Why ride a Tandem?
We’d say, why not? They’re a great way for two people to cycle and spend time together.
You might want to go cycling with your partner, but you’re of different abilities. Or you might be looking for a way for you and your child to cycle together. Either way, a tandem offers the chance to cycle together, spend time together and have some fun. For some people tandem riding is a leisure pursuit, a trip out on the bike followed by Sunday lunch. For others, it’s part of their armoury in their quest for adventure.
Like regular bikes, tandems come in a range of models to suit different types of cycling. From touring and road racing, through to mountain biking or leisurely cycling along country roads. Both riders have to pedal, so if you’re thinking you’ll be sitting on the back having an easy ride, think again. With two riders (both pedalling!), there’s twice the power, making tandem riding a fun activity to do together.
In general, the choice of wheel size on your tandem will be determined by what you want to use your tandem for. Combine the right wheel size with the right handlebar choice and we can create the perfect tandem to meet your requirements. Our prices range from around £850 upwards and with more than 50 years of experience between us here at JD Tandems we can advise you on what you’ll need – either in person or at our showroom. Do get in touch.
Starting & stopping for beginners
First of all choose a suitable place to learn to ride the tandem. Ideally somewhere flat, without any traffic around.Always position the tandem so that you are setting off in a straight line and not immediately into a turn. Never attempt to do any slow speed manoeuvres, like U turns, until you are competent at handling the tandem.
Make sure the tandem is in a suitable gear before setting off and that the saddles are at the correct height, too low is OK but too high is not. The front rider always gets on the tandem 1st, do not try and get on like a solo bike as you will catch your leg on the stoker’s handlebars. If you are flexible enough then just throw your leg over the cross bar if not then hold the tandem upright and stand facing the side of the tandem, lean the tandem away from you, throw your leg over the cross bar and gently pull the tandem back towards you.
Then stand with your legs really wide apart and put your brakes on. The reason you have your legs wide apart is that this both stabilises the tandem whilst your rear rider gets on and allows the rear rider to move the pedals between your legs without causing injury.
Then again a flexible rear rider can just swing their leg over the saddle, but the most popular and ergonomic way to get on the back is to, put the left hand pedal at the furthest point away from the saddle by turning the pedals gently backwards, making sure you don’t bash the front rider in the shins. Then stand on it with your left foot and place both hands on the handlebars and then swing your leg over the back of the saddle, a bit like getting on a horse. For really inflexible rear riders, you can place the left hand pedal higher, this will make the distance you have to swing your leg much less, but make sure your front rider has their brakes on before doing so, if there is a 3rd brake fitted this can also be applied if necessary.
So the rear rider is now sat on the saddle with both feet on the pedals, then turn the pedals gently backwards to position the pedal for your front rider to set off, this is usually with your right foot forward and with your feet at the same distance from the ground as each other. If they normally set off with their left foot then present the left foot forward. Then you can tell your front rider you are ready.
The front rider then narrows their stance, puts their foot on the pedal and just sets off. The front rider should not try to start in the saddle as this makes the tandem unstable.
Having set off, look up, don’t try and clip in to the other pedal or flip it over to find the toe clip, just pedal away. Do not try to steer the tandem just relax and look where you want to go.
The front rider comes slowly to a stop by applying both brakes gently and keeping their set off foot on the pedal with the pedal at the closest point to the ground, they then stop, putting the other foot on the ground, and then immediately the opposite foot on the ground back into the nice wide stance adopted prior to setting off. The rear rider just stays in position. If you are setting off again the rear rider will just represent the pedal to the set off position and away you go.
Changing gear on a tandem
Changing gear on a tandem is no different to changing gear on a solo bike, but there is a lot more power going through the drive train than on a solo, so changing gear over the front rings requires more finesse. And the front rider can’t see it, feel it or hear it unlike a solo. Changing gear over the front rings under too much pressure can result in a broken chain, the chain coming off or a bent tooth on a chain ring.
As the chain goes through the front derailleur it is on the drive side, to understand what we mean just put your foot on the pedal at the back and apply some pressure, then feel the how tight the chain is as it goes through the front derailleur, imagine then two of you actually pedalling hard, the chain has effectively turned into an iron bar. When you trigger the gear lever on the left hand side it moves the cable, but the cable has no chance of moving the chain unless the pressure on the pedals is really light.
