Why Ride A Tandem?
Riding a normal, single-rider bicycle is a very rewarding experience, but a tandem bicycle adds a whole new dimension to cycling. Different tandemists choose the long bike for different reasons:
- A tandem allows two cyclists of differing strength and ability to ride together, pleasurably. The faster rider doesn't need to wait for the slower one; the slower rider doesn't need to struggle to try to keep up with the faster rider.
- A tandem turns the basically solitary, individualistic activity of cycling into an mutual experience that may be shared by a couple.
- A tandem allows handicapped people who couldn't otherwise ride a bicycle to share in the joy of cycling.
- A tandem can allow a parent to share cycling at an adult level of speed and distance with a child.
- A tandem is the ultimate rush for cyclists who enjoy the sensation of high-speed cycling.
Whatever your reason for choosing (or considering) a tandem, this article will attempt to cover some of the things that every tandemist should learn.
There is a good deal of technique required to get the most out of riding a tandem. While anybody who can ride a single bicycle can manage a tandem, there are a few tricks and pitfalls that you should know about.
The front rider is commonly known as the "captain." Other names for the front rider include "pilot" and "steersman."
The captain should be an experienced cyclist, with good bike-handling skills and good judgement. In the case of a beginning team, a the captain will need to use a bit more upper-body strength than is needed for a single bike. As the team learns to work together, this will become less important.
The captain has two major responsibilities:
- To control the bike, including balancing it whether stopped or in motion, as well as steering, shifting, braking.
To keep the stoker happy! A tandem isn't a tandem without a stoker. The captain must earn the stoker's confidence, must stop when the stoker wants to stop, must slow down when the stoker wants to slow down.
Since the stoker cannot see the road directly ahead, the captain has a special responsibility to warn of bumps in the road, so that the stoker can brace for them.
When a couple fails to make it as a tandem team, it is almost always due to either the stoker being scared as a result of an incompetent/inconsiderate captain, or due to saddle soreness.
The captain should also warn the stoker of shifts, especially shifts to a lower gear which may cause the stoker to lose balance if they come without warning. (Very experienced teams eventually get past the need to call out most shifts, as they learn each others' styles.)
The rear rider is commonly known as the "stoker." Other names for the rear rider include "navigator", "tailgunner" and "rear admiral" or "R.A." The rear rider is not a "passenger", but is an equal participant. The stoker has two main responsibilities:
- The stoker serves mainly as a motor. Since the stoker is not called upon to control the bike, this rider should be able to actually generate more power than the same rider would on a single bike. Depending on the strength and endurance of the stoker, this may take the form of a steady output or may be held in reserve. If the stoker is acting as a "reserve," it is OK to take it easy for general cruising, so long as the stoker can help out with a burst of power for the climbs. Since starting up on a tandem is a bit trickier than on a single, the stoker should apply as much smooth power as possible when starting up, to get the bike up to maneuvering speed quickly.
The stoker's other major responsibility is a negative one: The stoker must not attempt to steer! Unpredictable weight shifts on the part of the stoker can make the captain's job much harder, and can lead to crashes, in extreme cases. The stoker should keep in line with the centerline of the bicycle, and lean with it as it leans through corners. A stoker must shift position on the saddle, or adjust a toe strap, or take a drink without disturbing the equilibrium of the bicycle. These activities should not be attempted at all while the captain is dealing with tricky traffic situations or narrow spaces.
The stoker can also do a bit of back rubbing now and then, as well as taking photographs, singing encouraging songs, reading maps, etc.
The team becomes more than the sum of its parts. An experienced tandem team develops a very special level of non-verbal communication, via subtle weight shifts, variations in pedal force, and general empathy.
After a few hundred miles together, you will find yourself coasting at the same time, shifting without the need for discussion, and and maneuvering smoothly even at slow speeds.
This is not just a matter of each rider's acquiring captaining/stoking skills; when two equally experienced teams switch stokers, something is lost, and this special communication doesn't happen...it really is unique to each couple.
Because a tandem frame needs to fit two riders, the chances of finding one that will fit both riders perfectly are much lower than is the case with a solo bicycle.
In general, it is preferable for the larger rider to be in front, particularly for an inexperienced team, but this is by no means an ironclad rule.
Where there needs to be a compromise in fitting, it is better to make sure that the bike fits the captain. In particular, the front of the frame must not be too large for the captain to be able to straddle with good crotch clearance. Since the captain will need to spread his or her feet farther apart than normal to balance the extra weight of the stoker as the stoker mounts, the clearance should be greater than is needed on a single. On the other hand, if the front of the frame is on the small side, a taller/longer handlebar stem can usually make up for it.
In the case of the stoker, it is not actually necessary to be able to straddle the frame as it is on a single. Thus a frame size that would normally be considered "too large" on a single may be perfectly reasonable for a stoker, assuming that an appropriate handlebar stem is used to give a good position.
In general, a somewhat higher handlebar position is advisable for tandemists who are not primarily into it for the speed. In the case of the captain, a higher bar helps reduce the upper-body fatigue associated with handling the longer, heavier bike. In the case of the stoker, a somewhat more upright position provides a better view, and there is less of an aerodynamic penalty for the stoker's more upright position on a tandem.
First time captains should not try riding with a stoker until they have practiced riding solo on the tandem to get used to the general feel of the bike.
Good starting technique is vitally important with a tandem. You will not be able to ride in a straight line at as slow as speed as you can on a single, at least not until you have many, many tandem miles behind you. Therefore, it is important that you learn to get up to speed quickly. Since the tandem is so much heavier, it cannot accelerate quickly without the cooperation and coordination of both riders.
Many single bike riders get away with poor starting technique, but you have much less margin for error with a tandem.
