A Introductory Guide To the Joys of a Tandem Bicycle

So, you’re interested in riding a tandem? Fantastic! Owning and riding a tandem bicycle is a unique and rewarding pastime. There is lots of good information out there on the web (see Reference section at the bottom of this posting). This article attempts to bring a lot of that information together, so that you — a tandem neophyte — can quickly get a leg up.

Before We Start

I want to get one thing out of the way before we start. Tandem teams come in all flavors: from all male racing teams to older retired couples. In this guide I will do my best not to stereotype, but I will at times generalize. It is very common for a tandem team to consist of a male captain (the rider in front that pilots the bike) and a female stoker (the rider in back that provides power and a second set of eyes) — with the captain usually the stronger more experienced cyclist. Often this team is a couple.

But this is by no means universal! So I want to acknowledge right up front that there are plenty of female captains, and same sex teams, and parent/child teams, and teams of friends that are in no romantic relationship whatsoever.

So I ask in advance for your forgiveness if I, at times, slip into generalizations. When I do so it is simply for the sake of conciseness — which is often at odds with completeness.

Why Ride a Tandem?

A couple years ago I was sitting at my computer following a trip our good friends were taking cycling down the coast of California.  We were transitioning into empty-nest mode, and I was thinking how wonderful it would be to cycle more with my wife. And wouldn’t it be cool if we could, someday, do a trip like our friends?

I am a long time recreational cyclist. My wife a bit less so. We suffered from the same issues trying to cycle together that many couples do. My pace and range was different than my wife’s, and she did not like feeling that she was holding me back. So the idea of doing a multi-day cycling trip together seemed like a distant possibility.

Then it hit me: a tandem. Perfect! No matter what, she’d be right there with me.  And more importantly this was something we could do together — hopefully for a very long time.

And it’s not just that a tandem is a great equalizer — it’s also a lot of fun. There are plenty of teams that enjoy riding singles together, but they still like to get out on the tandem for the unique experience it provides.

And unique it is! There is a special bond in the tandem community — I guarantee that as you get out on your tandem you will be aware of every other tandem you see. And you’ll exchange a friendly wave with each and every one of them.

A Tandem State of Mind

Yes riding a tandem is fantastic, but is it for everybody? After all, they are known as “divorce bikes”. So what’s up with that?

Like any activity, riding a tandem is not for everybody. Both the captain and the stoker need certain mindsets. Some good friends of ours are avid cyclists and love riding their singles together — but they have absolutely no interest in riding a tandem.

So what is the tandem state of mind? It’s a bit different for the captain and the stoker:

  • Captain: you have full control of the bike, and therefore full responsibility. The stoker can do no wrong, and you must be willing to adjust your riding style to accommodate the team. You must be relaxed, confident and understanding, and do everything you can to earn the stoker’s trust.
  • Stoker: you must trust the captain fully. You must be able to give up control and be able to relax and enjoy the ride. You need to understand the captain is human and may at times make mistakes, and will greatly appreciate your patience.
  • For Both: you are a team, and you need to work together, to compromise and to be considerate of each other. If you want to do your own thing, at your own pace, and be fully independent then a tandem might not be right for you. Oh, and keep a sense of humor — because at time things will go wrong.

But keep in mind — a tandem isn’t all or nothing. Maybe some weekends you ride the tandem, and others you ride the singles. It’s all good.

Also, renting a tandem a few times first is often a good idea before you make a serious investment. Many bike shops that sell tandems also rent them.

So, do tandems cause divorces? No they don’t. But as we say in the tandem world: wherever your relationship is headed, a tandem will get you there quicker!

Buying Your First Tandem

OK! You are ready to take the plunge and buy a tandem! The first thing to keep in mind is your first tandem is likely not your last. You want to make sure to get something you will enjoy riding — but don’t feel like it has to be perfect. For your first tandem it is often best to look at the used market with an opportunistic eye — and not get too hung up on brands and components. That said, it is a good idea to be educated. So lets dive in.

