Two Peas in a Pod: A Look at Pairs Racing

Two Peas in a Pod: A Look at Pairs Racing

6 January, 2022

A unique feature of ultra-racing is the ability to complete one of the biggest challenges possible in a pair. Pairs come in many shapes and sizes, friends, relations, partners or teammates but there are some quite incredibly unique pairs out there. To start our series Two Peas in a Pod we’ve invited 3 intriguing pairs to answer a few questions about racing and riding together.

Pair one is Duncan and Sam Stewart-Ball, the father son duo that captivated everyone at this year’s Pan Celtic Race. Sam, at only 13, is the youngest person to complete an ultra to our knowledge.

Pair two are Shona and Rich who run a small bike shop specialising in big adventures. They frequently race as a pair, often on their tandem, completing the Silk Road Mountain Race and the mountain bike race the Highland Trail 550 (both on the tamden!).

Pair three is Stevie and Laura who recently completed All Points North on a tandem, this pair is attempting to break the World Record for circumnavigating the world by tandem.

Featured Picture by Dan King of Duncan and Sam

1. What is your relationship outside of ultra-racing?

Duncan - Myself and Sam are Father and Son, I am 44 and Sam is 13 years old.

Shona - We're probably fairly unique (apart from Scotti and Ernie) in that we live together, run our business together and choose to race together.

Laura - Got married in 2018 so are husband and wife.

Pictured - Stevie and Laura at All Points North

2. What made you decide to ultra-race as a pair?

Duncan -Sam's age being the main contributory factor. Sam wanted to become the youngest person to complete an ultra-distance race and as far as the organisers of the Pan Celtic team are aware and fellow ultra-riders, and after looking into it, he is. The only way he was realistically going to achieve his goal at such a young age and be able to compete, was in a pair, hence why we did it together.

Shona - Well perversely, even though we spend all our time living and working together we also really enjoy riding our bikes together, we only close the shop a couple of times a year, in the past we've fitted in the odd tour but have always enjoyed racing. Taking part in ultra-races seemed like a great way to combine everything we love to do: ride, see new places, build the perfect bike, obsess over kit choices and spend time together doing it.

Laura - We love riding as a pair on solos and tandem bikes and like to test our limits, taking it to the next level. Ultra-racing allows us to use the skills we have as a team and play to our individual strengths whilst supporting the others weaknesses. It's also great preparation for out tandem around the World Record attempt next year!

Pictured - Shona and Rich

3. How did you find the race as a pair? What were the positives of racing together and were there any negatives?

Duncan - On the whole, the race was great for us as a pair, especially with our relationship as father and son, it was a huge adventure and one that will live with us forever. We were able to talk, and keep each other going, which was really nice and definitely helped. We did however, have our moments where we disagreed and there would be an awkward silence for a while or even an argument. I had the responsibility of making sure that Sam had plenty of food and fluid and that he kept it going, which I suppose kept me occupied. It was also nice working as a team, taking it in turns on the front and discussing the plans as the race went on. Negatives, I suppose you just have to accept that there will be times when one is feeling stronger or better than the other and you just have to accommodate the other person in the pairing.

Shona - The positives are it's a great way to spend time together away from the shop, it's probably the one time we really get to forget about work. I guess as a pair in longer races you do have an advantage over soloists in that you can coax each other along when your tired, if you're having doubts about routes or a mechanical there's someone to discuss it with or bounce ideas off. You don't have to spend time playing mind games with yourself to keep going and it's definitely much harder to think about quitting when you're in a pair. On a practical level you can gear share so on races like the SRMR you can carry a two person tent that probabaly weighs less than 2 bivvy bags and share cooking stuff and repair parts, so that's a bonus. The negatives, well sometimes you do want to throttle the person you're riding with! It's really difficult to keep your 'faff' time in control, you try to sync your pee stops but it never happens. You have your high and low points at different times, so you may be feeling great and could ride quicker but maybe your partners having an 'off day' so you ride slower, it's all give and take.

Laura - For All Points North (our biggest ride in 2021) it was a bit of a balance between wanting to succeed but not causing ourselves any long term issues with training for the bigger challenge next year. We both had to start with the same mindset and discussed and agreed our boundaries beforehand as to how far we would push things. We were clear that our goal was to finish rather than push for the fastest time we could as the course was tough enough on the tandem so part of our strategy was to be the tortoise not the hare! There are lots of positives in terms of being able to support each other, particularly in the inevitable dark moments and being able to discuss decisions on the ride. We can often save some time by splitting up jobs too. The trickier bits come when we are out of sync e.g. one of us needs food and the other doesn't or one needs a micronap and the other is getting cold. If we are both having a bit of a negative blip it takes a concerted effort to stop it becoming a negative spiral.

Pictured - Laura and Stevie

4. How has racing as a pair changed your relationship?

Duncan - Racing as a pair has definitely made our relationship stronger, we have a better understanding of each other's strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes we don't need to speak, but being in the company of that person is reassuring in itself. I am so proud of what my 13 year old son has achieved, it is unbelievable and I hope that he goes from strength to strength in life and also with his cycling career (something that he dreams of).

Shona - I think we can both read each other a bit better than we did before, we both know when to not make that wise crack that'd probably tip the other person over the edge and start an argument. Or when Rich say's he 'quite' tired when we're racing the tandem that he probably needs some rest as hefting that bike around is a bit harder than riding your solo bike.

Laura - How has racing as a pair changed your relationship? Our relationship started riding together so we can't imagine it any other way! We are very lucky that we are a couple that enjoy spending a lot of time together so as much as we do have the occasional disagreement... on the whole we enjoy each other's company and are really proud of what we can achieve on the bike.

Pictured - Duncan and Sam by Dan King

5. What piece of advice would you give any aspiring ultra-racers who want to compete in a pair?

Duncan - Competing in an Ultra event as a pair, in my opinion, is a brilliant way to experience the highs and the lows that these types of events have to offer. Just having that reassurance that you're not alone, is something really nice and definitely something that a lot of people would appreciate. It's a completely different experience to riding solo, and has different pros and cons. Would I like to go solo? Probably not if I'm honest, not after what I experienced with Sam. The joy and accomplishment as a team was amazing and we want more.

Shona - Really get to know the person you're going to ride with, going out and riding together for a couple of days at a time before an event doesn't tell you what they're going to be like after 5 days with little sleep, or when they're ill. You get to see people at their best and worst, when you're ill and feel awful you can say some really sh#tty things that you don't mean. We know if that happens it's situational and not to be taken to heart. What's said on the race stays on the race! We know people who've pretty much fallen out in this scenario and quit a race not to speak again. On any race you'll have the best and worse of times, but it's all an experience and mostly fun :-)

Laura - Agree on your goals and your limits before any race: is the most important thing to finish, or to go as fast as possible with the risk you might DNF? Does one of you have other commitments that might impact on training before the race of the amount of recovery you need after?

Pictured - Shona, Rich and Olive the Border Terrier singlespeed touring

Thank you to our contributors for their wise words and taking the time to share their experiences. Whether you love riding as a pair or are more of a solitary soul there is definitely a charm to having an unforgettable adventure with those that you're close to.

If you have any experiences of riding as a pair that you'd like to share, please email