tandem biking

The Art of Tandem Biking on a Bicycle Made for Two

by Tim
tandem biking

Leaving your surprised partner still standing in the car park as we, well actually only me, a tandem and an empty seat, pulled away was not the best start to our day of tandem adventuring! This little incident was a little preview of what was to follow.

One of the most enjoyable challenges we experienced last year was heading out on a tandem biking adventure. It is so much fun, give it a go, however you cannot just hop on and pedal off as we soon found. There are some important little lessons to be learnt.

Two Hearts Powering Two Wheels

It is a great way to ride out as a couple, enjoy the scenery, chat, laugh a lot and be together. Two hearts powering two wheels, tandem biking is a great idea for a romantic date for keen cyclists, but maybe not as a first date.

We are both keen, experienced cyclists but neither of us had ever ridden out on a tandem bike before. It was a steep learning curve and we had to work it out for ourselves. Learning by our mistakes was hilarious at times and I was awarded ‘Idiot Boy’ status on several occasions.

It seems there are a few aspects to riding and navigating a tandem bike that would have been quite handy to know before we set off. Learning can be a lot of fun.

Twice last year we hired out a tandem bike, once whilst staying in the Loire region in France and later as my birthday present on a damp September Saturday in the Sussex countryside. Both were great days out providing amusing sights for the locals, thrills, spills and adventures enjoyed together.

The Tandem Bike – What is Different?

A tandem bike is heavier, longer, it has two seats, two sets of handle bars (only one does the steering), and one set of brakes typically. They can be considerably faster than a single bike as they have twice the pedalling power but only single aero dynamic resistance. Riding a tandem bike is not difficult it is just different and a few ground rules need to be established. Both riders will be required to spin the pedals at the same time. The key to enjoying a riding a tandem bike is good communication, trusting each other, cruising along, taking in the scenery and sharing the experience.

Here are a few of the mistakes we made and learnt even before we set off on our tandem and there-after:

Tandem Biking For Starters – Setting Off

  1. Don’t pull off before you partner is sitting firmly in the saddle (not standing!) and holding the handle bars or you will leave your other half behind still standing laughing in the middle of the car park as you pull away.
  2. Make sure your partners feet are firmly on the pedals – Agree which pedal you will both lead off with. Make sure your partner’s feet are on the pedals too or you turning the pedals smacking their calves firmly or at best just leave them with their feet still in the air as they cannot get their feet back onto the pedals – laughing again or shouting out in pain.
  3. Do not set off with both of you sat in your respective saddles – If you are on the flat you are pretty much guaranteed to not get enough power or required speed to get going and you probably will just wobble, slewing from side to side and probably just stop again from laughing too much!
  4. Do not start with your main leading pedals at 12 o’clock – similar wobbly results as above, try to make sure your lead pedal is in front of your knee ready for the downward push away to maximise power and pick up speed quicker
  5. Do not set off without letting your partner know, guaranteed fail – Try a countdown, 3-2-1 or ready steady go or just anything you agree to but agree something or more feet in air and bashed calves! Commit together.
  6. Do not go for consensus it only serves to confuse – the tandem pilot is the leader and makes the key decisions, calling the shots with clear instruction and positivity.

After 10 minutes we are still in the car park busy being much amused, discussing tactics and agreeing on some key fundamentals to get this thing going. At this rate this is going to be a very long day and we have some 40 miles to cover where our hire bike is being picked up later in the day.

After a number of further wobbles, some little scrapes on our shins and attracting some sympathetic smiles from a few hikers we are both up and running. This however opened new challenges and interesting moments in our new world in the art of tandem biking.

