Tandems & Brakes

Thursday 13 December 2012, Filed in: General

The subject of brakes on tandems has long been a topic of much discussion. Very many people have strong views on the subject, hopefully the following with provide you with a good insight as to the pros and cons of the options.

Disc brakes – cable pull

Cable pull disc brakes are a very popular choice with tandem riders. They are operated using a standard brake cable, with either a pear or barrel nipple depending whether you are using a road or flat bar pull brake, tandem length is used for the rear. Each brake kit contains the calliper, disc mount and rotor.

They are easy to adjust and the cable is easily replaced whilst on tour. Running a disc brake as a main brake has the great advantage off not creating any heat build up in the rim. They can be dragged for a longer period of time without over heating than a hydraulic disc brake can.

They are relatively in-expensive, we have cable pull disc brakes made by Tektro, Avid & Bengal priced between £50 and £85 per brake. They are light weight.

Disc brakes must not be controlled by a friction lever as they require rider feel to operate them safely.

Disc brakes – hydraulic

Hydraulic disc brakes are very controllable, they have been developed for mountain biking and provide 2 finger braking with a very progressive feel. Hydraulics are very powerful.

Hydraulic brakes do not like to be dragged over long periods. Our favourite disc brake is the Hope V4, this uses a vented rotor which dissipates more heat than a non vented rotor. A hydraulic brake is a great choice for those wanting to ride off road.

Disc brakes – rotor size

Where at all possible we like to run rotors as big as 200mm or more. The larger the rotor the greater the power of the brake and a larger rotor dissipates the heat build up more efficiently. The size of the rotor is determined by the spacing on the frame or fork.

If fitting a 200mm rotor is not possible then we would prefer to see the disc brake used as a backup brake rather than as a main brake.

Disc brakes – on the rear

Fitting a rear disc brake as a main brake is always a very popular choice. On the rear of a tandem you can accommodate a lot more braking power than on a solo bike. Activating a powerful rear brake on a solo bike can lock up the back wheel and result in a loss of control, this is very unlikely to occur on a tandem because it is inherently more stable than a solo, with the more rider weight over the rear wheel and a long wheelbase.

Disc brakes – on the front

Front disc brakes are a great idea. There are 2 downsides to using one though. Firstly, disc brakes exert a lot of force at the end of the fork and the fork needs to be stiffer to take these forces, and this creates a harsher ride. Secondly, the wheel has to be dished (one side of the spokes have to be under greater tension to line the centre of the hub to the rim) and this is less strong than a wheel without dish.

Drag brakes

For many years tandems were fitted with drag brakes. A drag brake fitted onto a rear threaded hub and would often be controlled by the rear rider. They were great for retarding the speed but were not as powerful as modern disc brakes. The most popular drag brake was made by Arai who stopped production several years ago, and they have been superseded by the much lighter and more powerful modern disc brakes.

How many brakes are necessary on a tandem?

We like to see 3.

2 modern brakes whether rim or disc are powerful enough to stop all but the heaviest of teams and luggage. But 1 brake isn’t and if a tandem is equipped with only 2 brakes and 1 fails then, in our opinion, you’ll be walking.

Ideally we like to see a rear disc brake used as a main brake along with the front brake. And the rear rim brake cabled up to be run as a parking/back up brake. This rear rim brake known as the 3rd brake is not a drag brake and should be used by applying and then releasing as you normally would a rim brake to avoid heat build up in the rim.

For ladened teams riding in hilly area this 3rd brake comes into play where a bit more stopping power is required and it can be used in rotation along with the front brake. We usually cable up the 3rd brake to operate from the front riders handlebars, because modern brakes are so powerful inadvertently using both rear brakes at the same time could cause the back wheel to lock up.

The 3rd brake is brilliant for parking the tandem outside the cafe.


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