Columbus, OH USA

Pedal Pusher
October 2007
by Greg Knepp

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One bike, three legs and 100 miles

Greg and daughter, Roxanne, double-time it down the road.
PHOTO Rick Borgia

Some years back my cycling pal, Bill Kiener (aka Mr. Doo Dah) and I were both hampered by ailments which, while relatively minor, seemed debilitating enough to prevent us from participating in the annual TOSRV. The springtime event, as you may know, is a rather rigorous two-day bicycle trip to Portsmouth and back – over 200 miles in all. Bill and I had taken this trip before, but Bill, with a bum knee, and I, suffering an arthritic right arm, felt it better to sit out this season’s tour.

Then it occurred to me, why not take my tandem? I figured that, while no one could expect Bill to ride a single bike with only one useful leg, and any great distance would be impossible for me to negotiate with a throbbing arm, perhaps the two of us could combine our remaining good limbs to propel a tandem bicycle some considerable distance.

And so it went. Out of caution, we decided to cut the trip in half by trucking to Chillicothe. Once there, I oiled up my Trek Tandem and off we rode. Bill and I set no speed records, but we arrived in Portsmouth that evening in good order, and Bill had had the good sense to reserve a room in a downtown hotel well in advance. As I remember, we ate a pile of barbequed ribs at the hotel restaurant, slept soundly, and pedaled back to Chillicothe the next day. It was a terrific trip with nary an ache nor pain.

The lesson is clear: for two cyclists headed for the same destination, a tandem is often superior to two single bikes. Let’s consider the physics: a tandem carries twice the number of riders as a single bike, but weighs only one-and-a-half times as much. It also has about the same rolling resistance since, like a single, a tandem has only two wheels. The real advantage, though, is in the critical area of wind resistance. The front rider drafts the rear rider. Twice the leg power, half the headwind – no wonder a couple of middle-aged lardasses like Bill and I made it to Portsmouth and back on only 75 percent of our normal power!

Tandems have vacillated in and out of popularity since the late 19th century. Initially, they offered suitable transportation for young couples – economical alternatives to carriages, then automobiles. As the 20th century progressed, however, they became relegated to the status of recreational vehicles at best, amusing boardwalk diversions at worst. But demand for good tandems began to re-emerge in the late ‘60s as the U.S. bike boom commenced. Schwinn and a few small British companies filled some of this demand. The ‘70s witnessed the establishment of a handful of adventuresome U.S. companies that built tandems either exclusively or as their primary product. (The inability of mainline cycling manufacturers to construct serviceable tandems on a consistent and profitable basis is an interesting side story, involving the difficulty of adjusting to the special dynamic of short-run manufacturing as well as the unique engineering problems presented by tandem design as compared to single bicycle design.)

The trend peaked in the mid-‘90s. Tandem clubs blossomed in almost every state. Demand for tandems – though never exceeding 12,000 units annually – outstripped supply; there was even a glossy journal published out of Eugene, Oregon, called Tandem and Family Cycling (I wrote a number of articles for this magazine until its demise in 2000). Oddly, tandeming became a pursuit of more mature folks. At a tandem rally one was more likely to encounter cyclists in their 50s and 60s than in any other age group. Expensive tandems, rather than “entry level” models, became the norm. In 1999 the best selling model was the Santana Sovereign – at $4,000 per! A true tandem sub-culture emerged, creating its own inane jargon: the front rider was dubbed “captain,” the rear rider “stoker,” the tandem itself was called a “rig” and so on ad nauseam.
The trend crested, but tandeming continues to be a vital part of the cycling scene, bolstered by a fully developed manufacturing base. The reason is simple: tandems are fast, fun and a great way for two people to enjoy a trip together. I must report that I have never met a cyclist who regretted purchasing a tandem.

Question: Why are tandems so damned pricey?

Answer: Most quality tandems are made in short production runs, using specially made tandem-specific parts. A fair amount of hand-crafting is involved, and labor costs are exacerbated by the fact that tandems are primarily made in the U.S. Still, a serviceable touring model may be purchased for as little as $1,800 from companies such as Burley or Cannondale.

Question: How long will it take for a couple to learn how to ride a tandem?

Answer: Experienced cyclists should be able to ride right away, but it’s always good to get some early practice runs on traffic-free surfaces – empty parking lots and the like. Also, don’t worry about riding without a partner; because of its long wheel base, a tandem is quite stable, especially at high speeds, and can easily be ridden by one person.
Question: What should I know before purchasing a tandem?

Answer: Know what kind of riding you want to do. If you enjoy off-road cycling, stick to your single bike. There are off-road tandems on the market, but the very characteristics that make tandems so proficient on the road make them clumsy and even dangerous in the rough. Decent town tandems start at about a grand and will be fine for local recreational and transportation riding. But a tandem never shines so brightly as when it’s on the open road. Fast touring is the tandem’s unchallenged domain, so you might want to consider a touring machine over all other types. A strong tandem team on the right mount can cover 200 miles in a single day. (Bill and I don’t qualify.) A cautionary note: No matter what kind of tandem you purchase, make sure it’s equipped with a disc brake or an auxiliary drum brake. Rim brakes won’t stop a tandem speeding down hill at 40 mph. Take heed, and happy cycling!

Greg Knepp is a Short North cyclist


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