New tandems range in price from $250 for a “department store” tandem on Amazon to $10,000 or more for carbon/titanium high end machines. Assuming you want to do somewhat serious recreational riding (say rides of 25 miles or more), then you’ll likely want to avoid the department store class of tandems. That means spending some money, although you can save a ton by buying used (more on that later).

Manufacturers

The following is a list of popular tandem manufacturers. This list is by no means exhaustive, but covers the most common bikes you’ll find on the used market.

  • Santana:  Santana is one of the “big two” tandem manufacturers in the US. They have a wide variety of models and are known for marching to the beat of their own drum. This means Santanas tend to require more specialized parts than some other tandems (for example Santana  uses a 165mm rear spacing while many other manufacturers use the more common 145mm spacing). But parts are readily available because of the popularity of the brand. For the record we currently own a Santana and love it.
  • Co-Motion: Co-Motion is the other “big two” tandem manufacturer. Like Santana they also have a wide variety of models in various price ranges, and make a fantastic product.
  • Cannondale: Cannondale is known for making a great bang-for-the-buck tandem. They have a limited number of models, but do hit the sweet spot of what most riders are looking for.
  • Trek: Alas, Trek no longer makes tandems. But they are still fairly common on the used market and have a reputation for being a solid well built product.
  • Burley: Burley also exited the tandem market after being a long time builder of reasonably priced, solid tandems. Still pretty common on the used market.
  • Calfee: Calfee is a producer of high end carbon bikes and builds one of the most popular carbon fiber tandems on the market.
  • daVinci: DaVinci is known for their unique Independent Coasting System and the wide range of gearing it provides.
  • KHS: KHS is the least expensive of the “decent quality” tandems.
  • Bike Friday: Well known for their folding travel bikes, Bike Friday also makes folding travel tandems.

In addition to the above there are a number of other, smaller, tandem builders: Rodriguez, Tandem’s East Hokitika, Paketa, Bilenky, and more.

The rule of thumb is that a tandem costs 2x the cost of a similar quality single bike. When you start looking, it might seem more than that! But many tandems come with high quality components and frames, and with that in mind the 2x rule is usually pretty close.

Styles

Before purchasing your first tandem, you’ll want to decide what type of riding you are going to do. Tandems come in three basic styles:

  1. Traditional drop bar road
  2. More upright flat bar road (sometimes called enduro)
  3. Mountain bike

You’ll also find that the road tandems come in both 700c (road size) and 26in (MTB size) wheels. Which is better? It’s a matter of personal preference. 700c wheels have more tire choices, generally roll faster, and look a little less funky. 26″ wheels have more wide tire choices, resist flats better, and offer a comfortable ride. They are also more convenient if you travel with your tandem since 26″ wheels occupy less space when packing.

Once you have a style in mind you can start shopping around.

Buying Used

The number one recommendation for new tandem riders is to buy used. You can get a good deal, and if the tandem life doesn’t work out, you can re-sale that tandem for about what you paid for it. Some tips for buying used:

  • Be flexible. Don’t get too hung up on brands for your first tandem. Whether it’s a Santana or a Co-Motion or a Cannondale or a Trek doesn’t matter as much as the fit and condition.
  • Don’t get too old. Unless you enjoy tinkering on old bikes you’ll probably want to stay with late 1990’s or newer. Some features to look for: threadless headset, 9sp or better gearing, 145mm (or 165mm for Santana) rear dropout spacing.
  • Be patient!
  • Some places to look:
  • How much will you need to spend? It’s tough to say. The used tandem market is highly volatile and highly dependent on local market conditions because there are relatively few buyers and sellers. But rest assured you will save a lot of money vs. buying new.
  • After riding your used tandem a year or two you’ll have a much better idea what you want in your next tandem. At that point you can decide what to upgrade to — whether in the used or new market.

Your First Tandem Ride

Successfully riding a tandem is as much mental as physical and this is reflected in the seminal article on the topic by Bill McCready of Santana: The Proper Method. Go read it now. Yes, I’m serious. Now. Read it.

