Monday 27 May 2013

Can Love Survive a Tandem?

With more than a year’s riding and 11,000 km on the clock, it’s time to answer that question - is it a case of Truly, Madly, Deeply or is she sick of seeing my butt? It’s a fair enough question - after all, what other pursuit brings two people together for so many hours?
Tandemists pedal with less than an arm’s length between them, and they have to co-operate.Want to take a pee? Ask your companion for permission to stop. Want to take a photo? Ask your companion. Hungry or thirsty? Let’s hope your riding partner feels the same. Want to stop pedaling for a moment to stand up and stretch your legs? Tell your buddy what you are doing. Like some peace and quiet? Too bad if your partner is feeling chatty and insists on telling you at length about the dream they had last night.
On the road in Cambodia. Pic: Sam Brockie.


Current Location: Ayutthaya, Thailand.

Total Distance Cycled: 11,550 km.

Distance Cycled in SE Asia: 6,331 km.

Longest Day's Ride: 124 km (Thailand).

Final SE Asian Snake Count: Alive 5; Squished on Road 62+
Backside Status (10 is Bliss): Judy the Stoker 5, Mike the Captain 4.

It is hard to think of any other pursuit that forces two people to co-operate so closely.
What about something like ocean sailing, popular with couples who really want to get away from it all? Well, usually the boat is big enough to escape from the other person, and anyway shared responsibilities often mean one person is sleeping while the other is on watch.
Hiking or tramping? Easy Peazy. One person walks ahead of the other and maintains a distance, and trips are usually of only a few days duration.
Synchronised swimming? We could play this game all day, but you get the picture.

In the Down Time

And what do tandemists do when they get off the bike? Usually it’s stay in each other’s company as they eat and sleep - the main activities of cyclists when they are not cycling.
Sign in the grounds of a Buddhist wat.

It’s no small wonder that tandem couples sometime struggle to get along. We heard of one couple who cycled for a year together. At the end of their travels she left him telling anyone who would listen, ”you would leave to if you’d had to watch his backside all that time.” It seems butts can have a bearing on the subject.
Maybe there’s a TV reality show in here. Call it, “but your Butt’s too Big” or even just “Tandem Disasters”.

So is there any hope for a couple who decide to go tandem cycling?
We certainly don’t profess to be experts on the subject, nor do we want to appear smug. But after some hiccups of our own we have learned a few things that can help ease that pain in the butt that might be caused not by your saddle, but by your companion.

Our List of Tandem Touring Guidelines

Here are our guidelines. And FYI in tandem parlance, the word Captain refers to the person on the front and the word Stoker to the person on the back.
·      The Captain must never frighten the Stoker by going too fast downhill or taking risks in traffic.
·      When the bike’s stationary, the Captain must keep it firmly upright and the Stoker must always set up the pedals so they are ready for instant take off - very important at traffic lights etc.
·      The Stoker should try to keep a little energy in reserve for cresting that last big hill of the day.
·      Give it time. If you have left careers, friends and families to go tandem touring it will take a while to settle into your new lifestyle. Do not expect it to be perfect from day one.
·      Acknowledge that life will be uncomfortable occasionally.  Remember that any form of travel is hard work.
Celebrate milestones - even if you can
only afford beer.
·      Take time out - don’t treat cycle touring like a job. Instead spend time off the bike exploring, resting, reading and enjoying the experience.
·      Treat yourselves occasionally and celebrate milestones.
·      Try to have enough money so that instead of camping you can take a hostel or hotel for a night if the weather stays persistently bad or one of you becomes ill.
·      Be kind and tolerant towards each other.
 Take time out to relax - don't treat
cycling like a job.
Treat yourselves occasionally. Our favourite guesthouse
in Thailand, the Baan Lotus in Ayutthaya.

