In the summer of 2010, Chris & Janyis cycled over 7,000km on a tandem bicycle through Europe. In this guest, post they share 10 Tips for Tandem Bike Touring.
The tandem bicycle: A romantic, slightly eccentric, slightly odd looking machine with a certain appeal.
As we planned a 3-1/2 month cycle tour of Europe, the idea of doing it on a bicycle made for two became more and more attractive. After a few days of watching eBay, we hit ‘buy it now’ and became the proud owners of a Dawes Sardar 2 tandem. It cost us £300 (about $500 U.S.).
Two weeks later we set off to Newhaven to catch the ferry to Dieppe and 7,200 kilometers of freedom; cycling through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy.
We knew nothing about tandem riding before we bought the bike and wouldn’t profess to be experts now but thought we’d share our experiences in case you also fancy ‘looking sweet upon the seat’ of one of these special machines.
Here are our 10 Tips for successful tandem touring:
1. Practice Makes Perfect
Riding a tandem isn’t really a fine art, more a messy sketchbook of wobbles and wavy lines before you get the hang of it, especially fully loaded. The important thing is to synchronize at all times. When stationary, pushing off with a chant of ‘3, 2, 1’ helps takes the strain off the knees
2. Keep The Peace
A harmonious relationship between Pilot (at the front of the tandem) and the Stoker (in the rear) is crucial to successful tandem riding. Below are some of the things we learned not to do on the road:
- Pilot – Do not spit.
- Stoker – Do not tell the Pilot right at the beginning of a 4,500 mile cycle tour that your mother will never forgive him/her if you have an accident. Wait until the tour is over to share this information.
- Pilot – Do not question the Stoker’s pedaling efforts.
- Stoker – Do not be a backseat driver.
- Pilot – Communicate – do not expect the Stoker to be a mind reader.
- Stoker – Do not lean.
- Pilot – Do not walk away from the tandem and assume that the stoker is holding it upright.
- Stoker – Do not suddenly stop pedaling.
3. Look Your Best
You’ll gets lots of attention, or at least the tandem will, so make sure both you and the tandem are looking smart. The top 3 Tandem loving countries in Europe are Italy, Germany and England.
4. Don’t Off-Road On A Fully Loaded Tandem
Whilst riding the Canal du Midi in France might seem like a good idea, much of it is off-road, often on muddy tracks, with the murky waters of the canal right beside you. Taking a tandem with two riders, four panniers, 1 bar bag, a 25 litre dry sack and semi-slick tyres down such a path is just not sensible.
5. Do The Math
According to Green Trust, a human produces about 1/10th of a horsepower when cycling. This gives the Pilot and Stoker together about 1/5 of a horse to get the tandem and all its baggage up those mountains. That’s not much of a horse, so choose your gradients well….
6. Know Your Brakes
A normal bike with one rider and two heavy panniers stops slowly when you apply the brakes. Now multiply riders and luggage by 2 but still ride with standard V-brakes. Finally, add a mountain pass to the equation and ride down it. This means you need to go very, very slowly and cautiously. Better yet, you can fit an additional coaster brake. We would have benefited from one.
7. Learn To Laugh At The Same Joke Over and Over Again…
…and the joke is… (pointing at the Stoker) ‘she’s not pedaling!!’
We heard this joke in 12 languages – 10 of which we don’t speak. But we still understood the joke and we still laughed. Oh, how we laughed!
8. Stoker: Learn To Love The Grass By The Roadside
The view isn’t great from the back. You’re going to see a lot of grass on this tour.
9. Learn To Love Your Back Wheel
It carries a lot of weight and you’ll spend a lot of time tending to its needs: dishing it, replacing spokes, re-tensioning spokes, checking bearings, cursing it, threatening it, etc… We think our problems were made worse by the badly tensioned, machine-built rear wheel that came with the tandem. If you can, invest in strong, hand-built wheels.
10. Love Your Tandem
One day at some unspecified moment you’ll look at that beast of burden and be amazed just how much weight a simple machine can carry. And you’ll feel a glow of warmth and respect for it. We even gave ours a name – Florence.
6th April 2011 at 9:11 am #
Very nice list. As tandem drivers ourselves I can agree with most points. With respect to nr. 6 we never intend to go into mountaineous area. Nr. 1 and 2 are indeed very important. We had the same epiphany with nr. 10. However we have no name yet other than The Red Menace 😉
11th April 2011 at 4:55 pm #
Can I add a lesson learned from taking a blind stoker off road?
Remind stoker that there is a twenty foot drop down a bramble covered bank on his left hand side.
14th January 2012 at 7:09 pm #
We are cycling to Suffolk a trip of 102 miles we hope to do 50 miles a day is that achievable
18th January 2012 at 6:50 pm #
We averaged 50 miles per day on our tour of Europe. You can see from the images above how loaded the tandem was. So yes, assuming a decent level of fitness, no strong headwinds and not too many mountains (you should be safe in Suffolk on this one), I’d say 50 miles a day is achievable. Happy riding 🙂
31st January 2012 at 9:22 pm #
Everything is achievable – it’s only in the mind. In 2010 we were touring in the Dordogne. I asked my wife if she would be OK doing 60 miles the 1st day.