Not everybody necessarily agrees on the mechanics of The Proper Method (some teams actual do prefer to put both feet down), but most everybody agrees on the first rule of tandeming: The Stoker makes no mistakes. That said, the stoker can do things to help the tandem experience:

Tips For The Stoker

  1. If you’re a Captain don’t read this. Because as far as you are concerned the stoker makes no mistakes.
  2. Ride quietly. And I don’t mean be silent. I mean try to peddle smoothly, and try not to jerk around. Let the captain know when you are going to reach for your bottle or take off your jacket or otherwise make some extra movements. The captain can feel everything you do and sometimes a wiggly stoker feels like something is going wrong with the bike, so try to stay smooth!
  3. Communicate. The captain can’t read your mind. If the cadence feels wrong, our you’d like a coasting break, or you’d like to stop for a stretch, speak up!  Also, if you have your hands off of the handlebars (while changing your jacket) it’s good for the captain to know so they can avoid sudden maneuvers.
  4. Remember, the Captain is only human. Despite trying their best, the Captain might make an occasional mistake. They are human after all. When that does occur some patience and a sense of humor can help immensely. As a Captain I’ve made many small mistakes, and some big ones (yes, I committed the ultimate tandem sin and dumped the bike in a parking lot — dropping your stoker is never a good idea). Thankfully my stoker is patient with my fallibility.

And for the Captains…

Tips For The Captain

  1. The Stoker makes no mistakes. I’m sure you’ve got that by now.
  2. Communicate. The Stoker can’t see what’s ahead, and certainly can’t read your mind. So let them know what’s going on. Some cues we often use:
    1. “Bump!”: I see a bump ahead so be ready
    2. “Coast” / “Pedal”
    3. “Red Light” / “Green Light”
    4. “Granny”: shifting into the granny gear, this is usually the only shift I call out since often it is a clunky one with a large change in cadence.
    5. “Go! Go! Go!”: stale green light ahead and we are going for it!
    6. “Ready?”: are you ready to start? “Go!”: here we go!
  3. Communicate. In addition to the cues above make sure to check in with the stoker regularly. I have a bad habit that when a ride gets difficult — like when grinding into a head wind — I get silent and go into my pain box. And that’s exactly when I should be checking in with the stoker: “how you doing?”, “is this cadence OK”? Just remember you are not on a single — especially when the going gets tough.
  4. Ride smoothly and anticipate. Sudden maneuvers on a tandem don’t work well. First you are piloting a long heavy bicycle that doesn’t turn or stop like a single. Second, you have another person behind you that has no idea what your are doing unless you clue them in. So think ahead. Brake gently. Turn gently. Start/stop pedaling gently. Don’t toss the bike around. Be predictable.

And some general observations:

  1. Pacing: when you first start riding your tandem with friends on singles, you’ll find that the pacing between the two is different. On the flats and downhills tandems tend to go faster than singles. On the uphills, tandems tend to go slower than singles. That means on group rides tandems can be a nuisance if you constantly oscillate up and back in the group. So keep that in mind. There are times when you can be in the front driving the pace, and other times when you need to chill and sit in. Just don’t constantly bounce up and back.
  2. Braking: if you live on the flats you’ll have no concerns here. But if you ride hills you will discover that tandems build speed very quickly downhill and require good brakes and good technique. I’ll discuss brakes further in the equipment section, but here are some tips:
    1. If you have a drum or drag brake apply it for long fast descents and leave it on.
    2. Don’t ride the brakes. Better to do short firm squeezes allowing the brakes and rims (or rotors) to cool in between.
    3. Alternate front and back. Again, this gives the brakes more time to cool
  3. Shifting: try to predict your shifts earlier than on a single. It is difficult to make a last second shift since you have two people pedaling. This is especially true when approaching a steep climb: shift into that granny early! There is nothing worse than throwing the chain on a last second granny shift on a tandem. On a single this is no big deal, on a tandem it can mean falling over.
  4. Climbing: tandems tend to climb slower than singles and it is why tandems are usually equipped with lower gears. Why do they climb slower? First, it requires a little more energy (both mental and physical) because you are coordinating with another person. Second, your power to weight ratio is usually not as good as a fit person on a single. Why? Because one of the common reasons for riding a tandem is to bridge a performance gap between the two riders which usually means the tandem will climb slower than a single would with the stronger rider. That said, a fit, fast tandem team can go uphill very quickly.
  5. Sitting: one thing you’ll notice on a tandem is that you tend to stay seated in the saddle more than on a single. You probably don’t realize it, but you’ll rise out of the saddle on a single pretty often: for a coasting butt break, to punch over a little rise, etc. You tend to do that less on a tandem because it requires a bit more coordination of the team. That means you have to make an effort to get out of the saddle once in a while.

