Cycling with the Sicilian: 5 Keys to Pedaling with a Partner

Reader “KW” recently commented that he was interested by how much Sal and I cycle together. He wondered what the dynamic between us was like, how we balanced the motivation and emotions, how we split the workload.

It’s an interesting question for any couple who rides together but I think it also applies to riding in groups in general. And I’m not talking about classic group rides here (for which you should prepare to have your legs shredded off your body and expect nothing different), I’m talking about groups of friends getting together for fun.

Five Keys to Riding with Your Significant Other

  1. Plan: Decide route, intensity and ride goals before you leave. Commit to them. Don’t change the plan midway through. Don’t get all uppity because some dude in aero bars and a half shirt just went blasting by you and you want to chase him down. If everyone knows what to expect, things will go a lot smoother. You can also plan ahead of time to have certain sections that are “gloves off” and pre-designate regroup points (climbs are perfect for this).
  2. Take Ownership: Own your decisions and your actions. (This is just plain and simple relationship advice, really.) You decided to ride a little slower or faster to be with your partner. Don’t blame them when you’re hurting / wishing you were rolling a little faster. Also, don’t rely on or expect your partner to take care of things (like pumps, food, navigation, tubes) unless for some reason you’ve explicitly decided ahead of time to split responsibility for that stuff. (I don’t recommend this – especially with food. Only you know what you need.)
  3. When in doubt, let the slower person set the pace: We ride side by side when it’s safe, but when we’re in line, Sal really likes to pull. I appreciate this most of the time, but sometimes he pulls faster than I want to be going. He thinks he’s doing me a favor and I really wish I could be sitting on the front managing the pace.This is when I come around him and tell him I’m going to take over for a while. Of course, if I’m looking for a really hard ride, I just shut up and hang on. Or attack. : )
  4. Pick routes that play to both people’s strengths: If you’re a climber lady with a land-motor partner, find a route that has a little bit of “fast and flat out” and a little bit of up. Land-motor pulls the choo choo through the flats, mountain goat lady gets to lead the charge on the climb. Both people get to feel fast.
  5. Take a break: Sal and I don’t ride together all the time. I love a long, solo ride to clear my head and after a week or so of rolling on my own, I’m much more appreciative to have the Shecko back up front in the big ring.

Do you have other tips? Add ‘em in the comments.

Our Story: In the Beginning

I started cycling because Sal was cycling. That was it. I didn’t want to be left out.

If I’m honest, for a long time I didn’t think it was very fun at all. I definitely didn’t take to it right away and I was the opposite of “a natural”. To me, cycling was uncomfortable, inconvenient, complicated, cold (or too hot, the temperature fluctuations still annoy me), and a little bit scary.

[Side note: a reader recently mentioned to me how they thought it was so amazing that my blog tells the story of going from being a "non-athlete" to an "athlete". I'd like to dispel this myth. "Non-cyclist" to "cyclist" is accurate. I've been mashing balls and running competitively since I was a little kid - athleticism runs in the blood. For a long time I didn't even associate cycling with athleticism (I'm very ball-sport centric) but that's another post for another day.]

I had classic beginner problems: a bad bike fit, a terrible saddle, and a teacher who was so far beyond my level that he couldn’t even remember how to explain cornering: “You just do it.” didn’t really help me grasp the concept.

But for all the setbacks, I had a lot of positive things going on, too. Sal was committed to seeing me on a bike. He was patient (most of the time) and kind. He was helpful (almost to the point of being enabling) and caring and very protective.

In those early years of riding together we went out on the weekends to a nice location (I never rode in traffic then) and did 20 or 30 miles together. I never pulled and he never dropped me. We weren’t riding together – I was learning. Class was in session.

Usually these sessions occurred at “Bicycle Sunday” on Cañada Road when they blocked traffic to allow cyclists, hikers and roller-bladers to take over. I consider this my cycling birth place. We paid it a visit this past Sunday:

All Grown Up

Now that I’m past my Zygote Cyclist Phase, the dynamic is different. Sal worries less and rides harder. I take pulls on the front (though far fewer than he does). On a good day, I can make him hurt a little bit but I’ve never been able to drop him. Maybe I never will. I’m ok with that – and I will definitely keep trying.

When we ride together, I’m usually getting a pretty hard ride in. Or else Sal is getting a very easy ride in. There’s no getting around the strength discrepancy. I try to sit in as much as I can so that we’re both getting our money’s worth. When Sal’s on the front we’re both getting a pretty decent workout in. If we’re in a strong headwind, I try to come around and offer him a break here and there.

Balancing Training Demands

When Sal and I were really sticking to our training plans in Tucson, we went almost a month without riding together. I had lots of base endurance level efforts on my schedule and I knew it was important to get those long, steady miles in. I’d start with Sal and then back off as soon as the pace went too high.

“There’s plenty of time left to ride fast.” I told myself.