The reply was affirmative. At the end of the 1st day – 66 mile, I remarked that the tandem wasn’t rolling too well over the last 6 miles in spite of the slight downhill gradient. “Oh, you said we were only cycling 60 miles, at that point I stopped trying”!
Happy Tandem riding
14th June 2012 at 9:33 pm #
Just wondering if the advantages of less weight on the rear wheel when having the large panniers at the front and the smaller ones at the rear out weigh the disadvantages of heavier steering.
30th June 2012 at 12:35 pm #
My wife and I are the owner of a tandem. We did the Pacific coast of USA ( Canada – Mexico ). We have small panniers at the front, larger ones at the rear, and a Bob Yack trailer. By putting the load on three axles, the tandem has a better steering, and it reduces the pressure on the rear wheel.
Bon voyage !
22nd July 2012 at 2:02 pm #
Regarding Tip 8 – Stoker: Learn to love the grass at the roadside.
Staring at your partner’s back, however lovely, is not an ideal way to see the world which is why an increasing number of serious tandemists are using a hybrid recumbent/upright tandem like the Hase Pino or Bilenky Viewpoint. Both partners get to see all round, heads close together and, just to make it interesting, the stoker sits in front of the pilot
Very odd the first time you see one and will get you even more interest from bystanders but actually a brilliant concept. We have a Hase Pino and couldn’t imagine riding any other kind of tandem.
24th April 2013 at 10:01 pm #
We wanted to take a Pino on our tour. Sadly they cost a tad more than our Dawes Sardar 2.
24th April 2013 at 10:17 pm #
True, but the Pino splits in two and goes very easily in the back of an Indian Jeep Taxi, great for getting you up steep hills (in mountainous rural India there’s always a Jeep Taxi about to come along). But you’ll have realised that I am a wild-eyed enthusiast for unusual bikes so please feel free to ignore this.
20th April 2013 at 8:05 pm #
I laughed from the beginning to the end of your 10 tips for riding a tandem.
Thank You, you guys made my week!
24th April 2013 at 9:57 pm #
3rd September 2013 at 12:38 pm #
I think Nr 7 is the one that you have to get used to wherever you go My response as the stoker is….So true, I am here for my looks not my muscles. When we did the Cape Argus Bike Race in South Africa, there was a couple with the Stoker wearing a T-shirt saying YES I AM NOT PEDDLING and the Pilot’ T-Shirt said.. I KNOW That got all the tandem riders laughing out loud.
13th September 2013 at 6:43 am #
We are embarking on a tandem tour soon. Thank you for your suggestions and insight.
12th October 2013 at 2:00 am #
Great list – our bike is named the Hummer for its turning radius and metallic green back.
My stoker is always pointing out things I missed while watching the road, so we have decided the stoker has the better view.
24th December 2013 at 2:53 pm #
And I thought we were the only ones to get the annoying “hey she’s not pedaling…” 🙂
We’ve owned a tandem for more than 18 years now and travelled with it all over the world. What fun! We first bought a Walmart-quality bike to try and after a trip in Greece that convinced us, invested in a strong machine with S&S couplers.
Your list really sums up well the tandem touring experience but as Tim mentioned, we also think that the stoker has the best view: while the pilot has to keep his/her attention on the cracks and other obstacles on the road, the stoker is free to enjoy the scenery on either sides.
Point #6: we wouldn’t leave without our Arai drum brake, especially when going down a mountain pass in a sweltering hot day…
Point #9: we had never been left stranded with a 48 spoke wheel fitted with a downhill rim. You can even break a few spokes without noticing. Drawbacks: the wheel is heavy and difficult to source locally anywhere in the world…
21st March 2014 at 12:32 pm #
Lots of interesting info here for novice tandem cyclists. My husband and son are wanting to purchase a tandem for a French Charity cycle in August. A little different as my husband who is an experienced cyclist will need to be the pilot and my son (is visually impaired) will be the stoker. My son at 6′ 3” is taller than my husband who’s 6′ so not ideal. They have been out on a hired one and loved it. They will be cycling 70 miles a day for 10 days with a support vehicle, so only need fluid on them. Any suggestions or info on what tandem to get and where (live in Hampshire) would be grateful along with any tips….
25th March 2014 at 12:38 pm #
I live in Wallop near andover (hampshire). Last year me and my girlfriend completed lands end to John o’groats on a tandem i built up. Im 5-10 and was the pilot however the front and rear with the seat up would easily accomidate taller. If you would like to contact me id be happy to lend the tandem to you for the ride and to practice. Or at least have a sit on and try out?? Hope this helps??
27th March 2014 at 1:25 pm #
Hi Adam, what a wonderful achievement for you both and thank you for your kind offer of a practice on your tandem. We have just borrowed one from another cyclist on the trip but only suitable for practice so will continue our search…either good condition secondhand tandem or will buy new as they will be covering part of the French Alps. Very grateful for your comments, it’s a great help….
