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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why Tandem?


I always enjoy the chance to tell the story of how I used a tandem to snare Fear Rothar. We were both participating in a cross-USA bike tour on single bikes, but due to our speed difference, we rarely saw each other on the road.

We had met a year before when Fear Rothar came from Ireland to do BMB in 1992. We had emailed occasionally, and he was the first person I told when I decided to do PAC Tour the next year.  I really didn't remember that he had previously told me of the same plans. Whether it was fate or accident, or some plan on my sub-conscious' part, we ended up on the same trip.

His roommate and my roommate were friends and the three of them ended up riding together lots. But they were fast, and I was a middle of the pack rider. We figured out later that apparently my roommate was clueless, as I talked about that cute Irishman she was riding with, and he kept suggesting she get me to join them for dinner, but she just didn't make the connection.

Fortunately the organizers (Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo) had brought along a few tandems. They even put up with fanbois requests from participants to ride. It was an absolute thrill for me to get to stoke for Pete Penseyres one day early in the trip. I looked at the routes and terrain and plotted to ask Lon Haldeman for a chance to stoke with him on a nice rolling day in Wisconsin, where I knew the tandem would be a great advantage. And I had such a great time that morning that I didn't want to give up the big bike and asked Lon if I could use it as bait - uh I mean - if I could get Fear Rothar to captain for me, if I could keep the tandem for the afternoon. Having ridden with Fear Rothar himself, Lon had confidence enough in his bike handling skills to hand over this very nice custom made tandem.

I approached Fear Rothar at lunch with the suggestion. He was a bit hesitant at first, having had a hard ride that morning, but warmed to the idea. Various folks started to offer him tips for tandeming, but I said to let me. I'd done this before. I used to show up on club rides with my own tandem, and troll for captains. Captains are actually pretty easy to find and train. Stoking takes all the talent, since you have to give up control and not steer.

I had him do a quick spin around the parking lot without me. I simply told him it was like riding a loaded touring bike (I knew he had toured), but the luggage contributes. Then we headed out of the lot, down a long hill, around a right hand bend, where he leaned so hard I practically scraped my elbow! OK, not literally, but it felt like a good hard lean. Then we headed up the next climb. Oh yes we were still in that rolling terrain of Wisconsin, so we had plenty of hills. I caught my breath and then asked if he leaned his touring bike that hard. He said, "Yes"...  OK... We stood on the next climb and had the most wonderful afternoon riding along and chatting. A few days later, we borrowed the tandem again and at the end of that ride, we planned our first dinner-date together.

After the trip, he headed back to Ireland, but a few months later, I showed up in Dublin with a tandem, and we toured for a week. It wasn't long after that I lured him back to the US, to become my regular tandem partner.

Aw, aren't tandems romantic?

They can also be lots of fun and really fast too. One of the things I love most about tandeming is speed. We absolutely fly down hills, and on the flats and especially on rolling terrain, where momentum means you can fly up little rollers. Climbing is considered to be more difficult, but a well coordinated tandem team can climb amazingly well.

Our experience is that the tandem averages out our climbing speeds. So on a pure hillclimb, our time will be about half way between the times we'd post individually. For rolling terrain, we get a great advantage from momentum and the extra power, and can at times fly along much faster than Fear Rothar would alone.


Touring is also nice on the tandem, since the extra weight is much less noticeable on the tandem than on single bikes. There is also half the carrying capacity, so ultimately we actually pack lighter than we might on single bikes. The disadvantage is not having a moving model for photos. Unless we are traveling with friends, our photos usually have one or the other holding up the tandem. When we ride single bikes, we can at least get shots of each other on the move!

But with the tandem, neither is ever left waiting for the other or struggling to catch the other. Despite our differences in speed and power, we ride along together, talking and having fun.

We aren't exclusively tandem riders. And even on the tandem, we occasionally swap partners. A couple of years ago I handed over stoking duties to Kristen Gohr so they could set the Mt Washington record.

We do lots of single bike riding as well, and our two big trips last year were actually on single bikes. After years of touring on the tandem, thanks to ease of travel with couplers, we finally got coupled singles. 

We tend to use the tandem for really cold rides. Since one can work as hard or easy as one chooses, and still be together, it is easier to stay warm in bitter conditions when riding the tandem. I also get a nice windscreen! We also like to take then tandem if a suggestion is made that it's not a good tandem ride - just to prove folks wrong. We put together a team of three tandems for the Rapha East Northeast Gentleman's Race in 2011, and showed them exactly what a group of strong well-coordinated tandems can do.

Tandems aren't for everyone. You have to want to ride and work together. You have to totally trust each other. You have to willing to give and take. But if you do, there is such an amazing reward. 

There are lots more tips for tandem riding in this article on our website.

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