Playing Nicely

That last point is probably the most important, although it would also seem the most obvious. Just remember that things will go wrong - the weather will be too hot, cold or wet, there will be a headwind that prevents you reaching your destination, you’ll get lost or the only accommodation will be too expensive. When it happens, it’s far better to work as a team than to blame the other.
Whole books have been written on the differences between men and women (for example: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps) and if one difference stands out it is navigation.

Navigating Out of Trouble

We have had our own problems, especially early on. In Europe, despite maps and a GPS and the Eurovelo 6 cycle trail, we would take a wrong turn or get lost or both. My answer was to pedal faster in any direction, believing that eventually we would find a helpful sign to direct us back on our route. On the back of the bike, Judy would sense my rising frustration and would be struggling to keep up with the pedaling.
It will take more than fish nibbling your feet to keep
you both happy when things go wrong. Judy relaxes
in Ayutthaya.
 It took us several months to reach a compromise in which we would stop and quietly and patiently assess where we were and what direction we should take. These days we share the navigation, stopping often to consult our map or the GPS. We have learned that the GPS is not the ultimate solution; it is simply an aid to navigation. Maps can be wrong. And asking people will not always provide a clear answer.

Avoiding a Bumpy Ride

Some couples would be better off not to go tandem cycling. The fractious, argumentative and difficult will find it hard to co-operate. Try a package holiday and separate rooms.
Cycling throws up the unexpected. We met this lovely family while
having lunch in Ang Thong, Thailand, and we joined together
to sing "Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)". It must have been
a strange moment for passersby.

Do not contemplate cycle touring, let alone tandem touring, if you are the type who likes to control your environment. Touring by bicycle throws up the unexpected all the time - from breakdowns to invitations from roadside strangers.

Some people ask Judy rather pointedly that perhaps she would enjoy her independence on her own bike. As the Stoker she has no control over the tandem’s steering or braking.
But she counters that by saying that she would not feel happy in heavy traffic on her own, and this way she has no trouble keeping up, we don’t get separated and we can always (most of the time anyway) hear

Ready to Roll: #4
each other speak above the traffic noise. Add to that the fact that together we enjoy working as a team - climbing the hills together, sweeping through the bends and chatting to one another on the flat bits.  And after all - isn’t enjoyment one of the main reasons we travel?

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Oh, what a beautiful mornin'

Petals from Flame of the Forest
Tree - Delonix Regia

There's a bright golden haze on the meadow
There's a bright golden haze on the meadow
The corn is as high as an elephant's eye
And it looks like it's climbing clear up to the sky
Oh, what a beautiful mornin', oh what a beautiful day
I got a beautiful feelin' everything's goin' my way
From Oklahoma! by Rodgers and Hammerstein

Current Location: Nakhon Sawan, Thailand
Total Distance Cycled: 11,323 km
Snakes Alive: 5; Squished Snakes: 58+
Average Daily Maximum Temperature: 38 degrees C

It was one of those days. We hadn’t even left our guesthouse in Kamphaeng Phet, central Thailand, before we began getting those warm, fuzzy feelings. The guesthouse owner piled bananas and mangoes on our breakfast table and said, “free - no charge - from my farm”, referring to the property he owns west of the town towards the Myanmar/Burmese border. As we left, he handed us more mangoes and we squeezed them into a pannier.
With Mr Charin, owner of the 3J Guesthouse in
Kamphaeng Phet. He also owns an organic farm/
resort after giving up a career in banking.

We set off on a flat, fast road with the only sound the humming of the tyres on the seal. It was a one-gear kind of day - eleventh out of the fourteen provided by Mr Rohloff - and the bicycle computer read 20 kph.

After an hour or so we paused on the roadside and moments later an oncoming car did the same. The driver climbed out and called across, ”how can I help you?”
Rohloff gears - 11th of the 14 is
getting most use at the moment.
“We’re fine, thanks,” we said waving our drink bottles at him, “korp kun krap.”
Next it was a fruit seller on the side of the road. He insisted on giving us more bananas than we really wanted, and when Judy tried to pay for the extra ones he plied us with even more. It was getting ridiculous, so I hoped off the bike and took a photo of him. That brought more bananas and we had no alternative but to hang them from the handlebars in their plastic bag.
Fruit seller who overloaded us with bananas.

