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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2 thoughts on “The Tandem Experience

  1. Having just recently purchased a modern tandem and having ridden it with two completely different stokers, it was interesting to read someone else’s take on tandem riding with multiple partners. My “power stoker” and I got our game together fairly quickly in just 3 rides, but we have a lot of trust in each other and we’re both experienced riders. The biggest issues I’ve encountered so far have been figuring out proper gearing for climbing and making sure that we keep enough weight on the rear wheel when climbing steeper gravel hills.

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