The Tandem Experience

By now, you know about the Mandem and you’ve seen my preliminary thoughts on the fun of riding it.  I’ve now had an opportunity to ride it with 5 different riding partners, and the experience continues to be great.

I started riding with “A”, who prefers to captain.  He and I have ridden the Mandem together the most, and I’m most attuned to his particular riding habits.  Over time, he has gotten accustomed to riding at a faster cadence than he would normally ride–and if you’re a new tandem rider, I’d suggest working towards a faster cadence.  The ride is smoother, and it’s easier to synchronize putting down a lot of power when spinning than it is when churning at a lower cadence.  Riding with A, I can see around/over him–so when we’re in a group and start pushing up on the rider in front of us, I can back off the power a bit.  He’s gotten really good at giving feedback through the pedals when he wants to increase or decrease power.  Our starts and stops are silent and easy.  A’s a strong rider, and riding together, it’s a fast bike in all conditions.

I’ve also ridden with “B”, who stoked.  B is an incredibly strong rider, and the experience was what I wrote about in the Fun post linked above.  With a  really strong stoker, under power, the front of the bike almost seems light–like driving a drag racer.  B very quickly picked up on the body english necessary to keep the bike stable, and also was good at not moving around a lot.

I’ve captained with “C” as well.  C is a regular rider, but not the strongest rider.  What was interesting about that experience was the feeling of the bike when C was working hard.  Riding normally, it felt like I was doing all of the work, and I could feel when C started to pedal in earnest.  It kind of felt like solo riding, except when we were working hard.  Going from riding with really strong riders to riding with a more casual rider was an interesting experience.

I stoked with “D”, who is a strong rider.  The interesting part about stoking with D is the contrast between D and E (see below).  I could see around D.  His power was very consistent–steady power at all times.  I could feel that he was having a hard time figuring out exactly how hard he was working; getting used to riding a tandem can be disconcerting.  On hard efforts, his power came on progressively and smoothly, and the bike would gradually ramp up speed, like a turbine.  He moved around on the saddle a lot, which made the bike move around a lot, which contributed to his sense that steering the bike was tiresome.  (The more you ride with someone and get used to the handling, the easier it gets.  Riding on gravel with 2 riders on 35c tires requires some faith that the long wheelbase will get you through just about anything, and you have to let the bike wander a bit).

Most recently, I stoked with “E.”  E is also a strong rider, and he’s a bigger guy.  The interesting things about riding with E were the contrasts in riding styles.  Whereas D was like a turbine that gradually ramped up in power, E was more peaky.  Under ‘normal’ riding, I felt like I was doing more work than normal…but when he wanted to push, the surge in his effort was instantaneous and awesome.  He has a totally different riding style from D.  I’ve ridden thousands of miles with those two guys, and until I had ridden the tandem with them, I had never really appreciated the difference in their styles.  Seeing–feeling that difference on the tandem gave me a far greater appreciation for their respective talents on the bike.

As I said above, E is a bigger guy.  With him as captain, I couldn’t see anything forward unless I sat way up, or leaned way out.  Since we were riding at night, I could look for light on the ground to see where we were relative to other riders, but it was more challenging.  On the other hand, it was chilly out, and I had a nice warm pocket of still air, out of the wind, in E’s draft.

His size also totally changed the handling of the bike.  I’d guess that he has about 30 pounds on the guys I had previously ridden with.  (And don’t get me wrong–he’s not fat, he’s just a bigger guy.  While it comes as no surprise to people that I’m a cyclist, he’s more likely to be confused with a football player).  That extra weight was palpable in the vertical compliance of the frame.  Coupled with his lunging power in hard efforts, the bike was noticeably more _________.  I don’t want to say flexible, because that has a negative connotation…but it was had noticeably more vertical movement.  I suspect that as he got used to riding a tandem, and if we were riding at a higher cadence, there would be less bounce in his pedaling.  If there wasn’t less bounce, then I’d potentially want to look to a frame that was a bit less vertically compliant.  I gained a lot of appreciation for the strength that it takes a larger guy to move a bike.  E’s probably got 50 pounds on me, and my respect for his riding ability has increased exponentially.