So to change gear over the front end, you have to pedal but apply light pedalling pressure only, if you have started climbing it’s too late to change over the front rings. When shifting up or down inform your rear rider so they can back off the pressure, there’s is no point in you backing off if the person on the back is giving it loads of wellie. A simple expression such as shifting up or shifting down will alert them to a change over the front rings. Ask your rear rider to inform you when the chain has completed its manoeuvre so you can both re-apply the pressure again, this manoeuvre can take a few seconds. Changing gear over the rear cogs on the tandem does not require any co-ordination between riders. The chain as it goes through the rear derailleur is on the slack side of the chain, and again to see what we mean, put your foot on the pedal at the back and feel the chain as it comes off the bottom of the chain wheel, it’s slack. So it doesn’t matter how much pressure you are applying the rear derailleur will change under pressure. So you can toggle away through the rear gears whilst climbing.
Tandems fitted with Rohloff gears have 14 equally spaced gears located in the rear hub, so there is no shifting over front rings, and there are no derailleur’s fitted. The changing of gears happens within the rear hub and the chains are inline and have no sideways movement. On a solo bike Rohloff hubs will change under pressure, but again with two people pedalling on a tandem if a lot of power is being put through the system, then the Rohloff won’t change, but you won’t break a chain or damage anything it simply won’t shift. At what point the Rohloff will and won’t shift you will quickly learn by experience.
Tandems and Brakes
Tandem brakes are a hot topic among tandem riders and many people have strong views on the different types of brakes available. Here’s some insight into the pros and cons of some of the most common brake options, to help you understand which type might be best for your tandem.
Cable pull disc brakes
Cable pull disc brakes are very popular among tandem riders. They operate using a standard brake cable, with either a pear or barrel nipple. They are easy to adjust and if necessary, it’s easy to replace the cable whilst you’re out on tour. The great advantage of disc brakes is that they don’t create heat build-up in the rim or rim wear.
Each brake kit contains the caliper, disc mount and rotor. We provide cable pull disc brakes by Avid & Bengal. There are relatively light-weight and inexpensive, with prices ranging from £75 upwards per brake.
Hydraulic disc brakes
This type of brake was originally developed for mountain biking. Hydraulic disc brakes are not only incredibly powerful, they also have superior controllability and sensitivity. However, they don’t like being dragged over long periods, dragging a hydraulic disc brake can cause it to over heat.
Our favourite hydraulic disc brake is the Hope V4. This uses a vented rotor which dissipates heat much better than a non-vented rotor. If you’re wanting to ride off road on your tandem, a hydraulic disc brake is a really good choice.
Disc brakes – rotor size
The larger the rotor on your bike, the greater the power of the brake. The size of rotor on a bike is determined by the spacing on the frame or fork and where at all possible, we like to have rotors on our tandems that are 200mm or more as heat is dissipated more efficiently at this size.
If we’re not able to fit a 200mm+ rotor, then we prefer to see the disc brake as a backup, rather than a main brake.
Disc brakes on the rear
Fitting a disc brake as a main brake has always been a popular choice and tandems can accommodate a lot more braking power at the rear than their solo counterparts. Whilst activating a powerful brake on the rear of a solo bike can result in the back wheel locking up, this is unlikely to happen on a tandem because they are inherently more stable than solo bikes, with more rider weight over the rear wheel and a long wheelbase.
Disc brakes on the front
Front disc brakes are a great idea, however, there are some drawbacks to having your disc brakes on the front of a tandem. Firstly, disc brakes exert a lot of force at the end of the fork and the fork needs to be stiffer to take this force. This can create a harsher ride. Secondly, to accommodate the brake at the front, the wheel has to be dished. This means that one side of the spokes have to be under greater tension to line the centre of the hub to the rim, which lessens its strength.
Tandems were fitted with drag brakes for many years. Whilst these were great for retarding speed, they weren’t as powerful as modern disc brakes. The most popular drag brake was made by Arai, who stopped their production several years ago and they have been superseded by the lighter, more powerful modern disc brake.
How many brakes does a tandem need?
In our opinion, tandem bikes need three brakes. One brake isn’t enough, but two modern brakes are powerful enough to stop all but the heaviest of riders and their luggage. However, if you only have two brakes and one fails, you’ll be walking.
Tandems ideally have a rear disc brake used as a main brake, along with the front brake rim or disc brake. The third brake, a rear rim brake should be cabled up to run as a parking and back up brake.
This third brake can also be used where a bit more stopping power is required, for example, if you’re riding in a hilly area and have a lot of luggage.
Climbing on a tandem
Tandems having a much longer wheelbase than solo bikes, and as a consequence they lose their momentum on a climb much more quickly. Gear selection is really crucial when approaching a climb on a tandem. See our article in last month’s Cycling World on changing gear on a tandem. It is really important not to fight the tandem on a climb, having selected the correct size of front ring for the hill in advance you can then change gear over the rear cogs as the gradient changes.