Up & Running – How to Climb Hills, Stop & No Pedalling Cruising

  1. Do not just stop pedalling randomly without letting your partner know – They are pedalling away furiously not expecting you to just stop pedalling, so now it your turn for bashed ankles and calves. Call out something like ‘stop pedalling’ or ‘slowing down’ or some other agreeable term in advance of doing so.
  2. Let you partner know behind you of rough terrain ahead, bumps before you hit them and any swerving beforehand! – This can lead to something similar as pressing the ejector seat button or lead them to lose the pedals, wobble about a lot making the bike very hard to handle and manoeuvre.
  3. Do let you partner know of any hills coming up and downshifting of gears before you hit the hill – If not, then not a lot really happens except the bike comes to bit of faltering and foolish halt without the right momentum. As you may well need to get some power on the pedals before heading up an incline, small ramp or steep hill, message backwards of your intention and do so together. This way you do stand a chance of making it up to the top.
  4. It is a good idea to let your partner know you are going to stand up on the pedals uphill – It may be natural to stand up in your pedals on your normal road bike but not on a tandem. Possible results maybe lead a very unstable rear passenger, bike losing complete momentum or just slipping off the pedals. All lead to abuse from your partner.
  5. Don’t just brake or stop without some form of communication of your plan – This is a really good idea as braking and slowing down becomes much harder or you may just sail straight through the red light or junction, luckily the French are so tolerant of cyclists!
  6. Tandems do not turn on a sixpence, give a corner more space and factor in a greater turning circle– it is just like riding a bike, er, no it is not and with the turning circle of a small ship you cannot just turn around with ease or cut around a corner quickly. You will end up leaving your other half in a bush, (sorry Sharon!) or just running out of road and abrupt braking required which is just embarrassing sometimes when in traffic.
  7. Not a great idea to speed downhill – More abuse and shouts of ‘Slow Down’ will follow. Be considerate of your partner who does not have brakes and cannot see the road ahead too clearly. Shouting back ‘you will be fine’ with a smile on your face does not help much either.
  8. Click out of your pedals before you stop – This can cause much mirth and embarrassment as there is only one way this ends – badly!
  9. Do not assume that you other half and co-pilot knows what you are thinking – Communicate your intentions! Spontaneity is not a friend of tandem riding.

Communication is the Key to a Good Relationship on a Tandem Bike

Where have I heard that before? Once you realise that if you are at the front of the bike, very simply you are the leader, you can see where you are going and what lies ahead and makes the key decisions. Do not assume that your other half and co-pilot knows what you are thinking. Think aloud, communicate and let them know your intentions in advance, this all helps considerably and makes this tandem biking actually quite easy and a whole lot of fun.

Once we had established some ground rules, starting to communicate effectively we got to grips with this tandem cycling together and were starting to look like seasoned pros. With this, riding on a tandem felt we were kings of the road, cool cats looking good and we attracted some attention and comments from other bike riders, amusing anecdotes from pedestrians and of course the expected, ‘she is not pedalling’!

Co-Pilot Duties

Whilst it seems that all the most important duties and responsibilities are that of the leader there are a number of key tasks that the ‘passenger’ and co-pilot can do:

  1. Do not wriggle, move around dramatically or tense up too much – this can affects the ease of bike handling and can lead to sudden swerving across the path or road
  2. Provide Handy Navigation – Bit of map reading and calling out clear instructions to which way to go, whatever you do not question their judgement or decisions!
  3. Attach a map to pilots back – It is a good idea to attach the map to the rucksack of the front person so they can see the route at all times.
  4. Offer & provide snacks, Jelly Babies etc. – hand over key fuel and health snacks to the Pilot
  5. Chief Photographer – good position to take some great photos on level terrain
  6. In charge of coffee or beer stops – Spot and call out great little places to stop off for refreshment or little local beauty spots
  7. Apologise to the locals – for errors made by the pilot!

Since starting writing this I have been advised that on a tandem bike the riders are normally called ‘The Captain’ (rider on the front) and ‘Stoker’ (rear rider). My apologies to tandem biking officialdom but we are only beginners but we will be doing it again now somewhat the wiser.

If you have never been out tandem biking, do it and enjoy a great day out. Hopefully this will help you not make all the mistakes I did when we hired our tandem bike out in France.

For our Sussex countryside tandem biking adventure we hired our tandem bike from Southwater Cycles near Billingshurst. They will give you advice before you head out.

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