At one point or another in our careers, most of us have seen excerpts from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. For those of you who haven’t, it’s got some great tips:
- Play fair
- Don’t hit people
- Clean up your own mess
- Don’t take things that aren’t yours
- Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you
He also advises that “wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.” Many of the projects I’ve worked on over the years would have gone much better had people followed his advice. General rules of niceness never go out of style.
In thinking about ways we work together, I’ve realized that specifically regarding teamwork, Everything I Need to Know I Learned on the Back of a Tandem Bicycle. A mountain bike, in particular. Those of you in the cycling community will appreciate what that means. If you’re not a cyclist, just know that you have to be a little crazy to take a bicycle built for two off-road. Here are the things I’ve learned:
The team needs to know their roles and what they have to work with. On a tandem, we call the front rider the captain. That’s who controls the steering, shifting, and braking. He or she has to know the limits of the team and equipment and how far they can be pushed. The rear rider is called the stoker. It’s difficult for people who are used to being in the lead to have to assume that role. One thing I learned along the way is that the captain can tell pretty easily when the stoker is trying to be a back seat driver because the rear handlebars are attached to the captain’s seat and having your saddle torque around is usually not appreciated. The stoker has to learn to give up some control and trust the captain.
Every team needs a captain. I think that often when teams are formed, people are under the impression that everyone is equal. Although I do subscribe to the philosophy of “leave your titles at the door” to level the playing field, someone must generally be in charge for a team to be successful. Being the captain can mean different things depending on the team. For teams that are forming or storming, it can mean helping people to align goals or figure out how to work together without fighting. For teams that are truly performing, it might be just facilitating meetings and ensuring things stay on time and that minutes are created and distributed.
Each of us needs to pull our weight. Unless you have a DaVinci tandem, both riders have to pedal at exactly the same speed. If one decides to slack off or push too hard, the other rider can feel it right away. It can result in a jerky and uncomfortable ride and can wear out the stronger rider.
Communication is essential. Especially if you’re clipped in your pedals, you have to talk to each other. Even little things such as what foot you like to use for the initial pedal stroke have to be decided and agreed upon. The captain has to communicate when more or less speed is needed and whether there are any hazards ahead such as branches, rocks, roots, holes, or railroad tracks. Coasting must be a coordinated effort. If you’re going to get into advanced skills such as trying to jump the tandem over obstacles, you better have it together.
Teams can provide efficiency, but they have to stay in control. The last time I was out on a tandem, one of the single riders was curious about what riding a tandem was like. Looking at the physics, tandems are heavier, which can make climbing tricky (especially if your frame is under-engineered and prone to flexing). The forward-moving wind resistance and amount of road friction are both similar to a single bicycle. The real difference is that tandems have twice the available power. When both riders are strong, it’s easy to get up to speeds that are nauseating. If you don’t watch the road or control your speed, the results can be disastrous. Prolonged braking from a high speed or on a steep descent can cause the rim to overheat and blow the tire off (unless you have wicked-cool disc brakes like the bike I rode today.)
Fear is not an option. I usually wind up being the stoker, and if you don’t trust your captain completely, you don’t have any business riding. It starts when you get on the bike. The captain holds it steady while the stoker mounts and clips into the pedals. Once the stoker is set, you have to make sure your pedals are in the right position. Nothing makes the captain madder than when the stoker spins the cranks without warning and slaps the captain in the shin with a pedal while he’s standing over the bike. When you’re ready to move forward there’s an uncomfortable moment when you start pedaling while the captain is getting onto the seat and you begin moving. You never quite get used to it, but you have to trust that you’re not going to fall over. (Side note – the two times I’ve actually fallen over on a mountain bike have NOT been on a tandem. Totally my own fault.) One thing that helps me with the fear factor is that most captains I’ve ridden with are bigger than me, so I can’t see what’s in front of us and I just have to go with the flow.
Working together we can perform feats that are impossible alone. The Paralympic games feature tandem pairs that often include blind or visually impaired stokers. In my situation, I don’t ride enough to have the skills to tackle some of the more challenging trails. I definitely wouldn’t venture out alone in some of the more remote areas. But clip me in behind someone who knows what he’s doing and I’m happy to help push both of us forward. Besides, I get to enjoy the view when I’m not worried about steering.
If you ever have the opportunity to ride a tandem, it’s definitely a different experience than going it alone, but it’s one I’d highly recommend. Maybe a reader or two might even spend part of Labor Day weekend on a tandem. If not, I hope you were able to enjoy the weekend with friends and family and pay homage to the achievements of the American workforce.