25th March 2014 at 2:17 pm #
Hi Loraine, unfortunately my advice is not so good for somebody in Hampshire. But, if you want a new tandem, JD Tandems in Gargrave, in the Yorkshire Dales, are brilliant and people come to them from all over the country.
They’ll give you a lot of personal support, you can ride their tandems in the lovely countryside around their shop and they have a good choice of demonstrators.
Alternatively join the tandem club and advertise in the ‘Tandems Wanted’ section of their magazine and through your local Tandem Club group. You often see really nice older tandems for sale at good prices but you do need to get a good one, especially for two big men.
If the charity ride includes big hills, there are some in France, you’ll need to pay special attention to the brakes, so with a second hand tandem, get it checked over by a specialist shop and be prepared to fit new or additional brakes. Tandems go very fast down hills, twice the weight but the same wind resistance as a solo, and you only have the same amount of brakes so they can get very hot. We have disk brakes but we’ve added a Vee brake on the front wheel for security. Quite a lot of tandems have a drum brake which won’t stop the bike but acts as a ‘drag brake’ on hills to keep the speed down and help the main brakes.
27th March 2014 at 1:37 pm #
Hi Chris, thank you very much for all the info. I have been in touch with JD Tandems and they have been very helpful and provide an excellent delivery service, but I will begin my search for a very good condition tandem first and take your advice on the tandem club. They will be touching The Alps as the trip ends in Monte Carlo and so all your info on brakes etc is very valuable. My husband has cycled The Alps before but only as a single cyclist. Your comments have been a great help, thank you…
28th April 2014 at 11:57 am #
Whilst researching tandem riding with my blind boyfriend I cam across your top ten tips and laughed out loud at the ‘mother’ comment..and the others really cheered up my Monday morning-I ended up spending FAR too long ready around it all when I should be working! We are determined to get out there somehow so all this info is SO much appreciated. My son inspired us by cycling to India on his own at 19 (www.englandtoindia.co.uk) and he’s full of tips, but not tandem ones! Does anyone know of a group of adventurous ‘tandemmers’ that we could join up with?!!
29th April 2014 at 10:22 pm #
Hi Ali, I’m assuming you are in the UK? You could join the Tandem Club who have local groups in many parts of the country, or just look around for local cycling organisations, Cyclists Touring Club have lots of local branches with regular rides, your local cycle campaign group may organise social rides. Here in Sheffield we have the wonderful monthly Friday Night Rides and Cycle Sheffield organise other events, like a 5 day coast to coast ride on the Way of the Roses next week.
23rd June 2014 at 12:54 am #
My husband and bought a used Santana tandem last year and are now planning a tour from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, to the Eastern Townships in Quebec. It will take use four days of cycling about 90 kilometers a day. Nice to hear avout other tandem cyclists’ experiences!
8th July 2014 at 6:29 pm #
Heidi, can-you be a little more specific? Do-you have a specific route in mind already? Will-you be camping? Are-you looking into route info/suggestions?
The Eastern townships are one of our favorite playgrounds. Most of the southern part of the Eastern Townships is fairly hilly but how beautiful!
21st June 2015 at 8:52 pm #
I loved this article – so funny and so true!
Myself and my partner are currently tandeming around Europe, I have actually copied and pasted the “dos and don’ts” to show him when I get back to our tent – specifically – Do not question the stoker’s pedalling efforts!!
Thanks for this article
19th November 2015 at 8:48 am #
Hi Chris & Janys,
A lovely piece. and funny too! 🙂 … as I’ll be piloting a tandem bike with a visually-challenged stoker, your tip no. 8 won’t be much help to my stoker … but I need to talk a lot to describe the scenery to the stoker! (while huffing and puffing)
I’m in Malaysia, a volunteer with the Malaysian Association for the Blinds, and we’ll be riding 15++ tandems from Kuala Lumpur to the National Forest Reserve in Temerloh, Pahang for a distance of 360++km in 2 days time. We have been practising every weekends (Saturday and Sunday).
Thank you for the article. Wish us luck too! Cheers! 🙂
15th December 2015 at 10:53 pm #
Great to hear of this story and as the designer of the Dawes Tandem range in aluminium taking the company Dawes the great leap of faith from their 531 steel line up to aluminium with the advantages of increasing the distance between the two riders and increased frame rigidity. The wheels did get better but you cannot beat hand-built tandem wheels!
One piece of advice I always give after racking up over 35 years of designing, building and riding tandems is “keep riding, keep smiling”
29th November 2016 at 10:42 am #
Thank you for designing Florence – what a beautiful machine!
30th May 2016 at 4:08 am #
hired a Tandem in Fuerteventura for three days to find out !
Within the first day my Stoker had a 12 inch gash on her leg , when she got it
trapped in the chain !
Don’t understand that there arn’t any chainguard ‘s
So avoid changing down on a steep hill climb !
24th July 2017 at 5:00 am #
Hello tandem riders! We’re planning a trip from Nice to Aix-en-Provence on a coupled tandem that we are bringing in two boxes on the plane. First thing will be to find a bike shop in Nice to reassemble the bike. Any suggestions?
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