COLUMBIA — Communication is important in any relationship. But when Robert and Sheila Bailey are climbing a hill single file on their bikes in some distant place, it's critical.
It's not always eloquent or pretty.
“We yell out to each other: ‘Car coming!’ ‘Two cars passing!’ ‘Big truck!’” Robert Bailey said. “And if I felt there’s a need, I’d say, ‘Get off the road! Get off!’”
The Baileys have built and refined their system of yells and signals since they began taking long-distance bicycle trips in 1997. They have taken more than 15 trips in 13 years.
The couple said they enjoy the trips for the exercise and the chance to meet people and see the world. But none of it would be possible without good communication, a skill they say has benefited their marriage.
Across the country in three legs
The Baileys took their first trip — a 210-mile journey from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C. — in 1997. They followed the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath, which mules once used to pull barges through the canal.
"It was a fascinating ride," Robert Bailey said. "And since that was such a great experience, we just kept on."
In 2001, they began a cross-country bike ride. They completed the trip over three summers because they each had to teach during the school year — Robert Bailey at Rock Bridge High School, Sheila Bailey at West Junior High.
They biked from Astoria, Ore., to Jackson, Wyo., in 2001.
They completed the second leg — from Columbia to Jackson — in the opposite direction. Sheila Bailey was concerned starting at a high altitude in Wyoming would have been bad for her health.
Finally, in the summer of 2003, the Baileys rode from Columbia to Yorktown, Va., on the Chesapeake Bay.
The Baileys said they were glad they completed the trip in smaller chunks.
"If you split it up, it's not such an arduous task," Robert Bailey said.
Not getting hit
Since 2007, Robert Bailey, 68, and Sheila Bailey, 67, have taken their long-distance trips on a tandem bike. But the Baileys began developing their system of communication when they started on single bikes in 1997.
On the single bikes, Robert Bailey said he always follows his wife. While she watches oncoming traffic, her husband uses a rear-view mirror to keep an eye on cars behind them.
On the tandem bike, the roles are reversed. Robert Bailey rides in the front, where he pumps the pedals, shifts the gears and steers the bike.
His wife sits in the back with a rear-view mirror. It’s her job to keep track of traffic.
She yells, “Clear!” when no cars are around, "Car up!" for oncoming traffic and “Car back!” when vehicles are approaching from behind.
Sometimes, she said she yells, “Car back!” multiple times as a vehicle gradually gains on them. Eventually, she calls out, “Car passing!”
“And I have to do this so quickly and be so accurate,” Sheila Bailey said. “Otherwise, we’re going to get hit.”
Sometimes, the Baileys said they just have to dive off the road.
They were once riding the tandem bike up a hill in Mississippi when a massive logging truck came up behind them. Normally, trucks can pass without incident, but a car came over the hill in the other direction and prevented the truck from moving over for the Baileys.
“We just ditched the bike and fell over,” Robert Bailey said.
Unfortunately, the side of the road dropped off into a hollow.
“So we’re off the bike sliding and grabbing hold of the weeds and grabbing hold of each other, and we stop ourselves before we fall down into this big hollow,” Robert Bailey said. “And the logging truck just kept going, though I could see him look in the rearview mirror as I was sliding around.”
In times like these, there's not much time to discuss diving off the road. The Baileys just do it.
But in most cases, their communication keeps them safe, and they both play a critical role in the process.
“If she says we get off the road, we get off the road,” Robert Bailey said. “I don’t necessarily dominate on this. We share the decisions.”
So far, their system has worked. Robert Bailey said, knocking on a piece of wicker furniture, at least they have never been hit.
Decisions and discussions
Out on the road, the Baileys share the decisions of where they’re going to stop each day, what sites they will see and what activities they might do.
Sheila Bailey said it’s always been that way.
“We made decisions on shared agreement before we got married, when we were dating,” she said. “And that just continues with us.”
But arrival at those decisions is not always easy. Sometimes it requires a bit of an argument — or, as Sheila Bailey rephrased it with a smile, a "discussion."
“We do argue,” her husband said. “We get excited and all that stuff, but it doesn’t last long."
