Jesus, My Tandem Partner: Is He the Captain or the Stoker?
(What I learned from Tandem Riding.)
By Pastor Mark Quist
When my friend from church invited me for a Mountain Bike ride shortly after arriving in Grand Junction, Colorado, I had no idea just where the trail would lead. From day one I was mesmerized. I soon discovered my first church pastoring engagement would place me at the epicenter of the mountain biking kingdom, ‘drool city’ USA. I could bike from my house in any direction and be rolling on world class mountain bike trails – 18 Road Fruita to the North, Kokopelli and Moab to the West, Lunch Loop/Tabeguache/Colorado National Monument to the South, and the Grand Mesa to the East (Oooh – la-la). Google these locations and pair it with ‘mountain biking’ and you will see what I mean.
Mountain Biking is a passionate sport. Nothing better than winding through the woods on a single track trail – or experiencing the accomplishment of negotiating a technical rock descent without going over the handlebars. Its marked by rugged and individualistic persons. Just me, the bike and the trail. I enjoyed entering and finishing races – became a passion of mine. So when a new friend of mine, Devin, who also was into racing, suggested we try riding and racing a tandem mountain bike together, I had no idea the things I would learn about my friend, myself, and more importantly, Jesus.
First decision, we need a bike. Tandem mountain bikes are somewhat of a specialty item. We found one and bought it. Then came the big question: who sits up front (Captain) and who sits in back (Stoker). The Captain does all the steering, shifting, braking, and picking the ‘lines’ (direction). There are many choices to be made during the course of a race and the captain makes most of them. The stoker on the other hand, does one thing and one thing only… pedals. And pedals. And pedals. And pedals. Not a very glamorous position.
Usually in a tandem biking team, the taller person and the person with the most weight is up front. That person is the captain. Devin is taller than me and weighs about 20 to 30 more pounds than me – he should be the captain of this team.
From the beginning Devin said, “I’ll ride in the back. I’ll be the stoker.” It was my first glimpse into a prominent quality of my tandem partner – humility. It reminds me of Philippians 2 where it says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourself. You should not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have the same attitude as Jesus Christ.” This was the beginning of Devin reminding me of someone I know – Jesus.
I on the other hand like to be in control. I was more than good with this arrangement Devin agreed to. Steering, braking, shifting, picking the lines – all sounds good to me. Our biking together began with training rides. Right away, I enjoyed the conversation we could have while riding in close proximity. Devin was always right there with me.
We began to test our abilities racing together in tandem. We entered some gravel road races – first 36 miler, then 50 miler, then a 67 miler. Just a couple of yahoo Dad’s in a mid-life crisis. This is where the learning took off. The more we spent time on the bike in training and racing, the more we enjoyed it. After several races, we talked about the challenge of the ultra-endurance racing – 100 milers.
Over the past 5 years of racing together, we have completed more than 15 races together in tandem, including six 100 milers in Michigan, Ohio, and Colorado. In ultra endurance racing you learn a lot about yourself. And in tandem racing, you learn a lot about your racing partner.
Here are some things I have learned:
Two better than one… Riding tandem is much better than riding solo. We are better together and better in racing when riding tandem. Its just easier for us. We are able to talk throughout the race and share the experience.
Encouragement! Throughout the race, Devin is giving encouragement, “Good pace, good line…” When one is down the other is up – Racing is tough stuff – especially 100 miler ultra endurance races… where you are in the saddle an average of 9 to 10 hours depending on course terrain, altitude, weather… it is physically, emotionally, and mentally grueling. And time and time again, when fatigue, cramps, and pain and exhaustion set in… (feel like its time to quit), Devin will say, “We can do this!” In my racing experience with Devin, he is always encouraging me with a hand on the shoulder, “Good line Mark.’ “Nice shifting!” This sounds like Jesus to me.
Grace and Humility. There have been times where I have not taken a good line and its led us off the trail… In the LumberJack 100, a 100 mile race in Michigan’s Manistee National Forest, I’ve cut corners through trees to tightly and turned his handlebars sideways on a tree trunk. Imagine weaving rough cones in drivers training, accept instead of driving a Volkswagen, they give you a Semi-Truck with a trailer. The race is 98% single track weaving through trees. Once I took a line to close to the edge of the trail. The forest floor was covered in ferns and I didn’t see the stump that Devin hit full on with his pedal crank arm. The jolt ‘kicked’ us off the trail and off the bike. It was mile 17, with 83 more miles to go and the shaft was bent badly. In every instance, Devin got back on the bike with me and continued the race, even managing the difficult pedaling pattern, all the way to the finish. This sounds like Jesus to me.
In the Mohican 100, a race in the central hills/valleys of Ohio, I twice dumped Devin. Once I turned a corner and went straight into a large puddle, stalled out. I unclipped and jumped off the bike as it was going down. Devin didn’t have time to get out of his clips. I laid him down right in the middle of the mud puddle. Later, we were on an incline with a steep drop off to the left. Same kind of thing, I lost balance and momentum, I knew the bike was going down. I unclipped and watched as Devin fell toward the left and rolled down the hill into the woods. Both times he got back on the bike with me and finished the race. Again, this too sounds like Jesus to me.