Sal was often perplexed by these super slow rides.

“I think you could have stayed with me.” he’d say when we met back at home, “I wasn’t going that hard.”

He was right. But in January, staying with him wasn’t the point. I train with power and have pretty specific workouts. Riding with Sal usually demands that I ignore (or at least significantly alter) what’s on my schedule.

Sometimes it’s about doing what’s right for training and sometimes it’s about enjoying being on bicycles together. The best days are when those two things overlap.

On Not Killing Each Other

Sal isn’t a big verbal motivator. He’s generally a happy-go-lucky bicycle kid and, to be honest, when things go south for me he doesn’t always know what to say. Which usually results in him saying nothing.

This works out now that we’ve established our roles. When I go into a bad place, I get quiet.  Sal typically responds to this with a little bit of small talk or outright silence. There are never boisterous words of encouragement or Hollywood-worthy pep talks. He has never pushed me up a hill (though I’m sure he would if I asked him to). I don’t expect this stuff from him so it’s fine.

I used to struggle a lot with blaming Sal for my bad days. Riding with him can be hard, and he doesn’t always get that. When I was hurting, I’d curse him internally for “getting me into this situation”.

These days I prefer to take responsibility for my decisions. When I roll out with him, I’m ready to go hard if I have to. I’m ready to hurt if i have to. It’s easy to have a scapegoat, but it’s unfair to blame the man in charge of the wheel that routinely gets my ass home.

Being fit helps a lot. The faster I get, the more confident I get and the less I have to “reach” to ride with him. As long as he’s not out to crush it, a long ride with Sal is well within my means these days. I haven’t always been able to say that.

As quiet as Sal is, he’s good at letting me know when I’ve done something well. And he’s not prone to blowing sunshine, so I take great pride in the days when he says something as simple as, “You rode hard today. Good job.”

For the Love of It

I love watching Sal ride. It is, without doubt, the place that he is most comfortable.

In some sense, pedaling is Sal’s natural, default state of being.

That kind of joy is pretty inspiring. So as much as I love being on a bicycle, I love seeing Sal on a bicycle even more.

It’s probably the same reason that he used to come out and watch me play 5 consecutive softball games in 103 degree heat on summer tournament days. Seeing people in their element is cool, even if you don’t “get it” quite the same way.

My relationship with the bike has been slow going. Cycling fitness is a cumulative process that requires years of patience and persistence and I’m not very good at waiting. Riding with Sal is a constant reminder that the measure of cycling extends far beyond the speed at which you travel.

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  1. My wife is a rouleur–her name is Diesel. I’m an ADD jackrabbit. She motors at her own pace, I’m intervaling, chasing everything down. Never pass the thing you are chasing–it’s bad form. I circle back, say Hi! She doesn’t give me the time of day. On the flats she does her thing; I sit back a few lengths and look around, stretch, ride in the dirt, tweet, bake… We’ve been riding together off and on for 15+ years; after awhile you either work out a system or are divorced.

  2. This a great post, thanks for sharing! Jess and I are starting to train for Cycle Oregon so we’ll definitely have to adjust from our mostly recreational, stay-together pace. It’s nice to have some tips.

    Now would you get your ass back to Oregon please? :)

  3. Great post! Very educational as I start riding with my GF more. Last year she’d crush me on the hills, but this year it has flipped. This winter she had surgery on her ankle and I did P90X and skied… now if only I could ride with as low a cadence as she does to build up the legs even more…


  4. Bravo, Heidi.
    Thank you.

  5. This is a great post and one I could have used several years ago when my husband (then-boyfriend) and I started riding together.

    We used to get in honest-to-god-fights about riding together. He’s faster than me so I would hold him up and hurt his training. I liked riding with him and felt like it was quality time for us both doing what we loved. Many times it ended in tears.

    Over the years we’ve figured it out. We maybe get a ride in together once a week, which is enough to keep me happy and not so much that it affects his training. We know that it will be an easier ride for him and a harder ride for me, which is fine because that has been decided and agreed to going into it. We play games – he’ll take a slightly longer route (that will meet up with the route that I’m on) and try to catch me and I will bust ass to try to not get caught. We’ll pick a meeting place and do our own thing for a little while. We do more mtb rides together than we do road rides together which works great because while I love knowing that he is out there (somewhere) with me, I also like focusing on what I am doing on my own. And then we still stop for beer on the way home. When we DO road ride together he’ll pull and I’ll hang on for dear life. Or sometimes he’ll ride his cross bike and I’ll ride my road bike and that helps some too.

    And we’ve both started riding more with other people, besides each other. Which not only keeps us both happy but its a lot of fun to spread the bike love around.

  6. Love the rules! They are all correct and shouldn’t need saying but ioften they doo, mostly just when riding with groups (i.e. partners know – or at least get balled at when you eventually get home)

    #3 – I actually enjoy riding/running behind my wife – just saying

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