It wasn’t that Sara had anything against bicycles, she just never saw an opportunity where they seemed useful.
Any activity done on a bicycle, she felt, was better done on some other vehicle, mostly that modern convenience called the automobile. So I knew I would have a difficult time convincing her that we should go tandem biking on our summer island vacation.
Every year in June, in time-honored ritual, Sara and I have packed a suitcase full of bathing suits, driven to the ferry terminal at Woods Hole and taken the boat to Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts where people like to think New England time has stopped after the eighteen hundreds. Mostly, the island fills up with the same families who have come to the “Vineyard” since their grandparents were young children. There are the tourists, of course, and occasionally Hampton devotees looking “for something different.” Sara and I are one of those stodgy New Englanders who have come to the island since time immemorial. Only we don’t visit with family, it’s just the two of us.
Every year that we’ve visited, Sara and I have done the same thing. We rent the same slate gray Cape Cod wide porched house, walk down to the same rocky alcove with its tiny strip of sand, nod politely to the same old couple who sun bathe there, and spend the rest of our week sunning ourselves. I think we might even read the same novels every year too. We have our reasons for this routine, and while I’m not complaining about any of it, this year I wanted to do something different. Last year while on the Vineyard I saw a couple on a tandem bicycle. They breezily came to a gentle stop at the intersection in front of me, then without a signal, wafted away again. They seemed so perfectly coördinated that visions of idyllic rides through summer lanes popped into my head. I swore I would try one next summer.
So here we are. Of course, the last time I rode on a bicycle was in high school, many moons ago, but I thought two sets of feet had to be more helpful than one pair. Only, as I said, Sara doesn’t count bicycles as real transport. So the only way to get her to join me was to not tell her at all. The first hurdle was surprisingly easier to overcome than I had dreaded. While Sara was happy to avoid the crowd landing with us by getting our picnic lunch, I was able to send off our luggage and grab our tandem bike without notice. The look of displeasure she gave me when I explained our jaunt was expected, but I quickly explained that it was either this or wait for the next overcrowded bus. Sara grimaced. If she was being forced to travel on a bicycle, she declared, she would be doing the steering. With a brown paper bag of food in the front basket and a partial view behind the flapping hem of Sara’s shirt, we set off on our bicycle adventure.
It seems that despite having spent more than a quarter of a century together, Sara and I could not coördinate. Try as hard as I did, my feet refused to match the tempo of her pedaling. Each time Sara, without complaint, would count us in on the restart. In this manner we attempted to make our way down Main Street as cars, trucks, and motorcycles whizzed past. It didn’t take much to get me distracted: a shop window, a honking sedan, or a passing pedestrian and I lost focus on the rhythm. My ungainly contribution was not the cinematic experience I had envisioned for us.
The Vineyard isn’t known for its drastic elevation changes, but being part of the glacial till, the island has its topographical variations. Never had I noticed how terribly steep these variations were until I got on the back of that bicycle. Sara and I huffed and we puffed, but we could not bring down that hill. I thought for one terrifying second that despite our hardest forward pedal pushing, the bicycle would begin to slip back down the hill like one of those comic cartoons. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but the tandem refused to crawl any further uphill. So, we walked it up. This is when I realized what an exceptional friend Sara was to me. Not once did she complain. There were plenty of eye rolls and deep sighs, some of which I attribute to our exertion, but she remained committed to bringing that bike to its destination.
While my coördination did not improve during the journey, I gained several insights on our tandem adventure. The Vineyard takes on a different personality when I am hunched on the back seat of a twosome velocipede crawling at snail’s pace over road and track. I have never passed so many friendly people at one time. It seemed our bicycling brought smiles and greetings from locals, children, tourists, and shop owners. They never waved while we took the bus to our house, but now dog walkers, camera toters, and ice cream eaters all nodded at us. I felt, for the first time on the island, that it truly was our summer home. I was seeing the Cape Cod houses, the rocky promontories, and the parks of the Vineyard with new eyes while riding the tandem.
The exercise whetted our appetites too. I had never seen Sara enjoying ham sandwiches with such gusto, and I have to admit that grapes and apples tasted sweeter and crisper after being pedaled two miles in a basket. As we finally arrived at our simple strip of beach, resting my legs and enjoying the moment as we noshed through our picnic was the ideal relaxation. I had never enjoyed being on the Vineyard or unwinding so much. Our nine mile feat has been a paradigm shift for both of us. Perhaps we will go sailing tomorrow, or hike the interior of the Vineyard. Sara is already planning a bicycle tour of the entire island for our next summer. Our tandem adventure marks the first of many bucolic remembrances in the list of endless future island activities together.
When the first bicycle was invented in the nineteenth century, the general populace ridiculed it as amusement for children and fools. While tandem bicycles have double the pedaling power of single rider bicycles, they require much more coordination. The tandem has been around for over one hundred years, achieving greets success as transportation during the Second Boer War in South Africa. The original Tandem Club, based in the United Kingdom, offers advice, rallies, and outing suggestions to anyone interested in tandem cycling.
Read about more bicycling adventures in our journal, On Garden Paths.