Originally published in issue 80 of Singletrack Magazine.
Words and pics by Chipps.
We haven’t even made it out of the car park yet and the ‘discussion’ is in full flow:
“No, YOU lift your pedal up, I’m holding the bike up. Not too far… that’s-ouch! That was my shin!” “Well, if it’s so easy, why don’t YOU get up here and drive the blimmin’ thing?”
Ignoring the mechanics of the thing; the ‘how on earth is that going to work?’ disbelief that two people can pilot a single bike off road, the thing about tandems is that they’re incredible relationship magnifiers. It’s a world where every little movement; every hard or soft pedal and every weight-shift has direct effect on your tandem partner. It involves great co-operation, compromise and understanding in order to even get it to move, let alone descend tricky singletrack. As such, it really, really helps if both riders are in sync with each other. Get it right, though, and like all good pairings, the result can be way greater than the sum of your efforts. Get it wrong and, well, and you’re still providing an entertaining spectacle for the rest of the riders watching you.
I’ve been a fan of tandems, and particularly mountain bike tandems forever. My first ride on the back of a tandem was with Ibis Cycles’ Scot Nicol 20 years ago. Ibis used to make some beautiful tandems in long multi-colour fades (hey, it was the ‘90s, OK?) and Scot’s road tandem had a huge Pro-Stop disc brake fitted to the back of it. That was pretty trick for 1993.
We took in a loop of the Sonoma County, California lanes with a bunch of road riders and, despite our combined Long Vehicle-length and two-up weight, we could keep up with the roadies on the narrow, rolling roads. We were riding way faster than I’d have dared, with Scot making full use of the extra grip and momentum a bicycle made for two comes with. Coming up behind some speeding riders on the approach to a downhill, sharp turn, I just heard Scot should ‘PEDAL!’ as we got to the corner. Against all logic, we pedalled hard going into the corner and continued to spin through it, our inside pedals millimetres from the tarmac, tyres tenaciously gripping the road with two riders’ weight pressing them to earth. We emerged at light speed, so much faster than the fit roadies we’d blasted past that it took them minutes of chasing to reel us back in. That was it. I had to have one of these things.
My first mountain bike tandem was a Dawes Double Edge; a steel mountain bike tandem with cantilever brakes and not really enough gears – or brakes for that matter. However, it didn’t stop me trying to ride it off road, with an assortment of friends coerced into sitting on the back. It wasn’t long before I entered my first Polaris event on it with my friend Nick. He would navigate, map flapping in the wind, on the back while I would simply steer. I wouldn’t have a clue where we were all weekend, but would just go where he told me.
Incredibly I brought it under control (with cantis on wet rims) and shared high-pitched giggles for the next ten minutes.
The tandem evened out any disparities in our individual fitness and it meant that the yo-yoing of speeds over a riding day that everyone experiences, would be compensated by the other. I can still remember the harmony of screaming we managed together as we double pinch-flatted at speed on a fire road descent. Incredibly I brought it under control (with cantis on wet rims) and shared high-pitched giggles for the next ten minutes. In fact, most of my tandem memories are of silly giggling between myself an my tandem partners, whether I was on the front or back and whether we were a good or bad pairing. It’s virtually impossible for you (or anyone else) to take you that seriously when you’re on a tandem.
Find us a hill and a big garage.
Back in the nineties, there used to be a weekend event held in mid-Wales called ‘Tandemania’. It was a celebration of all tandems, though mostly road tandems, and it offered a weekend of road rides, tandem time trials and tandem fun and games back at the campsite. There was an off-road element which attracted a half-dozen or so of the few mountain bike tandems, with their own rides and races. I made many great friends through that event. As is often the way, the people organising the event stopped putting it on and no one ever stepped up to take their place.
In an attempt to recreate those er, glory days, of the mountain bike tandem, I thought I’d try to track down some of the contemporary mountain bike tandem owners and get them together for a weekend and, well, just ride long bikes around the place. Mountain bike tandems tend to be pretty obvious, so they’re quite easy to spot. Finding a half dozen or so tandems was easy enough; finding somewhere to get together was another thing entirely. We needed a landscape that wouldn’t deter newcomers (if there were any) and that would give the old hands some fun. The Yorkshire Dales has seen its fair share of mountaing bike tandems over the years and Stu at the Dales Mountain Bike Centre didn’t seem to mind the idea of a dozen or so riders turning up, with half the number of bikes, for a weekend of riding. With its rolling, but extensive hills and gravely tracks, it should be a great fit for a bunch of longbikes…
Two riders are capable of incredible torque, so it’s common to explode freehubs and break chains.
