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Tandem Riding

Thinking of doubling up on a bicycle? Past PPA ExCo member Darren Cronk, who raced tandems for many years, gives a few tips based on first-hand experience.

Choosing your bike and partner
Tandems need to be strong. End of story. Make sure the frame is solid, strong, and not cracked anywhere.

Go for 40-spoke wheels, big beefy forks, wide tyres (preferably 25 mm wide or up to 28 mm; anything under 8 bar pressure in the tyres will not do), mountain bike or disk brakes. A tandem can be a mechanical nightmare if any one item of kit is substandard. In particular, try not to skimp on the brakes and tyres please. You might be the tandem behind me on the road one day.

If possible, choose a tandem partner with a riding style close to yours (both riders should like either spinning or pushing bigger gears, and have similar climbing styles), and the frame will work by effectively putting the power down through the back wheel. Get it wrong, and all you do is to stress the welds on your frame.

Tandems are fast

Tandems are fast. Be ready for that, especially when you point it downhill. This gets even scarier when there’s a corner coming up at the end of a long downhill. Err on the safe side and control your speed.

Carrying two people, tandems build up momentum quickly, making them more difficult to stop, or manoeuvre than a single bike. This means you have to be very awake when you ride in a bunch with single riders who can swerve and stop at will. Keep a slightly bigger space around you, and as the pilot, try to identify potential problems before they happen.

Can Tandems Climb?

I have heard it said that on a bike, we expend as much as 60% of our energy overcoming aerodynamic drag. With a tandem, remember that the frontal area is the same as for a single bike. Essentially you have twice the power, for practically the same aerodynamic drag.

Your average tandem also does not weigh twice the mass of two single bikes put together. And again you have twice the power available. So bang goes the theory that tandems cannot climb. Ridden properly, they can really fly up the hills.

The big question is how.

Synchronised effort goes a long way to establishing better use of your combined power on the bike. Hit the hill with a plan and strategy, and its over before you know it.

Practise standing together – both cyclists must be comfortable with moving the bike from side to side. Trust your partner’s balance. Practise alternating between standing and sitting, getting up at exactly the same moment so that you can put a bit more effort into the first down stroke to attack that hill.

Whats your job?

The pilot (up front) and the stoker (at the rear) have very specific and different expectations of each other and of the ride. That’s fine; they have very different jobs to do.

Start in a parking lot, in an easy gear. Expect the bike to wobble the first time you get going, until you have learned to take off and clip in smoothly. Then practise leaning, cornering, standing etc, and get to learn and trust one another.

Don’t go trying to explore the limits of tyre adhesion to the tarmac, just get the feel of the bike. Let it become familiar and let your confidence in each other grow.

Starting and stopping a tandem
By Mike de Kock

“My first attempt to ride a tandem almost resulted in us flying head-first into the closest wall,” writes Mike de Kock. “My first corner almost ended up with us meeting mother earth; my first stop was almost the last, and the next 2 kilometers left me with some serious thoughts along the lines of ‘maybe buying this tandem was not such a wise investment’ and all because we did not follow a few simple steps.”

My advice to first-time tandem riders is to go into a quiet parking lot and practise starting, gearing and both stops (the traffic intersection stop and the end-of-journey stop). Like most things in life, the more you do, it the easier it becomes

Starting ?
What comes first – The chicken or the egg? To learn the correct way, is to not to start with doing it the wrong way first… Don’t do any of the following.

The cowboy rolling mount:  Remember when you where a kid and you tried to cycle on your older Boet’s bike which was way too big? You stood next it, put your one foot on the pedal, pushed with the other foot to get the bike rolling and then swung it over and started riding.  Well this is not going to work on a tandem. Full stop.

The running mount:  Zorro can do with a horse but, no, you cannot do it with a tandem. Let’s not go there – Leave it up to Zorro.

Getting started the correct way: The Pilot’s role…
– Make sure that timing chain (the chain between the front single chain ring and the triple chain ring under the stoker’s seat) is not on the big blade. You are about to go on the ride of your life and remember that the safety of the stoker depends on your decisions. Before this happens, you must…

  • Stand over the bike with the cross bar between the legs.
    Do not sit on the saddle.
    Leave both feet on the ground about 30-50 cm apart.
    Hold firmly onto the handlebars and squeeze the brakes hard.
    Keep the bike upright.
    Tell the stoker that he/she can mount.
    At all times, remember that the stoker’s safety depends on your decisions.
    Ask the stoker if he/she is comfortable.

– Sit on the saddle; clip your “strong” foot into the pedal that is in the 2 o’clock position (this is usually the right foot. Make sure that both pilot and stoker like pushing off with the same foot…).
– Tell the stoker you are about to start pedaling.
– Release the brakes and start pedaling with one foot clipped in, with your stoker providing most of the (light) power at this stage.

Once you have pedaled for 2 or 3 revolutions, stop pedaling and clip the other foot in and away you go.

Getting started the correct way: The stoker’s role…
You are now going to be in the capable hands of the pilot and do not do anything that could cause him/her to lose control of the tandem.

– Stand over the frame.
– Clip one foot in, gently move your bum onto on the saddle and clip the other foot in.
– Be careful not to move too much and cause the bike to wobble as the pilot is now keeping both you and the tandem upright.
– Raise your one foot (most times right foot) to the 2 o’clock position, ready for take-off.
– Tell the pilot that you are ready to start cycling.

As you get used to starting, you won’t have to stop pedaling to clip the second foot in as it can be done in one motion.

