Five reasons and three tips for getting a bike built for two
Strava says we were going over 50 miles an hour. Normally on steep bike descents I proceed at a geriatric pace; a wreck 25 years ago shaved off my left eyebrow, cracked my helmet in half and instilled caution for speed. But normal rules don’t apply when you’re riding a bicycle built for two.
My first tandem was a clunky beach cruiser with 3-inch tires and seven speeds. I paid $300 for it. Though one friend and I rode it on some fire roads, it was mostly reserved for showing out-of-towners around, visiting with friends and flat terrain. I rode it happily for a decade with over a dozen friends.My new sweetie was not satisfied with the lumbering red beast and six weeks after our first kiss we laid down $400 for a 30-year old 21-gear tandem mountain bike that had been ridden by its previous owners from Alaska to Canada. We subjected it to over 800 miles of smooth pavement and singletrack trails within two months. I’ve ridden a bike solo for tens of thousands of miles, but never had as much fun as I do on this bicycle built for two.
We are forced to work together when tethered by a bike chain. We combine our strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. We can tackle technical terrain and long days or run errands. All of this is true whether you’re riding with a romantic partner or a friend. A tandem will strengthen your relationships. Folks who claim tandems lead to divorce were in doomed marriages before the tandem showed up.
Five reasons to love riding a tandem
- A Tandem Equalizes Your Abilities.If one rider is fitter or more experienced than the other, a tandem allows them to ride together at the same pace. A person with a disability or someone who doesn’t know how to ride a bike can enjoy being the stoker. Even when riders’ fitness and abilities are matched, a tandem allows them to take turns hammering and relaxing.
- Boredom Is Not a Problem. No matter how much you love riding a bike, there are tedious featureless miles. With a partner you can enjoy long conversations, delve into philosophical queries, point out landscape features and wildlife the other may have missed, sing songs, and tell jokes. The miles fly by when you have someone to share them with.
- Ups and Downs. Four legs don’t quite compensate for a heavier frame when moving uphill. A tandem can tackle steep grades, and an experienced stoker will provide motivation on even the toughest grades, but going uphill on a bicycle built for two is slow, no matter how fit the riders are. On the other hand, doubling the mass without adding to wind resistance means a tandem screams going downhill and can outpace many single bikes on flat terrain.
- Tandems Build Trust and Care. Without being able to stop, steer, or shift, the stoker needs to have faith in the intentions and abilities of the pilot. The pilot must learn the comfort level of the stoker and anticipate their needs. Switching roles is recommended. Practical jokes are not.
- Tandems Create Celebrities. Get used to seeing strangers smile; everyone loves a tandem. Cyclists want to chat. Drivers slow down. Pedestrians offer thumbs up. Copious positive regard is an unintended benefit of tandem riding.
You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to ride a bicycle built for two. Though tandems are not easy to transport, they are easy to find. Internet forums bulge with used ones and bike stores bristle with shiny new models. Whether you’re aiming for a casual afternoon roll or a strenuous multi-day tour, there’s a friend who wants to join you and a tandem out there that wants to be ridden. See ya on the road!
Three Tips for Beginners
Contemplating the control of a 12-foot long 50-pound beast with two wheels can be intimidating. The following tips will help you get rolling smoothly with minimal damage to yourself, your partner, your bike or your pride.
- Take Off and Touch Down. Getting started and stopping smoothly are the crux of riding a tandem. Figure out where each rider likes the pedals positioned and what angle feels comfortable to start. Be sure both partners are ready before one begins pedaling. Let the stoker know when a stop is coming up.
- Communicate. The stoker can’t see the terrain or read the pilot’s mind. All those unconscious decisions a solo rider makes- swerving to miss a pothole, slamming on the brakes, coasting downhill, navigating a bump, switching gears- need to be verbalized when piloting a tandem.
- Plastic Pedals. Shins will be bashed as partners get accustomed to riding together. Sturdy metal or clipless pedals will result in blood and anguish for novice riders. Plastic pedals are cheap and save shins.