There was a strong crosswind at times when riding with E…and I learned that crosswinds are a tandem’s worst enemy.  First, the crosswind negated a lot of our drag advantage.  Ordinarily, in head/tail winds, we have the power of two riders and the drag of one.  In a crosswind, the drag of both riders was palpable.  Additionally, we had twice the cross section as a normal bike, being controlled by one steering tire, which made handling a bit more complicated.  On the other hand, when I’ve ridden solo in 20-25mph crosswinds, I get pushed around a lot on the road too.

Having experienced riding with these guys, I have to say that I love the Mandem.  I’d be curious to see what it’s like riding with someone that’s smaller than me, at some point…to check out how it handles under those conditions.  Riding with people on a tandem is perhaps the very best way to gain a direct understanding of their abilities and weaknesses–it gives me better ideas on how to support them on group rides; when to take a pull for them, and when to let them take the lead.  If I were devious, I’d say that it gives me a better understanding of when to successfully attack, as well…but I’m not devious.

If you have a chance to ride a serious tandem (i.e. not a 50 year old schwinn beach cruiser tandem), I’d highly recommend it.  It’s a completely different experience, and well worth the time.  If you’re considering that, here are a few pieces of advice:

  1.  Don’t spend too much time worrying about how to synchronize starts and stops.  Have good communication the first few times (including a discussion of which foot is going to unclip and go down), and it comes naturally very quickly.
  2. Do consider riding in a higher gear than you normally would, to increase your cadence (if you’re trying to ride fast).  It’s easier to put down power when spinning on a tandem, than it is when churning.
  3. Do consider putting the stronger rider in front.  I tend to think the bike is more stable that way.  If the riders are of equal strength, I’d suggest putting the larger rider in front.
  4. Remember to drink.  For some reason, when riding the tandem, I tend to forget about drinking.
  5. If you get to stoke, look around.  It’s a totally different experience to be able to crank along at 25mph, while actually seeing the environment around you.
  6. In contradiction to #5, if you stoke, you still have to support the captain and watch for cars and such.  It’s great to have a second set of eyes that can look back for passing cars, monitor intersections, etc.
  7. Only tandem with someone that you trust.  If either the captain or stoker screws up, the consequences are bad for both.
  8. Ride the tandem a few times before you try to ride it in a group.  Group riding in a tandem takes more skill…and you should be comfortable/competent in handling it before you try.
  9. Remember the wheelbase length.  That means wider corners, pulling through farther when in a paceline, etc.
  10. Have no pity for the solo riders.  Crush them, mercilessly.  There are few things more fun than cranking past someone on the tandem at a ludicrous speed, while they suffer along alone.

Get out and ride!

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The Great NickelBacking Incident

One of my dear, dear friends is a talented bike mechanic that we’ll call Chad.  I’ve been with Chad on many adventures.  We’ve mountain biked Steamboat.  We’ve mountain biked Brown County.  We’ve raced fatbikes at Barry-Roubaix.  We’ve ridden through ridiculous mud.  Multiple times.  We’ve spotted Gnarwals.  We’ve ridden gravel–so much gravel.  We’ve ridden in some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen on two wheels.

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We’ve seen a lot, and done a lot together.  I once even saw him get eaten by a giant caterpillar, while standing atop a park bench in Indiana.

Chad is a talented rider–he has bike handling skills that many are envious of.  Those skills used to be frequently displayed through his impromptu, back-parking-lot BMX demonstrations…on just about every type of bike out there.  And then…then Chad decided to race Cyclocross one year.

I had an idea for a little prank.  I thought I might slip a sticker on the underside of the top tube of Chad’s CX bike before an upcoming race.  I ordered one online, it arrived at my house, and I waited for the right moment.  One Wednesday night, before a gravel ride, his bike was sitting in the repair stand, unattended.  I quickly slapped the sticker on, guessing that he would see it.  He didn’t.  I didn’t mention it, and no one else mentioned it either.

He went to the race, which featured a few jumps right in the middle of the course.  It was a perfect opportunity for him to show off his bike-handling abilities…and there happened to be a photographer present at just the right angle, to catch a glorious shot of Chad…flying…midair…through the CX race.

I never could have guessed that the course would have a jump.  That Chad would hit it hard.  That a photographer would be there at just the right angle.  That the stars would align in such perfection…but they did.

Oh how they did.

Twas was one of my greatest accomplishments.

Disc Brakes for Road?