It’s not always easy to work out how hard each of you is trying on a climb, so it’s important to discuss your individual effort level. If one of you is working flat out, say 10 out of 10 for effort, and the other is at just twiddling away it’s not going to make for a happy day out. Ask each other out of 10 how much effort you putting in whilst you are climbing, the most harmonious of teams will be working at the same rate of effort. That is not to say each person needs to contribute the same amount of power, a fitter rider working at the same effort level as a less fit rider will supply a lot more of the power. That’s the beauty of tandem riding, you can have two people of vastly different abilities, for example a fit roadie who rides at 20mph on the road can ride with a leisure rider who might average 10mph on the road and on the tandem they will achieve somewhere in between the two speeds.
Climbing out of the saddle on a tandem requires a different approach to climbing out of the saddle on a solo. On the tandem you keep the tandem and the steering still and move your body. Don’t try riding out of the saddle until you have acquired a good few hours experience riding on the tandem, and then do it independently, both riders do not need to get out of the saddle together. Make sure that you are in the correct gear as you will need some resistance under the pedals before getting out of the saddle, and then try it individually. Practice climbing out of the saddle on a nice quiet road to start with.
If one rider is very strong the other rider might ease off the pressure on the pedals whilst their partner is out of the saddle to help maintain a good rhythm, and tell your partner if you are getting out of the saddle and then again when you are sitting back down.
Many tandem teams do not ever climb out of the saddle together, however if you do it creates a great amount of power. Experience will tell you which climbs you can attack and which climbs to gear down and twiddle up.
Pedalling & Cadence
Cadence is the term used to refer to how fast you turn the pedals round. A high cadence means you pedal very quickly and a low cadence more slowly. On a solo bike you simply select the appropriate gear to suit your cadence, however on a tandem your pedals go around together so gear selection needs to suit the cadence of both riders.
More experienced cyclists often develop a higher cadence than less experienced riders, although there is no hard and fast rule as to what cadence is right or wrong.
One way to level out a difference in cadence is for the rider with the faster speed to have a longer crank length than the rider with the slower speed. By shortening the crank length the rider does not turn such a wide circle and therefore the speed that the pedals are turned increases. One popular solution when riding with a child on the back is to fit crank shortners or if the cranks are solid they can have an extra hole drilled in them to reduce the cranks length significantly, this will eliminate the problem of their knee coming up too high at the top of the stroke and also help them to keep up with the cadence of the front rider.
The rate of pedalling on the tandem is really the only area of compromise when riding a tandem, and because the front rider has control of the gears they usually dictate the cadence. It’s important for the rear rider to communicate to the front rider if the cadence is too high, simply ask the front rider for a higher gear to slow the rate of pedalling down.
Fitting the rear pedals with some sort toe clip or clipless pedals also helps to eliminate the problem of the rear riders feet coming off the pedals, which can be caused by the front rider pedalling too fast or stopping pedalling unexpectedly. The most popular type of clipless pedal system are the mountain bike style, which have a recessed cleat in the shoe, which does not protrude from the shoe allowing you to walk normally.
Over a period of time, couples become in sync with each other, one will probably speed up a little and the other slow down, a difference in cadence is never normally a problem with experienced tandem couples, as they have adapted to suit each other’s style.
Some couples like to set the pedals out of phase. So for example when one of them has their leg at the top of the stroke the other has their leg at the bottom of the stroke or somewhere in between. Our preferred position is with the cranks pretty much in phase, maybe one or two teeth out to help lessen the dead spot when going over the top of the pedal stroke.
Maintaining your tandem
Keeping your tandem well maintained is important. Not only will it look good if you clean it regularly, but a good cleaning gives you the chance to have a good look for any wear and tear. You don’t need to be a cycle mechanic to inspect your tandem; you just need to know what to look for. Here’s a quick checklist of 9 key areas:
Check your rims for wear by running your fingers over the side wall to make sure they are not too concave. Some rims have a wear indicator on them. Spin your wheels to make sure they are running true, and feel the spokes to make sure none are slack. Make sure your cables aren’t frayed and if you have a chain checker then check your chains for wear. Inspect your chain rings for bent teeth and tyres for cracks, bulges and objects stuck in the tread. Brake pads should also be inspected. Feel the bearings in the headset, bottom brackets, pedals and hubs for any play. If any of these things are causing you concern then maybe it’s time for a service.
