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COUPLING

Built for Two

How mom and dad came together in perfect harmony.

(Illustration by Kim Rosen)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By JENNIFER SCHWARTZ
July 20, 2008

My parents, married nearly 30 years, recently discovered the secret to a happier relationship and better health. Several summers ago, my tough-and-toned dad decided to take up cycling. Inspired by the energy of the Tour de France and an incipient midlife crisis, he purchased a gleaming Trek road bike with all the accouterments. While at our beach house on the Jersey Shore, he would up his weekend mileage on balmy mornings. But eventually - like most hyperactive men fixated on their new toys - he got lonely riding solo and sought to share his hobby with someone. He called on my far less athletic mom to join him.

My dear mother is an excellent sport. Her dust-covered bike was an olive-green Raleigh Grand Prix, circa 1975. A Brookline street address was still legible on a corroded strip of tape.

After tuning up the old Raleigh, my folks set out on their first ride together. The flat, 16-mile round trip quickly turned disastrous. As I had silently predicted, my dad raced off, standing up on his bike and attacking the barrier island bridges, while my mom nervously fiddled with the archaic gearshift and avoided traffic. Each time he waited for her to catch up, he'd shout, "Move your butt, Debby!" She'd yell various insults and intentionally slow down, whining about her burning quads.

My sister and I were making breakfast when they returned. Mom huffed in first, wiping the sweat off her forehead and screaming about our "inconsiderate, immature" father and didn't we agree he was sooo rude? My dad followed, throwing out a few choice remarks before grabbing my mom's mild belly paunch and adding, "Aren't you glad you went? Now you can afford to eat breakfast!" She bopped him on the head. My sister shrugged and laughed. "You guys are so childish," I said.

That was the end of husband-and-wife bike outings. That is, until my dad met Mel and Barbara. He was locking up his bike outside the best bakery in the beach town when a tandem cycle caught his eye. This wasn't your average boardwalk cruiser with shaggy seat cushions. It was a glossy Bushnell racing tandem with top-of-the-line components. When the middle-aged owners came out of the bakery outfitted in equally impressive gear, my dad introduced himself. Turns out they were in the tandemcycle business (who knew such niches existed!), and Mel persuaded my dad to go check out his warehouse. "Bring your wife," he said.

Dad, the natural choice for front-seat "captain," was won over almost instantly. Mom, the back-seat "stoker," took a little more cajoling. Soon enough, there was a Cannondale tandem in the garage, plus a new set of bike shoes for the lady. If you've ever clipped into and out of pedals, you know it takes some getting used to. Imagine coordinating this with another person.

I joined them on my bike for one of their first tandem rides. At stoplights, they were horrendous: He'd lean to one side, she to the other. He'd stand up to stretch without warning; she'd buckle her knees. They'd clip out opposite feet and knock themselves off balance. Yelling and frustration (and eye rolling on my part) ensued. But soon, sharing a cadence, communicating the next move, and working as a single entity turned them into a machine that could beat me in any sprint. They assigned tasks (she'd signal, he'd steer), learned bike jargon ("Car back!"), and developed a method, however boilerplate, to take off when a light turned green ("One, two, three, go!").

It is no exaggeration that in the four years since the purchase of that bike, my parents' life has changed. They finally share an equally enjoyed hobby. My mom is in better shape, and my dad is less competitive. They have a whole new set of "tandem friends" with whom they ride and go out to dinner. In September, they'll take the tandem to Italy. I rarely see my parents happier than when they're on that bike. The jabs and jokes are still around, but now the effect is far more endearing.

Jennifer Schwartz is a recent Boston University graduate and freelance writer in Boston. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.

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