OK, I fear I’ve made this sound more complicated than it is. So the most important thing: Relax! Riding a tandem is fantastic fun. The first few rides might feel a bit awkward, but you will quickly get used to it. Start off with a few laps around the neighborhood practicing your starts and stops. Then venture out on longer rides. Before you know it you will feel more comfortable on the tandem than on your single.

Tandem Equipment

Generally speaking tandem’s have all the same parts as a single bike, but there are some areas that are frequent topics of conversation. I’ll highlight a couple of these:

  1. Shifting: due to the longer cable runs, and wider rear end spacing of tandems, shifting performance tends to be a bit more finicky than on a single bike. Not bad, but you might find yourself needing to lubricate and adjust the gears a bit more often than on a single.
  2. Brakes: tandems weigh close to twice what a single bike does but doesn’t have twice as many brakes! Braking is a  challenge on tandems especially if you have big downhills. Some notes on brakes:
    1. Many older tandems have a rear drum brake. This is most often used as a drag brake that is controlled by an extra friction shift lever. You set it at the start of a descent, and leave it on. You then use your normal brakes as needed.
    2. Many newer tandems come with large rotor disk brakes. These have the advantage of not heating the rim (which can lead to tire blow-outs — and yes, we have had that occur), but have the disadvantage of less braking leverage since a rotor is smaller in diameter than a rim. That’s why tandem disk brakes will spec larger rotors than a typical mountain bike.
  3. Tires: twice the weight and only two tires means that you’ll want beefier tires on your tandem than your single. Here are my thoughts on tire sizes (these are for 700c road tires):
    1. 700×25: only suitable for very light teams or those that prefer performance over comfort/safety
    2. 700×28: the most popular size for tandems. OK for most average sized teams, but larger teams (or teams that want more comfort/safety) should go larger
    3. 700×32: our preferred size. Great for most teams. Big enough to give a good ride and flat protection without being overly fat
    4. 700×36+: for large teams or those that want a plush ride. Make sure your frame has enough clearance.
  4. Stoker Seat Post: you’ll notice that many tandems come with a suspension seat post for the stoker. Why is that? A stoker does not have a clear view of the road ahead, and therefore can’t see upcoming bumps. You might not realize it, but on a single you brace yourself for bumps and irregularities in the road all the time. You might lift yourself off the saddle a bit, or maybe just brace your muscles a bit more. The stoker can’t do this by sight — the captain must call out bumps. And we know that captains aren’t perfect. So the suspension seatpost gives the stoker some additional protection and comfort.
  5. Saddles: as mentioned previously you tend to stay seated more on a tandem than on a single. This means saddle comfort is even more important than on a single, so be prepared to invest in some high quality saddles.
  6. Peddles: When first starting out some stokers that are not experienced cyclist might prefer riding with flat pedals and sneakers. This is OK for those first trips where you are getting used to the tandem and having the option for a fast bail-out is appealing. But you will quickly notice that once you get into more serious riding you will want to use a “clipless” pedal system and real cycling shoes. On a tandem it is easy for the stoker to “loose the pedals” if the captain accelerates suddenly, or maybe misses a shift and the cranks spin. If the stoker is clipped in then feet won’t slide off the pedals in those situations.

Summary

I hope this document has helped. If you are at all curious about riding a tandem I strongly encourage you to give it a try.

Oh, and that long bike ride I always wanted to do with my wife? Well, about a year and a half after getting our first tandem we did a week long bike tour with PacTour and we loved it!

References