As we cycled, people waved at us from the roadside and shouted “hello, sawatdee”. Sometimes, as often happens, they burst into gales of laughter - perhaps amused by the thought that two farang should travel on a strange bicycle when everyone else uses motorscooters or cars. Or perhaps they found it entertaining to see two people on a tandem - fullstop. Whatever the reason, it was nice to be providing the entertainment instead of gawking at them out of a bus window.

Heading South

The countryside over the past few days has changed dramatically. Gone are the hills and mountains of northern Thailand, replaced by a flatness that extends as far as the eye can see. The towns tick by - from Chiang Mai through Lamphun, Lampang, Wang Chin, Si Satchanalai, Kamphaeng Phet,
We stopped for iced coffee and the girl on the right
emerged to practice her English and act as
Sukhothai, Khanu Woklaksaburi and now Nakhon Sawan. Mostly one night stopovers, mostly quiet at this time of the year with few tourists prepared to visit during the hottest month.

Pacific West Coast Lies Ahead

Our goal now is Ayuthaya, the former royal capital, which we have already visited once. We want to rest up there for a couple of days before hitting Bangkok to catch a flight to Vancouver, BC, for the next part of our bike ride.
Ayuthaya is still at least two days’ ride away (about 220 km) and we’re hoping for more beautiful feelings along the way.  
Machine planting rice.

Labourers form a chain to collect up
empty trays at a rice seedling farm.

The monsoon rains are late arriving
this year - good for a couple of
cyclists but a worry for Thailand
which is one of the big three of the
world's rice exporters.

Where machines can't operate in awkward spaces, the seedlings are
still planted by hand.
Map reading as we head south.

Monday 20 May 2013

Counting the Kilos

Current Location: Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand (click link above for map)
Total Distance Cycled: 11,179 km
Squished Snakes on Road: 50+; Alive and Wriggling: 5
Backside Status when 10 is Bliss: Mike the Captain: 1; Judy the Stoker: 4

Cake, biscuits and more cake - adding calories
at Si Satchanalai.
The woman who put the rat in the fridge is to blame. We were waiting for our noodles, or feu, in a small restaurant on the side of the road in southern Laos. As we waited, a woman appeared from the open air kitchen holding a dish about the size of a small bread and butter plate. Lying on it, and hanging off both sides, was a dead rat. The woman had an air of pride, or at least of satisfaction, as she showed the rat to a couple of her friends and I figured she must have caught it out the back. As I watched she slid it, almost lovingly, into the fridge.

Noodled Out

Our coffee arrived but to my relief the noodles never surfaced - there must have been a lost in translation moment. But ever since, I have struggled with noodles. Every time I am faced with them, I search the bowl thoroughly with my chopsticks trying to identify whatever bits of meat I can find. The pork balls are fine, and I can tell my pork from my chicken but occasionally there are weird things which I can’t figure out. Sometimes, I just can’t face noodles.

On the Menu

All the above is a roundabout way of explaining why I may have lost quite a bit of weight and Judy has not. She never saw the rat on the plate, and doesn’t have the same aversion to noodles that I have developed. There seems little doubt that in Laos - an extremely poor country - rats do turn up on the menu. Some days later we saw a group of women emerge from the jungle and try to sell live rats by flagging down passing motorists. And in Luang Prabang, a bunch of dead and skinned rats were on sale in the morning market. I guess protein is protein wherever it comes from, but my western sensibilities struggle with the idea of eating rodents.
It takes two to tandem. On a quiet back road travelling
south from Sukhothai. The day's high was 38 degrees C.
I have been aware for months that I have been losing weight, and recently Judy’s been telling me my backside has disappeared. The other day as we waited for our pad thai to arrive I spotted some scales outside a minimart. The digital screen seemed to be winking at me in the sunlight, so in the end I kicked off my shoes and inserted one baht into the slot.

