Tandem bikes are a unique option for couples, families, and close friends who enjoy cycling together. They work great for bicycle touring as well as recreational riding. Tandems are fast, efficient, and fun to ride. Of course, there are some disadvantages as well. This guide lists the pros and cons of riding a tandem bike vs two bikes. We’ll cover ride quality, speed, efficiency, safety, the ride experience, and much more.
This guide focuses mostly on tandem bike touring but many of the main points apply to other types of cycling as well. Hopefully, this guide helps you decide whether or not a tandem is right for you and your cycling partner.
What is a Tandem Bike?
A Tandem is a bicycle that is designed to be ridden by more than one person. Most tandem bikes are designed for two people. The word tandem defines the seating position rather than the number of riders. On at tandem, one rider sits in front of the other. A tandem bike can also be called a twin or a bicycle built for two.
Standard tandem bicycles have one set of shifters and brakes and two wheels. There are two sets of handlebars. The front handlebars steer the bike while the rear handlebars are fixed in place. There are two sets of cranks which are linked with a timing chain so they turn at the same rate. Both riders pedal. The front rider is called the captain. The rear rider is called the stoker. Each rider has their own responsibilities.
The Captain (Front Rider)
The captain is responsible for controlling the bike. This includes steering, braking, and shifting. The captain must also keep the bike balanced while moving and while stopped. In addition, the captain is responsible for notifying the stoker of their actions by calling out commands. The captain must also ride in a predictable manner. They also pedal with the stoker.
Because the captain has more responsibilities, they should be the more experienced of the two cyclists. A good captain must have good judgment in order to safely steer and control the bike. Ideally, the captain should also be the larger and stronger of the two riders. The reason is that a larger captain can more easily balance and manhandle the bike to keep it upright. When just starting out, it takes quite a bit of upper body strength to control a tandem. They are heavy. It is not a requirement that the captain be the larger rider. The smaller rider can act as captain as well.
In addition to controlling the bike, the captain must keep the stoker feeling safe, comfortable, happy, and informed. This involves a lot of communication. For example, the captain must notify the stoker of bumps in the road because the stoker can’t see the road ahead. The captain must also call out shifts so the stoker can anticipate a change in cadence. It can also be helpful for the captain to notify the stoker of turns, braking, coasting, etc. Most tandem pairs develop commands for each action.
The captain must also listen to the stoker’s feedback and stop, coast, or slow down when the stoker wants. This is important because the stoker is putting a lot of confidence in the skills of the captain. They must feel safe and comfortable. Over time, less communication is required because the riders learn each other’s styles and become more trusting of one another. The captain is sometimes called the pilot or steersman.
The Stoker (Rear Rider)
The stoker has their own set of responsibilities. Their main job is to provide power. Because the stoker doesn’t have to worry about steering, shifting, or braking, they should be able to produce more power than they would on a regular single bike. Depending on the stoker’s cycling ability and the team’s technique, the stoker may provide a steady output of power or they may conserve energy so they can provide additional assistance during climbs. The stoker is particularly important when starting out from a stop. They should be able to provide a smooth output of power to get the bike up to speed quickly so the captain can control the bike.
The second job of the stoker is to control their body weight in a predictable manner. They should try to hold steady with their bodyweight aligned with the centerline of the bike. The stoker also needs to lean with the bike into turns. The stoker should never try to steer by leaning the bike on their own. They should also avoid shaking the bike or shifting their weight suddenly. A sudden shift of the stoker’s weight makes it more difficult for the captain to control the bike. It could even cause the captain to lose control and crash. While the captain is navigating a difficult section of road, the stoker should take extra care to behave predictably. For example, the stoker should not try to reach their water bottle, stand up, or distract the captain while the captain is dealing with a traffic situation.
Depending on the team, the stoker may also be responsible for other tasks including reading maps and navigation, taking photos, supplying the captain with food and drinks, entertainment, and other small jobs that can be done while riding.
The stoker must also put their trust in the captain’s ability. They also need to communicate with the captain. For example, the stoker must tell the captain if they want to slow down, stop, change gears, etc. The stoker is sometimes called the rear admiral or navigator.
Tandem Bike Touring Pros
Touring on a tandem offers a number of unique advantages over riding two separate bikes. In this section, I’ll outline some of the most significant benefits that tandem bikes offer.
Tandems require less maintenance than two separate bikes
Tandems require less maintenance because they have fewer parts than two separate bikes. For example, a tandem only has two wheels and tires, one set of brakes, one set of derailleurs, one set of cables, one headset, and one cassette. If you were to ride two separate bikes, you’d twice as many of each of those parts to maintain.