Correct Basic Starting Technique, Single or Tandem:
- Stand astride the frame, both feet on the ground.
- Rotate the pedals so that the pedal for your less skillful foot is 45 degrees forward of straight up.
Put your foot on the high pedal, then press down hard. This will simultaneously:
- Let you use the pedal as a step to lift yourself high enough to get onto the saddle...and:
- Apply driving force to the chain, causing the bike to pick up speed.
If you have not learned to do this, take the time to practice on a solo before you attempt to captain a tandem.
Common incorrect techniques include:
The Cowboy Mount, which involves standing next to the bike, putting one foot on a pedal, then swinging the other leg over the saddle while the bicycle is in motion. Try this on a tandem, and you'll kick your stoker in the head!
The Shuffle Mount, which involves standing on the low pedal, and trying to get the bike in motion by pushing off against the ground with the other foot...you can't get a tandem up to maneuvering speed this way!
Starting a Tandem
Stoker: While keeping your weight centered over the bike as much as you can:
- Stand astride the frame, both feet on the ground, tandem straight up.
- Spread your feet apart and brace the top tube of the tandem against one leg for added stability. Your feet should be far enough apart that the stoker will be able to rotate the pedals without banging into your shins.
- Lock the brakes to that the tandem will not roll while the stoker mounts.
- Turn the nearer pedal to the bottom position, use it as a step.
- Lift yourself into the saddle, place other foot on its pedal.
- Clip in, tighten straps or do anything else you need to do to get ready to pedal.
- Rotate the pedals to the starting position preferred by the captain.
- Let the captain know you are ready to go.
Captain: Put your foot on the high pedal, then press down hard. This will simultaneously:
Stoker: Give it all you've got to get the bike up to speed quickly.
Once the bike is at maneuvering speed, your captain may need to coast to get clipped in, so be ready.
This may seem complicated, but with a bit of practice it becomes second nature. This technique will ensure safe, smooth fast starts.
Stopping technique is pretty much the reverse of starting up, but there are a couple of things to watch out for:
Remember that you have to balance both the bike and the stoker, while the stoker dismounts. The most common mistakes are:
- Letting the tandem lean too far to the side, so that you cannot hold up the weight of the stoker.
- Not having your feet far enough apart to support the stoker.
- Not unclipping your second foot soon enough, and toppling over onto that side.
Keep your weight centered in line with the tandem's frame. An unexpected wiggle while the tandem is coming to a stop, and before the captain's feet are well braced on the ground, can dump you!
Normally, you should not take your feet out of the pedals until the captain says to do so (although this is not a hard-and-fast rule; sometimes an alert stoker can save a captain's bacon by putting a foot down at the right time!)
The typical tandem team will include one rider who is a highly experienced, fairly hard-core cyclist, and another who is less experienced and less skillful. Let us imagine a couple named Chris and Pat. Pat is a hard-core cyclist, Chris has been a much more casual cyclist, if a cyclist at all, but they would like to share the experience of tandeming together. Since their riding style and conditioning level is different, there has to be some give and take.
One of the major problem areas is likely to be "cadence", that is, the question of how fast to turn the pedals. Since Pat, the more experienced cyclist, is probably going to be the captain, Pat will get to choose the cadence, by determining which gear to use at any given time. Since Pat is an experienced cyclist, Pat will probably prefer a rather fast cadence. A fairly fast cadence is known to be more efficient and less injurious to the knees.
Unfortunately, Chris may not be used to spinning this fast. Chris's legs can't keep up with Pat's preferred spin. This will cause considerable discomfort for Chris.
It is Pat's responsibility to make Chris happy and comfortable, so Pat needs to consider Chris's preferences when selecting gears. Chris, in turn, should understand that it is worthwhile learning to spin a bit faster, because it really is the better technique.
With practice and patience, most couples can work this out on a standard tandem. For those who can't there is a technological fix.
In addition to cadence issues, a tandem team needs to deal with the coasting issue. On a standard tandem, both riders must pedal, or both must coast. For one to coast while the pedals is not an option unless you have an exotic tandem.
As a general rule, less experienced cyclists coast much more often than experienced cyclists. A beginner may coast due to fear of high speed, discomfort with a rapid cadence, fatigue, or just habit. More experienced cyclists learn that it is better to keep the legs moving, even when not applying a lot of force to the pedals, because it maintains the rider's rhythm and keeps the legs from stiffening up.
One of the main areas where the semi-mystical communication occurs between members of a tandem team that has ridden together a lot is that the coasting question gradually disappears, and you will find yourself coasting and resuming pedaling without anything being said, or any obvious signal being passed.
Usually, the coasting issue will resolve itself mainly by the less experienced cyclist's acquiring more experience, and breaking the habit of excessive coasting.
Sometimes a compromise on gear choice or speed can help eliminate conflicts about coasting. Since the beginner's urge to coast is often activated by fear of excessive speed, slowing down will help. If one rider is coasting too much because the cadence is getting uncomfortably high, a shift to a higher gear can eliminate this problem.
One of the more advanced skills of tandeming is standing up and "pumping" or "honking" for an extra burst of power. This is not something to try until you have gone past the beginner stage as a tandem team. Standing smoothly requires that both riders coordinate their movements with one another. In particular, the stoker should avoid drastic sideward movements (always good practice anyway.) Some riders throw the bike sharply from side to side as the push on first one pedal, then the other; others have a smoother style, and stay centered over the bike even when out of the saddle.
Most single-bike riders stand too much; many very good riders almost never do stand. Riders who stand a lot often have their saddles set too low, or are in too high a gear.
Most tandemists find standing together easier if the cranks are set up in phase.
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Last Updated: by Harriet Fell