Time and time again, he gets back on that bike with me… Its unbelievable… (Sometimes I wonder if something isn’t right with him to trust me like he does.)
Devin is taller than me. He can often see over my shoulder to the trail up ahead. He will speak words of guidance throughout the race, “Sharp turn coming,” “Do you see that obstacle?” “Steep climb ahead, get ready to shift into a lower gear.” “Pace yourself.” Devin is constantly whispering wisdom and encouragement in my ear throughout the race. Sounds like Jesus.
My experiences with tandem riding have brought a richer understanding about Jesus. It has caused me to ask this question: If Jesus where riding tandem with me (which in life, he most surely does), would he be the Captain or the Stoker? Would he be the one up front steering, shifting, and braking, picking the lines? Or would he be the one in the back who pedals and pedals, and pedals?
I have heard the phrase before, “Jesus is the Captain (Lord) of my life. He is the one in control of everything.” I understand the truth of this phrase, but in life, what I have learned from tandem riding is that Jesus is more like the stoker.
Here is what I have come to believe about Jesus. He gives me so much freedom in life – to make choices, to take certain paths… decide which line to take… and some of the lines I choose are good lines, others not so good. Some lines lead to blessing while others lead to trouble, hardship, even pain. Yet, whether my decisions are good lines or bad lines, Jesus is always there. He is Immanuel – God with me. It’s like this, Jesus says, “Here are the handlebars, here are the brakes, here are the shifters and see that up ahead, that’s the path. Now go!” And then quickly adds, “And I will be with you.” No matter the path, he is with me.
What this means is that sometimes we take Jesus right into the mud with us, or run his crank arm into a stump. Yet time and time again, Jesus gets back on the bike with us. Whether we are flying down the trail or cranking up a steep hill, Jesus adjusts his cadence to ours, he is God with us.
Life can be difficult and challenging, much like an ultra-endurance race. The most difficult race Devin and I ever entered was the Leadville 100. The town of Leadville, Colorado sits at 10,200 feet above sea level. That’s where the start of the race begins. After that, its packed with elevation gain (over 14,000 feet increase throughout the race) with extended steep grade climbs (five to be precise) and there is absolutely no oxygen… at least that’s how it feels. 100 miles of ‘fun.’ On a good day, if everything goes well, you might finish under 10 hours. During the course of those 10 hours, you literally feel like you are going to die. Often, you think, “I’m not going to make it.”
So it can be in life. Pain and brokenness comes to us from our own poor choices and it comes to us simply because we live in a broken world. Fatigue sets in and ‘cramps’ can take over. You may even feel at times you have nothing left and can’t go on. And what does Jesus do? He adjusts his cadence to where we are, matching our pace, pedaling with us. He is there behind us with a hand on the shoulder saying, “You can do this. We will make it to the finish line.” This is the promise of God to us in the person of Jesus – a tandem partner.
During one of our races, near the 90 mile marker, Devin and I had been experiencing repeated mechanical problems. Every time we wanted to shift into a higher gear to go faster the shifting would slip on us. The chain kept riding off the gear teeth and we would have to stop to make adjustments. We were exhausted and defeated. And then it happened, the chain slipped again, came off its gearing and we stalled to a stop. At that point, I came off my ‘gears’ as well. My patience was gone. Yet somehow, I found enough energy to pick up the tandem bike and throw it into the woods. I also said some things I shouldn’t have too as my frustration boiled over. Devin’s response was interesting. He said nothing. He simply watched and waited for me to calm down. He stood there for a moment longer. Then walked over to the bike, picked it up, made it ready to ride again, and set it on the path. Then he said, “Let’s go Mark, we can do this.” This sounds like Jesus to me. This is what he says to us time and time again, “Let’s get back on the bike… let’s peddle to the finish line. We can do this. I’ll be with you.”
I wonder if Devin might be Jesus. I know he would have a problem with me saying this with the ‘humility’ thing and all. But in and through Devin, my tandem riding partner, and the racing experiences we have had riding in tandem, God has given me some insight into Jesus, that’s for sure. Jesus is our Stoker, capital “S”. He is the ultimate Emmanuel, God with us.
There is idea of Jesus being our stoker. For in being our stoker, Jesus calls us to be a stoker for others. That in humility, we adjust our cadence to the cadence of those around us. Life is like a race. It can be difficult, exhausting, and at times reaching the finish line can seem impossible. But God calls us to saddle up with others in this race called life, and to stoke for someone else.
There is more to all of this. I’m reminded again of Philippians 2 where it says, “Since we have been united with Christ, with his love, and we have fellowship with his Spirit… (since we are riding tandem with Jesus…) then have this same attitude and love toward others.” Jesus, the ultimate stoker calls us to stoke for others. Jesus calls us in humility to adjust our cadence to the cadence of those around us. Life can be difficult, exhausting, and at times reaching the finish line can seem impossible. But God calls us to ride tandem with others in this race called life, and to stoke for someone else – bringing pedal power and encouragement alongside another.
From my heart to your heart, in the journey of the Christian life, find a good tandem partner. Start with Jesus, he is the ultimate tandem partner. Then go the extra mile and find other people who can pedal with you through life.
A Video of Pastor Mark giving a similar address to a high school of 800 students