Moment of Truth   

The result: 70.8 kilos. That’s 15.7 kilos lost since we set out cycling our tandem just over a year ago.  
In contrast, Judy’s weight loss has not been so dramatic. She is somewhat coy about the subject but after intense questioning I can report that she has lost “several kilos” since setting out. After further questioning, I have established that “several” might mean a maximum of four.
Provisions for monks at a wat in Chiang Mai.

Why the difference?

We both work hard physically on the bike and for those who say the person on the back of a tandem can cruise, I would disagree. I can sense when Judy the Stoker eases off on the pedals (usually as she wipes the sweat from her brow) and she seldom does. She is behind me pedaling steadily uphill and down and in the heat of Thailand in its hottest month (May).
All I can attribute it to is individual metabolisms and perhaps the fact that being on the front means I live on my nerves more - steering, braking, dodging cars and motorscooters and potholes and generally fretting about the bike. Maybe that’s enough to worry those kilos away. Then again, Judy never saw the rat on the plate.

Judy the Stoker's Quotable Quotes

"I really liked the one (cake) with the hundreds and thousands and the jam on it. The vegetables were ok too," after meal discussion.
"Was that a drop of rain or was it someone's air conditioning with a drop of Legionnaire's Disease?" while walking on a city street.
"If you are a cyclist at one of these police roadblocks all they want to know is if you are happy," on being questioned yet again by smiling armed policemen.

Bike porn No 2 - Room for a

Bike porn No 3.

Prayers - Chiang Mai.

Monday 6 May 2013

Frankie Rides the Borderline

Judy holds onto a strap on the back of the
tandem as we walk it downhill to avoid a
blowout caused by the overheated brakes.


Current Location: Mae Sariang, Northern Thailand
Distance Cycled: 10, 482 km
Squashed Snakes on Road: 43+; In Death Throes (run over by cars) 2; Alive and Wriggling: 2
Maximum Speed: 70.0 kph
Punctures in SE Asia: 6
Backside Status: Mike the Captain 9 (when 10 is bliss); Judy the Stoker 8.5

The Mae Hong Son Loop

If Frankie says a hill climb is going to be tough, it will be. If Frankie says there’s no noodle shop somewhere, there won’t be. We know this because if Frankie says it, it must be true. Frankie is that sort of guy.
He’s been with us on our travels these past few days, if not in body then we feel he is with us in spirit as we ride the Mae Hong Son Loop - Thailand’s best motorcycle trip. It is popular with motorcyclists because it is said to have 1,864 bends in the road as it winds through the hills of northern Thailand close to the border with Burma/Myanmar. Along the way it passes through villages of hill tribes with strange sounding names like Karen, Shan and Red Lahu. The scenery is splendid and there is accommodation at convenient points. No wonder it is popular with motorcyclists.

Elevations along part of the
Mae Hong Son Loop. From
a useful website for planning cycle
After a stiff climb we find ourselves at 1,440 m.

Yum, noodles for lunch. At Mae Aw.
Judy tea tasting at Mae Aw, a Yunnanese settlement on the
border with Myanmar.

Push Those Pedals

For cyclists though, those of us who rely on our own legs to power us up the hills, it’s a bigger undertaking.  Even though the Loop only occasionally rises above 1,400 metres, there are lots of steep ascents and descents - so steep we often have to push our tandem uphill and walk it down the other side (the latter so we don’t overheat its V brakes).
And that is where Frankie comes in. Even though we don’t know him, we don’t know where he comes from or what he looks like, we have his detailed account of riding the Loop on his bicycle in 2010 - he wrote a blog called Frankie Goes to Thailand.
Tandem porn - from paddy fields to mountain vistas -
the Mae Hong Son Loop delivers a mix of riding
and scenery.
As a result, we know where the steepest hills lie and whether there is a noodle shop at the beginning or the end or neither. We also hear how Frankie copes with the rigours of the trip - how he can be cold in the early morning, needs a massage and visits a pharmacy to get ointment for a sore knee, all in the space of one day. We have been tempted to think that Frankie needs to “man up”, but you can’t help liking him.