Because a tandem has fewer parts you’ll spend less time doing maintenance. There are fewer parts that can fail and need to be repaired or replaced. For example, because there are two tires instead of 4, the likelihood of getting a flat is lower. Chances are, you’ll spend less time patching tubes when you ride a tandem.
One exception is the chains. Tandem bikes have two separate chains that must be maintained. There is a drive chain that connects the rear chainrings to the cassette. There is also a second timing chain that connects the two sets of cranks with chainwheels. You’ll have to keep both chains cleaned and properly tensioned to keep the bike running smoothly.
Tandem bikes are faster
On average, you’ll ride around 10%-30% faster on a tandem than on a regular bike. Tandems are significantly faster while riding down hills, through flat sections, and into headwinds. In these conditions, riding a tandem can be up to 50% faster than riding two separate bikes. Many riders find that they average around 1-2mph faster on a tandem. In ideal conditions, you might be able to cruise at speeds of up to 20mph (32kph). On downhills, tandems can reach speeds in excess of 60mph. While riding uphill, the speed difference is less significant. Your speed will depend on the terrain, wind, weight of the tandem and riders, rider experience, and a number of other factors.
There are a number of reasons that tandems are faster than solo bikes. Most importantly, two riders can create twice as much pedaling power as one rider. A tandem bike is also significantly lighter than two bikes. This means the power to weight ratio is higher. Tandems also create less wind resistance than two bikes because they are more aerodynamic. The rear rider is essentially drafting behind the front. The added weight of a second rider, allows tandems to speed down hills much faster. Gravity pulls the more massive bike downhill faster. Because there are two wheels, tandem bikes have less rolling resistance. You can also stop less frequently when riding a tandem. This is possible because the rear rider can navigate while riding. You don’t have to stop to look at a map.
All of this allows you to maintain a higher average speed while riding a tandem. You’ll cover more ground more quickly than you could on single bikes. If you’re touring, you can cover more miles per day. To read more about why tandem bikes are faster, check out this interesting article.
A tandem bike is lighter than two separate bikes
An average touring tandem weighs around 45 lbs (around 20 kg). To compare, a touring bike weighs around 30 lbs (around 14 kg). That means a tandem will weigh around 15 lbs (6.8 kg) less than two separate bikes (45 lb tandem vs 60 lb for two bikes). The lightest road tandems weigh in at just 22lbs (10 kg). That’s just 11 lbs or 5kg per person. That’s lighter than the most ultralight road bike. Tandems are lighter because they only have one set of wheels, brakes, derailleurs, etc.
If you’re touring, you’ll also save weight by carrying less gear. On a tandem, you can get away with fewer spare parts. You don’t have to carry as many spare tires, tubes, spokes, cables, and brake pads. This will save 4-8 lbs (1.8-3.6 kg).
Touring on a tandem forces you to pack light as well. The reason is that a tandem can carry fewer panniers. You’ll only have space for 4 panniers on a tandem as opposed to 8 with two separate bikes. This further reduces weight. All in, a fully loaded touring tandem will weigh around 20-30lbs (9-13 kg) less than two fully loaded touring bikes.
The benefit of riding a lighter bike is that it takes less energy to accelerate, climb hills, and maintain your speed because you’re moving less mass around. This increases your efficiency. The increased efficiency allows you to ride further while burning less energy. You can cover more miles in a day on a tandem.
You can talk with your partner while riding
Cycling is generally a pretty solitary experience. While riding a tandem, your partner is always right behind you or in front of you. There is always someone for you to talk to and share the experience with. For example, maybe you spot a beautiful view or maybe an interesting thought just pops into your head that you want to share. It’s nice to have someone to share thoughts and experiences with.
Another benefit is that you can talk to one another in a normal voice without having to yell. You can get into some deep conversations and really get to know one another while riding. This can help to strengthen your relationship. When you’re on two bikes, it’s a bit harder to talk because you’re further apart. You often have to yell to hear each other over traffic and other noises.
Two people of different skill levels can ride a tandem together
When riding a tandem, it doesn’t matter if one rider is stronger, faster, or more experienced than the other. Both riders contribute and enjoy the ride. You can ride as hard or easy as you want. If one rider tires out, the other can supply most of the power. Both riders reach their destination at the same time. This is great for couples who want to cycle together. It’s also great for parents and children. If one person is a cyclist and the other isn’t, both can still enjoy riding together.
