"Whatever direction your relationship is going, your tandem will get you there faster," says Mel Kornbluh, 72.
For Mel, the tandem — a bicycle with seats and pedals for two riders — has helped carry him and his wife, Barbara, across 196,000 miles and 46 years of a happy marriage.
"Either you like being with your partner or you don't, and a tandem quickly brings that into light," says Mel. "I wanted my relationship with my wife to be where we did everything together, and so when I took up cycling and realized that she'd have a difficult time keeping up, we tried out a tandem — it became the perfect equalizer."
"I wasn't going to be stuck at home making cookies every day, so when Mel took interest in biking, I said I was going to do this, too," says Barbara.
In the first year after saying "I do," the couple started the joint hobby, which has since permeated nearly every other aspect of their life together. The expert tandemers are headed to the Philly Bike Expo on Saturday to discuss their shared experiences, which now include owning Evelyn Hill Cycling, a bicycle apparel company, and Tandems East, a tandem bicycle and repair shop based out of their home in Pittsgrove, N.J.
Through Tandems East, the duo coordinate group trips — the next group tour is to New Zealand in 2020 — and introduce partners to an activity that Mel and Barbara both say can change a marriage forever. They laugh at the idea of considering tandem bikes as "divorce bikes," as some jestingly call them.
"Couples want to do something together — you go to work all day, and then you go home and want to be with each other," says 68-year-old Barbara. "Riding a tandem is like date night. You make plans to do it, you go out and get to chat the whole time, and often you make friends while you're doing it."
Every Friday, Barbara and Mel depart on their polka-dot-covered, two-seater Land Shark for a 20-mile ride that most often ends at the New Dodge's Market in Elmer, N.J., their go-to spot for date-night dinners.
"There are moments of silence, but most of the time we're talking about our kids, our grandkids, our day at work. It's our time together," says Mel, who rides "captain," or the front seat, while Barbara rides "stoker," positioned in the back.
In tandem riding, the captain is usually the larger and stronger of the riders and the person in charge of controlling the bike. This includes steering, shifting, braking, and balancing the bike, all actions that require a lot of faith in the captain from the part of the stoker.
"It's a lot about trust, and you have to be patient with one another," says Mel, who reports that they've only had one couple in 30 years of consulting that just couldn't successfully tandem together. "The person in the back needs to let go of the fear and trust that the captain will steer them in the right direction."
Barbara notes that another key part of preventing bickering and breakdowns on the bike is learning to respect one another and setting expectations at the start.
"Just like a marriage, it's a give and take. You need to be honest with each other, decide how long and how far you want to go, and respect one another's limitations and desires," says Barbara. "This will change from ride to ride, but if one partner wants to go 50 miles and the other wants to go 30, you should definitely agree on a middle zone before you take off."
Barbara and Mel's biggest personal challenge in tandem riding has little to do with avoiding arguments. "Our greatest difficulty is simply finding enough time to go out," says Mel.
Moving as a team, Barbara and Mel have traveled by bike all over Europe and within nearly every state. Their upcoming New Zealand tour will mark their fifth time in the country, and this December, they'll head to California, an annual trip that they take to stay cycling in the winter.
"More often than not, though, we're just riding around South Jersey," says Mel. "We never leave home without our bike in our car because you never know when you're going to find a nice stretch to ride along your route."
Through tandem riding, the couple has met many of their lifelong friends, and recall that on double-date rides, the men will often chat side by side while the women riding in the back carry out their own conversations. Being able to share the passion simply with one another, though, is what they love most. Having an accountability exercise partner is an added bonus.
"It has definitely helped me stay fit through all of our years in marriage," says Barbara. "To this day, I can still cut the rug on the dance floor, and I can still cut the rug on the bike."
Philly Bike Expo, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28, Pennsylvania Convention Center, 1101 Arch St, $8-$25, phillybikeexpo.com