Still, their lively communication has influenced their children. The Baileys remember one of their three children saying once that he or she wanted to marry somebody with whom he or she did not argue.
Tobin Bailey, 39, is the Baileys’ youngest child and only son. He said it was probably one of his sisters who made that comment, but he did remember his parents’ discussions.
“There were times when I thought they were very angry with each other,” he said.
He remembered overhearing some of their arguments with his siblings.
“And we’re upset: ‘Oh my goodness, are they gonna separate? Is this the end?’” Tobin Bailey said.
But within a couple days, he said, it always became clear that it was not the end after all. It was just his parents' way of reaching a decision.
“I think that over time, they’ve been able to understand each other more and communicate better,” he said. “My father has become more mellow, and my mother has become more vocal.”
Adjusting to the tandem
The Baileys bought their tandem bike in 2007. Just how good they are at using it depends on whom you ask.
“It’s different on a tandem than riding your own bike,” Sheila Bailey said. “You’re riding your own bike, you’re in charge. When you’re riding a tandem, the person in front is in charge. The person in back just pumps and follows along.”
She has had some difficulties adjusting to her new role in the back.
“There’s a rhythm and a timing and a comfort level that is not there for me,” she said.
“It took us, I think, three years to get comfortable with the tandem,” Robert Bailey said.
“Um, three years plus,” his wife said. “We’re still working on it.”
“Oh no, we’re doing fine,” he said.
“I’m working on it,” she replied.
Sheila Bailey has developed a few pet peeves on the tandem and her husband is well-aware of them.
“Couple things she doesn’t like,” he said. “I will come up to a stop sign, and then I will stop. And I don’t slow way down and just come—"
“Slams on the brakes,” she interrupts, laughing. “And within five feet, you’ve got to make sure that you have stopped, so I get this jolt in the back.”
And then there’s the issue of speeding down hills.
“Going downhill, he goes way too fast,” Sheila Bailey said. “Way too fast.”
“I don’t go fast downhill,” her husband retorted. “All well under control.”
He has his own complaints about his wife's biking.
“She’s pedaling, but she’s not pushing," he said.
“That’s where the yelling comes in,” his wife said. “We’re going uphill: ‘Are you doing anything back there?’ And so I’ll yell, ‘Yeah, I was just thinking.’”
She said she'll start pedaling, and her husband will feel a surge.
Then, he said he knows his wife is awake back there.
“That’s what the arguing is,” Sheila Bailey said. “It’s nothing personal. It’s more like, ‘Did you have to make that turn so quick?’ or ‘You said left, and you went right, which do you mean?’”
Yelling and listening
Riding together has taken the Baileys all over the country and around Europe as well.
In 2007, they rode from Cape Girardeau to New Orleans with a Dutch couple, Ruud and Marianne Spronk, whom they met en route from Columbia to Wyoming.
In 2008 they rode from Columbia to New Hampshire to visit their grandchildren.
And in 2009, they flew to Europe for a one-week tandem-bike cruise down the Danube River. Every morning, the bicyclists left the riverboat and rode downstream, where they re-boarded the boat at lunchtime.
The cruise ended in Budapest, but the Baileys wanted to ride more. They took a train to Berlin, then rode their tandem bike across Germany and the Netherlands to the Spronks' hometown of Brielle, on the coast of the North Sea.
Here in Columbia, they sometimes ride with another couple, Hugh and Sharon Curry. The Currys said they were familiar with the Baileys’ back-and-forth debates out on the road.
“They’re both really assertive about their points of view and will debate their issues,” Sharon Curry said.
The Baileys, who've been married almost 46 years, don’t deny they argue. They laughed as they recalled another friend who once explained to some fellow bicyclists on a group trip: “Don’t listen to them. They’ll be arguing here in a minute. Just ride on.”
“So we yell at each other,” Robert Bailey said.
“But we listen to each other,” his wife said.
Considering for a moment how their bike trips have affected their marriage, Robert Bailey smiled and gave a thumbs-up, drawing a smile and a laugh from his wife.
“I think it’s been positive,” he said.
On this they agree.
“Oh, it’s definitely positive,” she said.