Tandems are safer in some situations
When riding a tandem, you are more visible to drivers. This is the case because the bike and two riders is much larger than a single cyclist. Tandems also stand out because they are so uncommon. They draw attention. Drivers will notice you. This lowers the likelihood of getting hit by a vehicle while riding in traffic.
While riding a tandem, you also have two sets of eyes to keep an eye on the road. Both riders can look out for drivers who are about to cut you off and drivers who aren’t paying attention. Both riders can also look out for various obstacles in the road such as trash, potholes, or debris. Of course, the captain is responsible for making sure you don’t hit anything because they control the bike.
When you ride a tandem you are also never alone. There is safety in numbers. You may be less likely to be attacked or bothered by criminals while riding through a dangerous area if you have your partner with you. This brings peace of mind while touring through potentially dangerous regions. Female cyclists, in particular, may appreciate this while riding through certain countries where solo female travel is a struggle.
You arrive at your destination at the same time as your partner
When you ride a tandem, you never need to wait up for your partner or ask them to wait for you. It doesn’t matter if one rider is stronger than the other. Both riders can ride as hard or easy as they want It doesn’t matter because you both arrive at your destination at the same time. There is no competition.
Riding two separate bikes can get annoying if one person is much faster than the other. One person always has to wait around or the other has to rush to keep up. This can get irritating for both riders. Particularly during a long tour.
Riding a tandem is more efficient than riding two separate bikes
There are three main reasons for this. First, is aerodynamics. A tandem is more aerodynamically efficient than to separate bikes because the stoker is always drafting behind the captain. The bike itself is more aerodynamic than two separate bikes. There is less surface area facing into the wind causing drag when you ride a tandem.
Aerodynamics plays a major role in efficiency while cycling. According to this interesting article, “On a flat road, aerodynamic drag is by far the greatest barrier to a cyclist’s speed, accounting for 70 to 90 percent of the resistance felt when pedaling.” The faster you ride, the more aerodynamics matter. At speeds over around 9 mph, aerodynamics becomes an important consideration.
Tandem bikes also create less rolling resistance. The reason is that there are two wheels rolling instead of four. Two wheels create less friction against the ground than 4. There are also fewer hubs and bearings creating resistance. This saves energy.
As outlined earlier, tandem bikes are also significantly lighter than two separate bikes. When touring, you can pack less gear, saving more weight. You could easily cut 20-30 lbs by switching to a tandem. It takes less energy to accelerate and maintain speed when the bike weighs less.
The combination of improved aerodynamics, reduced rolling resistance, and lighter weight allows you to cycle more efficiently on a tandem. This allows you to ride further and faster while burning less energy. While touring, you can cover more miles per day without feeling quite as tired. If you only have a limited amount of time to travel, you can see more when you ride a tandem because you can cover more ground.
The stronger or more experienced rider can carry the weak rider
If one rider is much stronger than the other, the stronger rider can make up for the weaker rider’s shortcoming. This can come in handy while climbing a hill. If one rider tires out before reaching the top, the other can carry the team over the crest. In fact, some tandem teams have an agreement that one rider will ride a bit easier to conserve energy for when it is needed. When the team reaches a hill or needs to speed up, one rider will output extra power.
This can also help when riding through dense city traffic. The more experienced rider can deal with navigating the city safety. This job can be intimidating and stressful for new riders. Particularly while riding through unfamiliar foreign cities with different traffic rules, dense traffic, or dangerous drivers. The experienced cyclist can act as captain. In these situations, the less experienced rider just has to focus on pedaling and keeping balanced.
This can also make maintenance easier for the less experienced rider. If one rider is a more experienced bike mechanic than the other, the more experienced mechanic can maintain the bike while the other rider takes care of other tasks. For example, if you’re touring, one rider can work on the bike while the less experienced rider cooks a meal or sets up camp.
You don’t have to carry as many tools or spare parts
When riding a tandem, you only have to carry spares for one bike instead of two. This means you’re carrying fewer spare tubes, spokes, cables, tires, chains, bolts, etc. You only need one set of bike tools as well. For example, you’ll only need one pump and multi-tool. This saves space and reduces weight. I’d estimate that you’ll save 3-8 lbs this way.
For help putting together a cycling tool kit and packing spare parts, check out my guide to tools and spares.
You can divide up the work of riding
The captain focuses their attention on controlling the bike. They have to steer, shift, and brake. Because the person in the rear doesn’t have to worry about any of that, they can take care of other tasks while riding.
For example, the stoker can look at a map or GPS to help navigate. They can take photos. They can control the music and Bluetooth speaker. Maybe they could even prepare food for lunch. This allows you to make fewer stops, which saves time for both riders. Of course, both riders have to keep pedaling.