We recommend cleaning your tandem with a bucket of water and soft brush. An open ended hose is fine, but do not use anything with high pressure as it forces water into the bearings and will reduce their lifespan considerably. It is advisable to wash your tandem the right way up; washing a bike upside-down allows water to get inside the frame tubes via the drain holes and cause rust. Use a good bike cleaner and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use. When your tandem is dry lubricate the chains; we suggest a drip lube so that you do not get overspray onto a rear disc. We use Finish Line Teflon Dry for summer and Finish Line Ceramic Wax lubricant for winter. Wet lubes tend to pick up grit which then acts like a grinding paste which will reduce the life of the chains.
In winter try to rinse your tandem off after every ride if there is any salt on the roads. Salt penetrates through paint systems and is highly corrosive to both aluminium and steel. Leaving your tandem unwashed for a period of time after riding allows salt to do its damage. Bear in mind that if you are carrying it around on your car, your tandem will get covered in salt, so again give it a rinse off as soon as possible.
If you like to keep your tandem in showroom condition then polishing the frame with a wax finish will help shrug off mud and dirt to keep the tandem looking better for longer. Finish Line Pro-detailer is ideal for this.
Servicing your tandem
There are plenty of tandem friendly cycle shops around. A list of those keen on working on tandems can be found in the UK Tandem Club magazine. Service intervals depend upon how much mileage you do and the type of riding. Riding off road will wear parts out more quickly than riding on tarmac, as does riding in wet conditions.
As a guideline we suggest you should have your tandem serviced yearly. If you are knocking up 1000’s of miles then twice yearly is advisable.
Tyres loose pressure quickly and it is important to re-inflate them either before every ride or a couple of times a week if you ride daily. The manufacturer’s recommended tyre pressure is on the side wall. Always inflate to the highest pressure recommended. A tyre pressure gauge makes a good Christmas or birthday present; make sure it fits the type of tyre valve you have.
New to tandem touring – hints and tips
For many people getting lengthy periods of time away from home or work isn’t easy, so why not make the most of your weekends and days off and plan just a short trip setting off from home with an overnight stop.
The most successful of tours are those that can be lengthened or shortened depending upon the weather, so plan a route that gives you plenty of flexibility. In terms of distance covered each day make sure it doesn’t exceed the comfort level of either member of the team.
Touring can cost you as much or as little as you like, setting off with a tent and your own food won’t cost you much more than sitting at home for the weekend, or celebrate that special birthday or anniversary with an overnight stop in a luxury hotel.
There are certain essential items of kit that you need to take with you, in terms of clothing this will of course vary according to the time of the year, but there is nothing worse than being cold so carrying extra pairs of gloves, overshoes, arm and leg warmers are often a good idea.In respect of spares for the tandem you need to be able to fix anything that will stop you riding the tandem and these spares might include the following:- Spare tyre or tyre repair, inner tubes & puncture repair patches & tyre levers. A really good pump is essential tandem kit, as riding with your tyres soft will affect the handling of the tandem and increase the risk of punctures significantly.
A trail tool, including chain tool and spare chain links for front & rear chains, and also quick links for an easy fix.
A good lock for outside the cafe and if security is important to you then check your accommodation has secure bike storage.
Lights are always useful, even if you only need them to guide you back from the pub at the end of the evening.
And of course don’t forget your map!
If you are in need of inspiration for longer distance touring rides then Cicerone produce a fantastic range of cycling guides covering routes in the UK and lot’s of fantastic trips overseas.
For longer distance tours you might also pack spare spokes, chain lube, brake pads, tandem cables, and a handful of zip ties and some insulation tape will always come in useful.
Insights on riding a tandem - lessons from Dom Irvine
Having descended the Col de la Faucille at speeds up to 60mph on our Orbit Lightning Tandem I couldn’t help but marvel at the joy of being part of a confident tandem team. With two attempts at the Lands End to John O’Groats tandem record and the thousands of miles ridden in preparation as you can imagine, the last few years have been a very steep learning curve. Here are some of our insights and experiences into what it takes to be a tandem team. But first……..
What does it feel like?When two people are working well together on a tandem the buzz is just incredible. Rolling along at 30mph flying through villages and towns is just glorious. Ridden well, the bike feels as light as a feather. When both Captain and Stoker are confident in each other it’s possible to thread the bike through the narrowest of gaps in traffic. High speed descending is pure pleasure. When you really nail it, you don’t even need to discuss when you are going to get out of the saddle or sit back down, you just know when it’s about to happen. I think there are six key things that have helped contribute to our success as a tandem partnership.