Tandems seem to be the last bastion of the bodger. It used to be that many branches of the bike family tree weren’t catered for by the mainstream component makers. Cyclocross bikes used a mix of road bike gears and touring brakes and wheels; early mountain bikes used a combo of touring stuff and motorbike bits and pieces on paperboy bikes and trials bikes used to mix bits of BMX and mountain bike componentry to get where they wanted to go. Now, though, they all have their niches covered by production components. Tandems, meanwhile are still out on their own. Although there are only a few frame makers, there’s not even a consensus on how wide the rear hub should be on a tandem, with everything from 135mm, through 145mm (not 142 mind, but 145mm) up to 165mm. Production tandem cranks only come from a couple of manufacturers and forks and brakes often come from the downhill bike catalogue.
Two riders are capable of incredible torque, so it’s common to explode freehubs and break chains. There just aren’t the numbers to make it worthwhile anyone producing stock mountain tandem groupsets and so most gatherings of any tandems tend to involve a great deal of car park ‘What are you running?’ chat as riders try to work out if someone’s hit upon the perfect combo of gears, brakes and set up.
Time to truck.
The sunny weekend had lured eight tandems out to play that weekend. Forgetting the sheer amount of people-momentum involved in just getting 16 people to start cycling at the same time, there were more factors in play. While many of the tandem pairs were long-time riders, we were treated to a pair of complete newcomers on the ‘Tandem of Expletives’. Friends of mine, Sarah and Jim had rashly taken up my offer of the loan of my Cannondale and this would be their first ever tandem outing. You could see the old hands looking on with a mixture of sympathy, surprise and amusement as the unfamiliar ways of cycling co-operation were forced upon them. Perhaps it was a sign of a lack of confidence in Jim’s abilities, but Sarah was wearing full leg armour…
Riders used to moving around on a bike – and indeed in moving bikes around – find tandems very odd to get used to. There’s very little call for out-the-saddle riding on a tandem, and it’s actually very hard to coordinate two riders’ side to side movements to do it without wobbling across the road, so ‘steady-away’ is usually the name of the game. So, steadily, the teams slowly reeled in the top of the first climb. We’d brought along a couple of solo (in tandem speak) bike riders, primarily it seems to open the gates for us, and they darted in between the long vehicles like tugboats moving between supertankers.
Remember to pedal. Secrets to two-up success.
If you’ve not ridden a tandem before, there are a few things that you might not realise are involved in successfully riding one.
The biggest issue is that the captain’s and stoker’s cranks are permanently joined together by the timing chain. This means that if one rider starts pedalling, the other rider’s pedals go round. What many riders forget is that if you’re both spinning round, doing just fine, and one of you decides to have an unannounced shift of your saddle position, or have a quick scratch, or fart, or just fazes out for a second, then you’ll often unconsciously stop pedalling. This can have the same effect as riding a fixed wheel bike. Your partner is still pedalling furiously and the sudden stopping of their cranks could launch them into space (usually through you…). Descending is another thing that many riders don’t consider: you’re both going to have to descend with the same foot forward (usually the captain’s) so if you’re a left foot forwarder and your partner isn’t, then one of you will always feel uncomfortable on a descent. This, above all, is probably the biggest factor in finding a compatible tandem partner.
Plenty of communication is needed here and it’s not uncommon for the captain to continually relay pedalling, braking and trail information back to the stoker, to keep them informed of what’s going on.
Less extreme examples of this permanent tying together of your fates are that you need to start and stop pedalling together; for example entering and exiting corners. With practice, you’ll be able to feel this through your own cranks, as you feel the captain’s pedal pressure ease slightly and you’ll just know that you’re setting up for a corner. Some riders, though, just never gel well and it’s always a surprise to them. Plenty of communication is needed here and it’s not uncommon for the captain to continually relay pedalling, braking and trail information back to the stoker, to keep them informed of what’s going on.
Simple things like setting off and coming to a halt need practice. Some teams prefer to have the stoker fully clipped in to start with. Others will give it the ‘One, two, three, go!’ Rolling to a halt can cause more disasters if you both try to step off the bike on different sides of the bike – and while we’re on that topic, accidentally kicking your partner while getting on the bike isn’t uncommon.