Well well well, if it isn’t the two wankers who previously raced their beater steel Univega tandem at Sea Otter. Twice. The first time finishing 6th out of 12, the second time destroying the rear hub and pushing the bike 2 miles back to the finish. “This year would be different!” they thought. The tandem is still exactly the same as its always been; Al’s 90′s vintage $200 Craigslist score with 26″ wheels, a rigid fork and v-brakes. But the riders were different! Better if you will, from newly found miles of smiles on road bikes. The keyword “mandem” was bounced around via text messages and email. Pulses raced, daydreams began… 2012 would see the return of the Mandem on the 20 mile off-road cross country race course at Laguna Seca, CA. Hot damn!
This tank of a tandem was loaded into the belly of a friend’s RV and headed to points north. The forecast was sunny and 70s for the weekend, a welcome change to cold and rain of previous years.
The next day the Captain and Stoker of the bike, that would be Al and I respectively, set out at high-noon to pre-ride some of the course and prepare for the inevitable “Why are we doing this again?” to creep into our consciences. Commands were barked – “Coast!”, “Bump!”, “SLOW DOWN!!!” (me) and “WHAT ARE YOU DOING UP/BACK THERE???” Ah yes, we were back.
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Then we flatted. Then another. Then we crashed on a sketchy rutted downhill, sending my face into Al’s back and my knee into the ground. Cue: hissy fit. I walked down the rest of the descent, cursing like a Tourettic sailor and let Al descend the bike by himself.
We returned to the venue, had a beer, and reflected on our decision. I left Al and took a lap around the Sea Otter Expo, checking out all of the various bike manufacturers, clothing designers and performance food and drink vendors who’s products would just about ensure a podium finish if I used them frequently enough (as-directed, of course).
I stopped at the Calfee booth when I saw owner Craig Calfee sitting on one of his bamboo creations, and next to him the most heart-stoppingly beautiful carbon fiber mountain tandem I’ve ever seen. 29er! Di2 drivetrain! Zipp wheels! I remarked a “damn” or “wow” or something equally eloquent to Craig as I admired the complete 180 degree difference between his bike and ours. As a hilarious joke I mentioned to him that he should let us race his bike in Sunday’s tandem race. I waited a beat or two for the follow-up rolling of the eyes, but instead was returned a curious series of questions. “What time’s the race?” “When could you pick it up?”.
“Are you f-ing kidding me?” I replied. Again with the eloquence.
Craig came back with “Nope. I’ve kinda been wanting someone to race this. Its never been ridden off-road and if you guys are already doing the race I don’t see why you couldn’t just take this one.”
Well poke me in the eye and call me Carlos. That really just happened. Oh by the way, the price tag hanging from his spare-no-expense wonder-bike was a cool $19,000. Nineteen grand. And he was giving it to us now, to hold overnight at our campsite and race the next morning. Because he had to leave. I tried to keep a poker-face while wrapping up the details and come across as a normal human being, while inside I was reduced to that of a teenage girl who just got chosen to go backstage and meet (insert current dreamy boy-band here). My hands started shaking a little while fumbling for my phone to text Al with the update. The first few texts he received from me were a series of “OMG” and “WTF”s.
Al and I returned to Calfee with our pedals, got the seat heights adjusted, clipped in to the pedals and took off into the expo without so much as leaving a drivers license or phone number behind.
The bike was locked to the RV with a beefy chain and padlock and we parted for the night, hoping to find it intact early the next morning. We arrived at 6:30am Sunday, happy to see that it was indeed still there. A couple tweaks and fine-tunes later and we were stripping down to our race-day kits and heading to the start line with the rest of the tandem teams.
I counted approximately a dozen teams on the starting line, ranging from full-pro looking teams with matching jerseys, to a father with his very young son on a tandem Cyclocross bike. The countdown started and we were off! We mashed around the Laguna Seca racetrack and into the fog, trying to stay towards the front and keep an eye out for the turnoff on to dirt.
Thats when disaster struck. The fancy $700 electronic rear derailleur stopped shifting before we even had a chance to hit the dirt. We pulled over to fix it and watched the rest of our field disappear into the fog. Shit. We managed to get the drivetrain back in order (chain was off the pulleys) and got back in the race. A little further down the dirt trails the drivetrain acted up again, resulting in another stop. The classes of racers that started behind us were now catching and passing us, but not without a “nice bike!” comment thrown our way. “Thanks”. Just as soon as we’d get going, trouble would pop up somewhere else on the bike. Next up was a broken chain. We reduced ourselves to bypassing the rear derailleur entirely and converting the tandem to a singlespeed. “At least we’ll finish” we assured ourselves. A mile or so later we broke one of the front chainrings in half on a climb and our race, now 10 miles in out of 20, was over. We limped back the way we had come to a Race Marshall checkpoint, requested a ride back to the venue via walkie-talkie and waited our turn. Bummer.
It took a while for the disappointment to wear off. We returned the bike to Calfee, dirty and broken. They couldn’t have been nicer, apologizing and offering to give us another chance on the bike at future races of our choosing. So we have that. Worst-case we wait a year until Sea Otter 2013 and shoot for podium.
If you’ve never tried riding a tandem bike, on or off-road, I recommend it. You’ll know very quickly whether its for you or not. If you have control issues, no sense of humor or adventure then the rear stoker position is definitely NOT for you. If you enjoy taking someone else’s life into your hands and toying with it, then maybe the captain spot up front is where you belong.