Maintain momentumThe single most important thing we have learned is to maintain the bikes momentum. This means avoid braking wherever possible. Learn to anticipate bends, junctions, traffic such that you don’t need to brake, or worse, stop. Every time you brake you waste the hard work you put into getting to that speed. Good handling helps here. If you can really lean the bike over going through corners you can take more speed through them. Have confidence in the bike and your brakes, Tandems are incredibly stable at speed and can out brake a normal bike.
Be relaxedAnother significant factor we believe is to stay relaxed. That means a loose grip on the bars for both Captain and Stoker. The tighter each grips, the more unwieldy the bike feels and the bigger the strain on the Captain. Staying relaxed is particularly important when either one person or the other is out of the saddle and absolutely critical when descending at speed.
DescendingNever go faster than the Stoker feels comfortable going. This is a non-negotiable rule.The Captain’s job is to read the road and find the fastest line through the corners. The more you can look up and ahead and anticipate the bend after the one you are on the faster you will be able to go. This means that at speed, you are not looking at where the tandem is but where you want it to be next. The Stoker can really screw up a descent. A sudden movement or desire to peek around and see the road ahead can result in the bike moving several metres across the road and this destroys the line the Captain will have planned. The best thing to do is focus on the centre of the back of the Captain and relax.
Getting rid of the treacleWe knew when we weren’t working in unison. We described it to each other as feeling as if we were pedalling through treacle. The pedals feel heavy and there is more resistance than would be expected. We would call this out when we felt it. We would then focus on getting a fluidity back into our pedalling. We’d often experience it more when we were tired. As we improved, the treacle became less and less. What really helped was finding the cadence that suited us both, for me a little slower than normal and for my Stoker, a little faster. Sometimes all it took was a gear change. Other times it meant backing off for a while and building the speed back up.
Get the Stoker workingThere’s a lot to do for the Captain. Steering, braking, gear choice, cadence, line on the road etc. The more the Stoker can do the better. For us this means the Stoker navigates, organises the food for the Captain and the Stoker signals our intentions to other road users. The more jobs you can transfer from the Captain to the Stoker the better.
Talk to each otherThe joy of riding a tandem is the opportunity it affords to gossip and chat. Spend some of that conversation working out how to be more balanced and effective as a team. Tune in to how each other is feeling. Learn what it takes to help the other person through a low patch and vice versa. The key is listening to understand what’s going on.
How to improveHere are five drills we practiced to help us become a better team:
1: Hill repsWe have spent hours going up and down the same hill. We used the time to practice becoming really relaxed on the bike when climbing and descending. We rode the hill seated, out of the saddle and practiced switching between the two. We practiced descending, gradually pushing up the speed we could go in the dry and then repeating this in the wet and finally in the dark and in wet conditions. By using the same hill we had a frame of reference about whether we were improving.
2: Interval effortsWhilst we did these mainly to become faster, we found the unanticipated benefit was when both of you were pushing as hard as you could bike handling also improved. The maximum effort you could put down was governed by how stable the bike felt. As we got better at doing intervals we also became better at riding the bike.
3: Night-ridingRiding at night on any bike is fun, especially on beautiful moonlit quiet country roads. When it’s dark and a lot of visual cues are missing, you learn to ride more by feel. You have a greater sense of what is happening to the bike. Our training involved a lot of night riding and although we were practicing coping with sleep deprivation, the real benefit was bike handling.
4: Practice eating and drinkingIn doing very long rides (200 miles and beyond), we ended up doing a lot of eating and drinking on the bike. In the end we could also change items of clothing whilst riding along. In order to be able to eat and drink you need to be relaxed. In practicing these skills we also learnt the best way to pass food to one another and more importantly, when to do so. By focussing on these activities, the side effect was improved bike handling.
5: Ride the bike - lotsI’ve ridden our tandem thousands of miles. I’ve loved every minute of it. In the early days, it was all a tentative and slow. But it wasn’t long before the improvements came. And it’s just got better and better. The learning never stops. These days we’ve introduced Power Meters onto the bike to help improve our consistency of effort. When descending we’re focussing now on hip and elbow positions and utilising road features to maximise speed. We’ve changed the gearing to increase the speed at which we can do all these things. The excitement is as great as on the first tandem ride we had. The more you ride the better you will get.
Riding a tandem rewards practice. So what are you waiting for? See you on the road.
The views above are Dom’s own, and do not reflect the advice or view of most normal people, here at JD Tandems we sponsor Dom to ride hard and fast, but do not recommend all of his riding techniques unless you are attempting to break records.