The Journey

This is what tandem cycling is about: Fast on the flat roads, wind resistance is divided in half, a bit tougher on the climbs but the speed on the downhills is exhilarating. Communication and ‘working as one’ is of the most important aspects of enjoying the two-up experience. Do not assume anything, communicate at all times and you will see how the miles just fly by when chatting.

a) The Pilot
You are in control. Remember that your stoker cannot see what you do and what’s up ahead. Communicate all approaching corners, hills, flat sections and every hazard.
Tell your partner when you are going to change gears.
Tell your partner when you need to stand.
Tell your partner when you are going to stop or brake.
Tell you partner when you are going to stop pedaling and where to position your feet, 3 or 6 o’clock.
Tell your partner when you are going to accelerate and when extra power is needed.
Don’t look back for cars or other cyclists – let the stoker do it.
Always ask your stoker if he/she is comfortable.

b) The Stoker
You are not in control. Trust your pilot. Don’t assume that the pilot has seen everything – if there’s another bike or car coming up from behind you, tell him/her about it. Remember that the pilot cannot see what you are doing but can certainly feel your every movement, so try not to fidget on the bike.

DO NOT TRY AND STEER THE TANDEM by leaning the one way or the other, as this will simply unbalance the bike and make the pilot’s job even more difficult than it already is.

  • Communicate all hazards that you notice, even if you think the pilot has seen it. (No, this is not back seat driving; this is safety stuff.)
  • Do not make any sudden moves.
  • Tell your partner when you need to have a gear change ie if the gear is too heavy for you or if you are spinning out.
  • Tell your partner when you need to stand or stretch a cramp out.
  • Tell your partner if you need to stop.
  • Tell your partner when you are going to have a drink of water as reaching down will change the balance of the tandem.
  • Tell your partner when you are going to have a bite to eat. Make sure your partner eats/drinks enough.
  • When looking back for cars, other cyclists or if safe to move to the other side of the road, keep upright and use peripheral vision or look “under your armpit” and don’t lean to one side or unbalance the bike by turning your body.
  • Do not grip the handlebars too tightly – the pilot can actually feel this. Keep your shoulders and elbows (upper body) relaxed. If you find you are gripping the bars too much, move your hands to the center of the handlebars and consciously relax your shoulders.
  • Always ask your pilot if he/she is comfortable.

Eating on a tandem
Eating on a tandem is different to eating on a solo bike. On a solo you can release both hands from the handle bars,sit upright and get your food from your back pockets. It is not advisable to do this when two up … While the stoker can eat more easily, it is advisable that the pilot uses a hydration pack with energy fluid in it so as to constantly get energy replenished. If you want to eat an energy bar or gel, be sure to tell your partner about it before you start reaching for your back pocket. Stoker: Make sure your pilot eats and drinks enough!

a) Eating tips: Pilot
Tell your stoker you need some food.
Don’t take your own food out of your back pocket; ask the stoker to do it for you.
Place your hand next to the side of your body and take the food from the stoker.

b) Eating tips: Stoker
Communicate your actions before doing anything
Place your one hand on the pilot’s back to steady yourself.
Get the food out of his/her back pocket.
Tell the pilot that you want to pass the food on and he/she must place one hand to the side of his/her body.
Place the food in the hand and hold onto it for a second until you are sure that he/she has it and won’t drop it.
Make sure your pilot eats and drinks enough – he/she often forgets due to concentrating “for two”.

Stopping at a traffic intersection

This is one of the trickiest stops but you only have to try it once or twice to perfect it.

a) The Pilot
Communicate that you are going to stop and keep communicating with your stoker:

Gear down while moving to the correct pull-away gear.
Take the chosen foot to be unclipped (mostly the left foot – make sure that your stoker knows which foot to unclip, if you do want the stoker to unclip) to the 12 o’clock position, counter-balancing with the other foot. Once unclipped, drop the “loose” foot in anticipation of the stop.
Anticipate the intersection and start braking. Squeeze the brakes hard and now place the unclipped foot on the ground.
Stand over the bike and rest your weight on the unclipped foot.
Do not let the tandem lean to one side as this can upset the stoker
Be prepared to start as you did when you where about to start the journey.

b) The Stoker
Do not assume that the pilot has seen every car and be alert. If you notice a car coming from behind and think the car may try to cut in in front of you, warn your pilot there’s an idiot coming up behind.

Do not unclip unless you have to. In most cases, the pilot will keep the tandem balanced and you can remain clipped-in.
Do not move as this can upset the balance of the tandem. Just sit comfortably – do not stiffen up, keep your hips and shoulders loose.
Wait for the pilot’s command to start cycling.

Taking off
When it’s safe to proceed, the pilot tells the stoker you want to start pedaling and do just as you did when you started the journey.
The final stop
The ride is over and time to go for the well deserved cup of caffeine and bran muffin. The rolling Zorro dismount is a NO NO NO. Zorro has a stunt partner to do this- do not try this on a tandem, no matter what!

a) Stopping a tandem: The Pilot
Communicate the need to stop. Talk your way thru it as you did at a traffic intersection, but this time unclip both feet, brake hard and bring the tandem to a full stop, putting both your feet on the ground as soon as possible. Now let the stoker dismount first.

b) Stopping a tandem: The Stoker
As soon as it is safe, the pilot will tell you it is safe to dismount.
Unclip both feet and climb off the saddle.
Stand over the tandem and tell pilot you are going to get off completely.
Offer the pilot some help to pack the bike away.

The above seems like a lot to remember, but you just have to do it a few times and it becomes second nature. I don’t believe that a pilot has to have one partner only. I have had many tandem partners and within 5 kilometers, it is as if they have been cycling with me for years and it is because there is constant communication. After the pull away, first corner, the first stop, and every other first, all nervousness disappears and they love the experience.

Tandem cycling is fun and the experience is awesome. I still have my solo bike, which I enjoy, but if I had to choose between the two, the tandem will win.

Final communication tip for a healthy tandem relationship: Whatever you do, do it diplomatically.

See you on the road!