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10 Tips For Touring On A Tandem Bicycle

April 6th, 2011 24 comments


bavay france roman remains tandem touringIn 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.

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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.

Tandem in the south of France

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.

janyis and tandem at the river nr ceske krumlov, Czech Republic

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.

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21 Responses to “10 Tips For Touring On A Tandem Bicycle”

  1. Nico Veenkamp says:

    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 ;-)

  2. 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.

    Ooops

  3. steve Batchelor says:

    We are cycling to Suffolk a trip of 102 miles we hope to do 50 miles a day is that achievable

    • Chris says:

      Hi
      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 :-)

  4. Robert + Wendy Garthwaite says:

    Hi Steve,
    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

  5. Adam Rimmer says:

    Hi,
    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.
    Thanks Adam

  6. Jean Flamand says:

    Hi !

    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 !

  7. Chris says:

    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.

    • Chris says:

      We wanted to take a Pino on our tour. Sadly they cost a tad more than our Dawes Sardar 2.

      • Chris Rust says:

        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.

  8. I laughed from the beginning to the end of your 10 tips for riding a tandem.
    Thank You, you guys made my week!
    Dennis Struck

  9. Mariana says:

    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.

  10. Scott says:

    We are embarking on a tandem tour soon. Thank you for your suggestions and insight.

  11. Tim says:

    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.

  12. Patrick Laniel says:

    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…

  13. Loraine says:

    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….

    • Adam says:

      Hi loraine,
      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??

      • Loraine Williams says:

        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….

    • chrisrust says:

      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.

      • Loraine Williams says:

        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…

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