A Couple’s Guide to Pedaling in Tandem

This story originally appeared in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice online edition on September 22, 2013.

You’ve probably seen that unhappy couple on the bike path or on the road. They start off together and within seconds, one partner has zoomed ahead while the other struggles to keep up or gets left far behind. It doesn’t have to be that way. On a two-person tandem bicycle, a couple that rides at different speeds on individual bikes can stay together and chat easily for the whole ride.

Riding a tandem requires teamwork, though. The front rider (captain) does all the steering and braking, which means earning and keeping the trust of the rear rider (stoker). For most tandem bikes, the riders must pedal in synch at the same rate, which means compromise. When teamwork fails, the two-wheeled romance of a tandem can turn sour, earning tandems the harsh nickname “divorce machines.” A popular adage goes “Whichever way your relationship is going, a tandem will get you there faster.” How a couple rides a tandem together both reflects and intensifies their relationship, for better or for worse.

My husband and I bought a tandem as a wedding gift to ourselves. Our plan to ride it away from our wedding was far from unique, although our route for the post-wedding procession was a long twisty descent down Mt Hamilton. An epic windstorm kept us from riding that day, but we do take the big beast out from time to time and have mastered the necessary skills: how to start without wobbling, how to turn at slow speeds, how to stand on the bike to get over a rise, and most importantly, how to communicate and work effectively as a team. Well, 97% of the time anyway.

The usual advice on tandem success tells the stoker to “trust the captain” and tells the captain that “the stoker is always right.” To me, that advice falls short. The truth is that it’s all about consideration. The captain has to earn the confidence of the stoker to be an effective leader, and that only happens when the stoker believes his or her requests will be respected by the captain. Both partners need to be willing to follow.

In short, successful tandem teams are successful partnerships, which is what successful marriages are. I’m not an expert on tandems or marriages or even partnerships, but I’ve done 50+ mile rides in both the captain’s and stoker’s seat. I’ve finished every ride on good terms with my partners and learned a few things in the process.

Here are a few things I’ve learned as a captain:

  • Talk, talk, talk about what you’re about to do, especially with a new stoker. “I’m shifting”, “Coasting now,” “Bump ahead,” “Turning left,” “Standing.”
  • Encourage feedback from your stoker. “Is this gear comfortable?” “Was the speed OK on that downhill?”
  • Apologize if you make a mistake or do something your stoker isn’t comfortable with.
  • The turning radius and stopping distance required are much larger than you might expect.

Here are a few things I’ve learned as a stoker:

  • Be patient when the captain does something you don’t like. He or she wasn’t doing it to make you mad.
  • Be gentle when you ask the captain to do something differently. Lighthearted humor goes a long way.
  • Not having to steer gives you freedom to take photos, eat, stretch, etc. Just don’t wiggle too much.
  • For a quick power boost, you can stand and pedal while the captain stays seated. Just don’t rock the bike.

These tips are just a start. There’s a lot more specific advice on riding a tandem out there, but honestly the best way is to hop on, give it a whirl and work out the rough spots on the road. You’ll definitely learn a thing or two about yourself, your partner and your relationship, for better or for worse. And you can always ditch the bike.

By the way, tandems are not just for couples, they’re also a good option for parents and kids. They allow the parent to maintain safe control of the bike and the kid to still be an active participant. They’re great for school drop-off routes that have more challenging roads along the way, and you won’t need to leave a kid’s bike at school. They make three-person triple tandems too. I spotted a father with two empty seats and two child helmets dangling off the handlebars on Middlefield Road one morning during school drop-off time.

How to Get Started

Rent a Tandem. If you and your partner have never ridden a tandem before, it’s a good idea to try it out before making an expensive commitment. If you can’t borrow one from a friend, you can rent a tandem in San Francisco from most of the bike rental companies catering to tourists. Most offer upright “comfort” tandems. Blazing Saddles also offers light-weight road tandems, a triple tandem and one that puts the child in front.

Wherever you rent the bike, walk the bike to a calm, less congested area before you hop on. You’ll probably be wobbly at first and you don’t want to hurt yourselves or terrorize the people around you. You may find it easier to ride in Golden Gate Park during its Sunday road closures than in the busier Fisherman’s Wharf area.

Buy a Tandem. As a specialty item, only a select few bike shops carry tandems. Walt’s Bicycles in Sunnyvale offers both new and used tandems, including a lovely vintage Schwinn tandem. The Bicycle Outfitter in Los Altos sells more performance-oriented tandems, from road race worthy ones to ones designed for child-sized stokers. Both shops will let you test ride their tandems. The Bicycle Outfitter also offers daily rentals of two of their bikes. Finally, there’s a small but steady market for used tandems. After all, not all tandem bicycle partnerships work out.

Have you ever ridden a tandem? If so, what were the biggest challenges? If not, would you consider it?

Tandem Legs

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