by Kevin Nicol
July 26 was fine day for an ascent up Mt Evans. For the second year, Nico Toutanhoofd and I took the plunge along with a few hundred other hardy souls up to the 14,200ft summit on two wheels. We just happened to have two bodies over the two wheels.
I am quite new to riding tandem, last year about this time, so after 30+ yrs of racing around the globe, I stumbled onto something new and fresh. Nico and I have been buddies and have known each other since the age of 12, growing up in Boulder, Colorado. We have been training before work and family, pre-sunrise for several years now and pride ourselves in our accomplishments. Yes, we are the crazy guys who get up before 4am and have lights blazing even in the dead of winter up on mountain peaks. Don’t feel sorry for us, it’s an absolute pleasure and we often comment, the best part of our day.
We began this tandem journey about 5years ago, with Dave Tiemeyer, formally of Estes Park, hand building a custom sized racing tandem for us to set a 40K record on. Nico and I both dallied around for a bit and then finally hit it last year and set the standard for 40K with our age. We also hit a new record for Mt Evans, on the tandem. Some may think it’s cheating to have two guys powering a bike together but I can assure anyone, that this is not the case. It is an advantage to drive a tandem across the flat or descent, but going up is a whole different ball game. The efficiency is not the same. We are both fairly accomplished climbers, with Nico winning National Championships, Mt Washington ascent and I, Mt Evans pro race in the past, but this was a whole new challenge. We did this thing on a time trial setup last year which was designed for flat record attempts, but this year we had a borrowed carbon fiber tandem, with the proper gearing to give us an edge on the 7,500ft of elevation gain from Idaho Springs to the summit; 27miles of lung scorching attitude.
Tandems pose several challenges over singles. First, you must ride as a team. You cannot ride against each other or you will lose fluidity and power. The Stoker, me, vs the driver, must learn how to relax and ride without the normal sensations of steering and seeing down the road. My job is to do nothing but add some force to the pedals and not catch the wind. We each apply our own force and that could be read on a power meter but the force that is driving the wheel is additive of our two combined forces. So we could be sending over 600Watts thru the chain or more, at any given moment. That is a ton considering most amateur or recreational riders average about 150-200Watts. Also, our combined weights would be about 300lbs on the tires.
We did our record this year, in 2:02hours, which was about 6minutes faster than our time last year and almost an hour above the next closest tandem. The pros did about 5min quicker than us on singles, but that falls in line with our limitations. We improved our time with experience, equipment and form. Nico and I train regularly, virtually every day; some say we spend more time training together than we see our wives. We know each other and style extremely well and can communicate without words.
We have code for when we want to shift, “up low or down high.” We do need to stand occasionally, 4X to be exact, to stretch the legs. This is a challenge as well. I do not have any bearing on his steering or handling the bike, but for me, it is difficult to sync up with him and not have the sensation of steering or rocking the bike. One time in training, the bar came loose and twisted on his seat post. Normally you would crash if this happened on a single, but it certainly freaked me out on the back till we could stop.
As we set out for the climb, we both kept in mind the challenges of racing at extreme elevation; Mt Evans is the world’s highest paved road. This means, everyway your body would normally respond to physical activity goes out the window. Ride over your limit up there and you will pay the piper. We took our time, paced ourselves and eased into our steady state. The oxygen deprivation does funny things to the brain, as everything slows. I would say to gear down and he might go one up, we would stand and it might feel like walking a tightrope, up and over 10,000ft and an hour of racing.
I can tell you my most harrowing moment, with it being said, I’m just along for the ride, was just before Summit Lake 12,830ft, with a mild descent. The road is atrocious with pot holes, cracks and heaves. It felt like being on a roller coaster in the dark, with no rail assuring you would remain true. My one thought was not to panic. Also, as stoker, you feel every bump, 10X over as if on the bad tail section seats on a plane. The whole way, all I see is Nico’s back and my sweat drizzling down with no breeze to wick it away. I hear my panting but nothing else, like a vacuum. I am not kidding when I put my life into his hands. Nico is responsible for breaking, shifting and steering around other riders and obstructions. We literally went around 500 single riders that had a 10min head start.
The awesomeness of this event is the feeling of comradery amongst the participants. We go by folks, and after they do a double take as the bike “keeps on going,” we hear “way to go,” “keep it up,” “oh my God!!” Nico is super good about reciprocating, but that becomes more reserved as we hit near the limit. At one fast section by Echo Lake, we go by a small bunch and I hear….”get on the tandem!” They sit on for about 30s and that’s it. We caught the last few guys on the final switchbacks. That was some form of relief for the two of us as we were not quite the first on top last year, but all we had in front was the leading Highway Patrol Officer. Dang that was a blast to roll that big bike in. We had a tall goal going into this, break 2hours. I’d say put your money on us for next July, see you out there!