UW News

July 21, 2005

Two for the road: UW staffers train in tandem

When Daisy got on that famous “Bicycle Built for Two,” you can bet her ride was a lot more sedate than that anticipated by staffers Martin Criminale and Martha Walsh next week. Criminale and Walsh will be participating in the Co-Motion Classic Tandem Stage Race, a four-day race for those bikes-built-for-two that is set for July 28-31 in and around Eugene and Cottage Grove, Ore.

Unlike in the song, the trip is not a romantic jaunt for the two, who are teammates on the bike but not in life. Criminale, a systems administrator in biochemistry; and Walsh, managing editor of the Journal of Japanese Studies, have previously raced mostly in individual events — he for eight years and she for 10. The tandem is just a new way to challenge themselves.

Criminale — who has enjoyed recreational tandem riding for years — acquired a new tandem this year, and decided that racing it would be fun. He turned to Walsh, whom he had met through bicycle racing, to ride with him. The two have done several shorter tandem races in preparation for the Co-Motion. Walsh, meanwhile, was recently co-winner of a national championship in a master’s time trial for the tandem.

Both riders are members of bicycle racing teams that, like softball or soccer teams, have sponsors; Criminale rides for Byrne Specialty Gases and Walsh for First Rate Mortgage. But instead of playing in leagues, team members train together and enter races. Walsh estimates there are between 1,000 and 1,500 bicycle racers in the state.

“There’s so much racing in the Northwest,” Criminale said. “It starts in March and goes all the way through the middle of September. There are some events in the winter too.”

But few of the races are for tandems. The Co-Motion Classic bills itself as “the nation’s premier annual tandem racing event. A venue for competitive tandem cyclists to test themselves against the best tandem riders in the country.”

The event is a stage race, like the famous Tour de France. It consists of a series of events, beginning with a “prologue” — a one-mile, uphill test that serves to make sure riders have put themselves in the correct category (categories are according to ability). Then there is a 50- to 60-mile road race, followed by a 7.5-mile time trial, when teams are sent out individually and race against the clock. After that is an event called a criterium — a .6-mile circuit in downtown Cottage Grove expected to be lined with spectators. And finally there’s another 50- to 60-mile road race (race mileage varies by category).

The winner in such an event is the one with the fastest time overall, but that doesn’t mean there’s no concern about other racers. According to Criminale and Walsh, you’re tearing down the road at high speed surrounded by other bikes, needing to turn tight corners and avoid being hindered by the wind. Being on a tandem adds another dimension.

“When I first rode a tandem in summer 2004, I was scared beyond belief because I had never had to trust anyone so much in (with) my life,” Walsh said. “Conquering that fear and then enjoying being able to trust 100 percent is part of why it is so fun and exciting for me.”

As the rider in the rear seat, Walsh’s trust needs to be complete because she does not operate any of the controls; steering, braking and gear shifting are all done by the rider in front — generally the bigger and taller person.

Tandems, with twice the power and weight of a single bike but only the same wind resistance, go downhill much faster, Criminale said. “You can literally roll away from single bikes on a mountain pass descent and hitting 50 mph is not very hard at all.”

It’s easy to see, then, why it’s so important for tandem riders to be in synch.

“You really have to work together and with the bike to be the most efficient, which saves time and energy in the end,” Walsh said.

Although it’s difficult for them to get together to practice as often as they’d like, both riders get plenty of miles in on their own. They say they ride their bikes nearly every day, and Walsh commutes to work on hers. And for both, biking really is a passion.

“For me I think it comes down to the speed,” Criminale said. “I really love the going fast part and zooming around corners. Plus, you can go places. You have to be really fit to run 10 miles, but you only have to be moderately fit to go at a moderate pace to bike 50 miles. I can ride all the way around Lake Washington, I can go to Snoqualmie Falls and back, I can go to Snohomish and back. And it doesn’t take all day.”

“I’d second all that but the dimension he didn’t touch on is that it’s very social, especially the training part,” Walsh said. “You ride with a group of friends, or you make friends that you end up riding with on a consistent basis.”

And sometimes, you wind up on a tandem, doing what Walsh calls “pushing the concept of teamwork to an interesting level.” At one point during a race they did together, Criminale felt that he got bogged down and had a momentary lapse, but when he saw that Walsh was plugging away with the same effort, he felt he had to get himself back up to speed. And on a training ride the two were riding up a long hill when Criminale suddenly put a lot more power into his pedal stroke and Walsh felt she had no choice but to match his effort.

In a race, Walsh said, “Some pairs are seamless and smooth, some have shouting matches, and some just grind away almost as if they’re on separate bikes. We’ll aim to be closer to the first of those!”