We were so antsy to get going that a pair of water bottles remained in the car that already had left with Holden’s son Daniel. Couldn’t call, because neither of us had cell coverage. Oh, well, Vader. Certainly not ideal, but not enough to stop us now. Testing the new drivetrain? Ah, we’ll wing it, damned (see above). We rode one block to the loo at the old City Jail, ignoring a little chatter in some of the gears. “We gotta get home, so let’s send it,” we thought. And did we ever. When we turned onto Route 506, the clock showed 12:20 PM.
When we looked again, 75 miles later, it was 4:38 PM. By that time we had covered the rest of the course without a hitch, imbibed a liquid chocolate bomb chez McDo in St. Helens, bucked the insane Friday Stumptown commute, pulled into Holladay Park and traded the saddles for a bench in the shade. Finally, 6 days after the fact, we too were home. All was fine now. Well, almost. A DNF still is a DNF, but going back to the drop-out point and finishing the ride was necessary to redeem ourselves and to do right by those who showed a passing interest in our endeavors. It was a blast and it taught us a few lessons about becoming better cyclists. And the celebratory post-ride pizza at Ken’s cured the memory of those icky burritos, too.
* With Tandem Failure