Since UCI’s recent announcement that it will permit riders to utilize disc brakes on road bikes in UCI-licensed events next year, there has been much ink spilled worrying about this issue.  Hyperbole has ranged from “pros sure to cut off limbs via razor sharp disc rotors” to “all of your non-disc bikes are now worthless in the resale market.”  On that first point, I haven’t seen too many serious disc brake related injuries in cyclocross races (where there is a significant amount of rider to rider contact and crashing).  On that second point, if you’re buying bikes based on resale value, then perhaps your values are off.

The real pros and cons of disc brakes are pretty self-evident.

Pro:  Greater stopping power and greater modulation than rim brakes.

Pro:  Greater braking power in wet/inclement conditions.

Pro:  Easier to dissipate heat in a safe fashion on mountain descents, as compared to rim brakes.

Pro:  More consistent braking force in all conditions.

Cons:  Wheel removal/installation becomes more challenging or time consuming because of rotor alignment (and in particular, when thru axles are involved).

Cons:  Greater weight.

Cons:  Greater aerodynamic drag.

Cons:  When not properly aligned, greater propensity for brake drag / mechanical drag.

Cons:  More technically challenging setup.

Honestly, a lot of the pros and cons are situation specific.  I’m never really in a circumstance where cutting a second off of a wheel swap will impact my life, so the wheel installation/removal is a non-issue; that’s the case for many riders.

I’m typically pretty pro-technology.  The last time I posted on this topic, almost four years ago, I was rabidly pro-disc brake.  For gravel, touring, and many other purposes, I am still very pro-disc.  The reason that I am pro-disc in those venues is because I believe disc brakes are well suited for those types of riding.  So are disc brakes well suited for road riding?  Sure.  For some.

I ride here in flatlandia.  I’ve never had a descent on a road bike where I’ve had a concern about stopping power or brake overheating.  Even when it rains, a minor adjustment in technique (squeeze the brakes a bit early to dry the brake track; modulate pressure more carefully) works well.  For me, the penalty in weight and drag outweighs the benefits of disc brakes on road settings.  When we’re doing a fast group ride, the 10-15 watt drag penalty of disc brakes at road speeds is palpable and not appreciated.  I’ll take every advantage I can (legitimately) get in those rides.  As a relatively light rider who runs quality wheels and well-maintained rim brakes, I run out of tire traction long before I run out of stopping power.

So for me, riding here, disc brakes for road don’t change my life.  And when the weather gets really bad, I shift over to the Moots and ride it instead…with disc brakes and 35c tires.

If I was riding in Colorado on a regular basis, I’d be agog about going to disc brakes.  They make perfect sense in mountainous conditions.  Right gear for the terrain.

I have a good friend who has switched to road disc, and he loves it–even in Illinois.  More power to him.

In the pro-cycling realm, I think it’s unlikely that every bike will suddenly become disc brake.  We’re not going to see TT bikes with disc brakes any time soon; the drag penalty doesn’t make sense.  In flat stages, running disc brakes likely won’t make sense.  In the mountains, disc brakes give riders a performance edge–and more importantly, they give riders a safety edge.  Better, more predictable stopping in all conditions–that’s what they bring.  To me, it makes perfect sense for UCI to allow pros to use disc brakes…because it makes the riding safer in mountain stages.

I suspect that the real effect in pro races will just be even greater specialization of bikes.  Just as some riders have switched mid-ride between a TT bike and a ‘climbing’ bike in mountain TT stages, we will see riders bringing a TT bike, a disc-brake bike for mountains, and a rim-brake bike for flatter road stages.  Does that mean rim brake bikes are suddenly worthless, or that every rider is going to go out and have to buy a new bike?  Nope.

It means that pros will have a better-suited tool for one aspect of their racing…and that technology will trickle down to other riders for whom it makes sense.  Will my next road bike be disc or rim brake?  I don’t know…I don’t have plans to replace the Madone any time soon.  When I do go to replace it, I’ll look at the available options and pick what makes the most sense for my riding, as I’ve done in the past.  By then, I suspect there will be lower drag disc options…and maybe those will make the benefits of disc brakes win me over.

What I perpetually don’t understand is why so many in cycling are so anti-progress.  I can understand that shops don’t want to have to stock forty different bottom bracket variations–completely get it.  But when there is some “new technology” (to the extent that road disc is new) that enhances safety for a significant group of riders, why be so pessimistic?  The sky is not falling.  Road disc for those whom it benefits.  Rim brakes will be around for others, for a very long time.