Extreme Roostering

Hilly terrain.

While his blog with all its detail is probably of most interest to other cyclists, he has a wry sense of humour which is helped by the fact that Frankie’s first language is not English. He talks of spending a night at a guesthouse only to discover there is a chicken farm next door and long before dawn the roosters were engaged in what he called “extreme roostering”. We know exactly what he meant but it’s one of those delightful expressions that has caught on with us and gets used whenever we send a flock of hens scattering as we cycle through them.
We stopped for lunch at a quiet little restaurant midway
between Mae Hong Son and Khun Yuam. Frankie tried
for lunch here, but says the owner (left) fell asleep in
the garden. We were more fortunate and had scrambled
eggs, steamed rice, cabbage soup and some tiny fried fish.
The owner, Songvit Siang-Arom, wants to sell up and
move to Bangkok.
Frankie’s blog is being hugely helpful as we toil up the hills and we would not want to be without it. But its very thoroughness raises an interesting point.

A Road Well Travelled

Like relying too much on Lonely Planet, it removes an important element from travel - its unpredictability. Just as Lonely Planet suggests where to stay and eat, Frankie’s blog mentally prepares us for the next climb and helps us to decide how far we should cycle each day. Part of the joy of travel is its unpredictability, and sometimes too much information is a bad thing.
And there’s another downside. Reading Frankie’s blog reminds us how hard it is to “get off the beaten track”. Wherever we venture someone has been there on their bike, done that and got the t shirt. Maybe there is still hope for those committed riders who head off across Asia on the through route to Europe or cycle from one end of Africa to the other, but they are a rare breed. Given our age and ability we are not about to follow them. 

Frankie to the Rescue

Who's a cutey?
As for Frankie, he remains our guide and mentor. Tonight we are in a place called Mae Sariang with about 200 km to go to the end of the Loop in Chiang Mai. We rode into town with a small wobble in the front wheel and the suspicion that the bearings have gone (again). We cruised the riverfront looking for a guesthouse but found them all too expensive. We sat in a coffee shop and while we waited unsuccessfully for someone to emerge from the back to serve us, we scanned Lonely Planet on our Kindle. It had a suggestion we hadn’t spotted so off we pedalled to be shown a cheap room in a dump.
In desperation, we turned to Frankie’s blog - carefully printed off and carried with us each day on this particular ride. When he was here, he stayed in a backstreet hotel called the Kamolsorn. We checked it out and bingo - perfect. The right price, clean and neat and conveniently located while we wait for a local bike shop to replace the bearings in that wheel.
Frankie, while you have taken away some of the unpredictability from our ride, you are our hero.
Burmese/Shan influence in wat design:
Mae Sariang.
Parasols, wat, Mae Sariang.

Also Helpful

Throughout Laos we followed in the dusty path of the Travelling Two, Friedel and Andrew, whose website contains stacks of useful cycle touring information.
While we toured the Peloponnese, our cycling guide was the book “Greece on My Wheels” written by Edward Enfield (father of the British comedian Harry Enfield). It’s an entertaining and whimsical read with lots of information about the places he visits.
And for inspiration, we find it hard to go past the upbeat spirit of Loretta Henderson, a 40 year old Canadian who has cycled in some of the remotest corners of the globe. Her website:

Judy the Stoker’s Quotable Quotes

“If you want to control your environment don’t go cycle touring. You never know what’s going to happen next,” as we pull over to fix our second puncture in two days.

In the garden at Pang Tong Summer
Palace, used occasionally by the
Thai royal family.
At Pang Tong Summer Palace.
Climbing the guesthouse stairs to a very warm first floor: “Hot air rises. It’s a wonder I don’t levitate.”
Cabbage patch, near Mae Hong Son.