Above: Winnie Burns and Corrie Gustafson sail to new heights on a Ritchey mountain bike tandem. Photo by Chris Kostman. (This was Winnie's first ride on the captain's seat.)

SCOOP: Darwin Speaks on Bicycle Evolution

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in California Bicyclist, with photos, June 1992

Over time, a single species of bicycle has ruled the battlefield where war is waged continuously through natural selection and survival of the fittest. The undisputed dominator of the bicycling world, this rare breed has met and conquered all challengers that have crossed its path. Alas, world supremacy is a lonely roost, so this king of road and trail is looking for a few brave souls willing to cast in their lots, in pairs only, and disappear into the next millennium. The name of this fiercesome but lonely beast: the Mountain Tandem.

Ever in search of a scoop, this writer arranged for an exclusive interview with one such daring duo and with the man who wrote the book on evolution, Charles Darwin. What follows is our candid talk about Mountain Tandems (M-Ts), preserved here for prosperity:

CK: Why has the Mountain Tandem risen to the top of the bicycle world?

Darwin: Well, for one thing, it can muster up more sheer power than any other type of bicycle. Plus, it can transfer that power to the gound more efficiently, due to its exceedingly flex-free skeletal structure, and with maximum traction, due to its large, agressive pawprint. Also, it's unmatchable speed on flats and downhills will allow it to outrun any other predator.

CK: What negative traits has the Mountain Tandem had to learn to overcome?

Darwin: They are big and heavy, which is both a bonus and a drawback. On the one hand, they demand respect and attention from other trail and road users. Some biped and quadruped trail users are so dumbstruck by the sight of one, in fact, they forget to be rude to an M-T when they see one. On the other hand, though, they can have a hard time negotiating in close quarters, turning sharply, and halting their forward momentum. This is why their symbiotic relationship with the captain and stoker has become so crucial to their mastery of the bicycle world.

CK: Winnie, could you give us some insight into this symbiotic relationship from a captain's perspective?

Winnie: You see, communication is the key to success in this part of the bicycle world, both between the two riders and their beast. And believe you me, it can take a lot of Body English to make your message clear between all three parties in this relationship. A good M-T will communicate what it's feeling under its paws, how to keep it steered in the right direction on tight singletrack, and how we riders need to shift our weight to maximimize its traction and power transfer. We riders have to know that the M-T wants us to get out of the saddle over rough terrain, while airborne, or on some hills. That helps it to maintain its momentum and encounter less trail shock.

CK: What about from the stoker's perspective, Corrie?

Corrie: Communication with the beast is most crucial on steep terrain. Whether going up or down, I have to slide back on the saddle to increase traction. On some mega steep downhills, I'll slide back off the saddle or even all the way onto the back paw to help the M-T decellerate. M-Ts love when we stokers do this! Plus, if I don't do these things, the M-T will remind me to do so by spinning its rear paw and kicking up some dirt. Also, I need to always keep my weight directly over the center of gravity with no sudden movements or leaning differently than the captain. That kind of undue stress on the skeletal structure will cause any M-T to shake its horndlebars something fierce, which will scare the shorts off of the captain and maybe even make us crash. If we don't communicate, all three of us could be staring extinction in the face! Then some hybrid might ooze out of the primordial slime and try to take the M-Ts place at the top of the heap. (She visibly shudders at the thought.)

CK: Darwin, what can the Mountain Tandem do to ensure it doesn't go the way of the dinosaurs?

Darwin: For starters, M-Ts and their friends need to spread the word about their special menage a trois and the good fun that can come of it. Then other human types won't feel threatened or scared of M-Ts and will learn to appreciate them. Also, humans need to realize that they been duped for many years by those far distant cousins of the M-Ts that have skinny paws of large diameter. Those M-T Wannabees of the Fredithicus genus have to tippy toe on trails or rough roads. Of course, survival of the fittest is slowly weeding out those soft-spined lilliputian M-T Wannabees and the sooner we're all rid of them, the M-Ts will have more room to increase their reproductive rates. This is an aside, but reproduction may be more important than communication in the long run. (He elbows me in the gut with a grin.)

CK: Darwin, what impresses you most about the Mountain Tandem?

Darwin: Probably its adaptability and almost chameleon-like ability to reconfigure itself. Depending on whether it's going to prowl and hunt on the road or trail, it can reshape it horndlebars from straight as an arrow to as curly as a mountain goat. Also, it can decrease the respiration into its paws to increase its traction or speed. It can even shed its wide paws in favor of the Fredithicus type of road paw for maximum speed when prowling in the paved parts of the globe. Yet minutes later it can be right back in the woods with a full footprint! And, its skeletal structure is such that most human types can fit comfortably with most any M-T; size variation isn't nearly as finicky as with those Wannabee M-Ts. But the best thing of all about the rare Mountain Tandem is that with two human types, it can go anywhere and share an understanding of the natural world that no other type of animal or bicycle can. M-Ts have a lot to share and teach us if they're given a chance! For example, one M-T once whispered to me that the human race should abandon the arms race in favor of the bicycle race! Oh, we do have much to learn from our fellow non-human compatriots on this tiny planet...


CK = Chris Kostman, M.A. in archaeology, RAAM racer, director of Kostman Sport Group.

Captain = Winnie Burns, physical therapy student and intern, champion soccer player and duathlete.

Stoker = Corrie Gustafson, liberal studies major, account manager, and century rider.

Special thanks to Ritchey USA, PACE Sportswear, Bell Helmets, and Karim Cyclery of Berkeley, as well as Michael Shermer, Ph.D., five time RAAM racer and a professor of evolution and the history of science.

Above: Winnie Burns and Corrie Gustafson on a Ritchey mountain bike tandem.
Photo by Chris Kostman.