While touring, both riders can take care of different tasks while off the bike. As outlined above, one rider can maintain the bike while the other cooks or sets up camp. This saves time and energy for both riders.
Tandem bikes allow those with certain disabilities to cycle
A blind or visually impaired person can ride as a stoker. In the Olympics, blind cyclists compete on tandems as stokers with sighted captains. Those who don’t have the coordination or simply don’t feel comfortable riding alone may also enjoy riding as a stoker. Tandems can also work well for people who suffer from certain mental health conditions that prevent them from riding alone. For example, some forms of anxiety disorder prevent people from cycling on their own. With a tandem, they can ride again.
You motivate each other and feel a sense of accomplishment
Riding a tandem gives you a sense of teamwork. You are working with your partner to accomplish your goal of reaching your destination and getting exercise. People tend to be more productive when working in a team. For example, you’re probably not going to slack off and make your partner do all of the work for you. You can motivate each other to power over the crest of steep hills. You can motivate each other to ride a couple of extra miles when you’re tired.
When you finish with your ride, you feel a sense of accomplishment with your riding partner. This can strengthen your relationship and bring you closer together.
Tandems are great for parents and kids riding together
Tandems allow you to safely introduce your children to cycling at a young age. While acting as captain, the parent can maintain safe control of the bike. This is important for riding in areas with heavy traffic. At the same time, the parent can teach their child about how to safely ride. Kids learn by watching. They also get to actively participate in the ride and get some exercise. In some situations, this may be preferable to pulling your child around in a trailer. You can also take your kids on longer rides with a tandem. You can put in most of the work while they just pedal along.
Tandem bikes are less likely to get stolen
Because they are so rare, most bike thieves won’t want to steal a tandem bike. If they tried to sell it, there is a higher likelihood of getting caught because tandems are recognizable. There are only so many of them on the road, after all. A thief would also be less likely to ride the stolen bike because tandems attract too much attention.
Also, because there are two people riding, one person can stay with the bike at all times. You never have to leave the bike unattended while you go into a store or use the restroom. This further reduces the likelihood of theft.
A tandem bike is a conversation starter
Tandems attract attention. While you ride by, people will honk and smile and wave. Sometimes, friendly people will approach to ask questions about the bike. You’re sure to make some new friends and make people smile when you ride a tandem. Riding a tandem can be a fun experience for you, your riding partner, and random people you encounter while riding.
Tandem Bike Cons
There are a few disadvantages to touring with a tandem instead of two separate bikes. In this section, I’ll outline some of the most significant drawbacks of tandem bikes.
There is a learning curve to riding a tandem
Even if you’ve been cycling for decades, you can’t just hop on a tandem bike with your partner and start riding. It takes a bit of practice to learn how to ride a tandem safely, smoothly, and efficiently. There are several reasons for this.
Because the bike is longer, you have to think about where the rear wheel is going. When making a corner, you have to be careful not to pull the rear wheel over a curb or let it drop off the side of the road into a ditch. You have to stay aware of the longer bike while weaving through traffic or riding through a crowded bike path. Turns feel different as well. Almost like you’re sliding. Making a 3 point turn is also more difficult. The bike can’t just pivot on the spot. If you’re a new captain, it can be helpful to ride around on the tandem alone for a while to get a feel for how it rides and corners. It takes some time to get used to.
Because the bike is heavier with two people on it, the braking distance will be longer. You have to anticipate stops and apply the brakes sooner than you’re used to. You must also brake carefully during long descents to avoid overheating your brakes. The weight of the bike also affects the maneuvering speed. You can’t turn quite as quickly. You must also be extra careful of potholes to avoid wheel damage.
In addition, you must also learn how to keep the bike balanced while riding at low speeds and in stop-and-go traffic. The front and rear riders also have to learn to communicate with one another so they can start pedaling at the same time. One common technique is for the stoker to stay clipped at all times while the captain holds the bike up. When both riders are ready to start moving, the stoker will supply power while the captain keeps the bike balanced and moves their feet on the pedals and clips in. This makes it easier to start moving from a stop and reduces the likelihood of falling over.
While learning to ride a tandem, you’ll also have to develop and use a system of commands with your partner. This can feel awkward at first but you’ll get used to it. It can also be a challenge for the rear rider to get used to trusting the front rider. The ride may feel unstable at first.
As you can see, there is a lot to keep in mind while riding a tandem. Both riders will have to learn some new skills. This can take some time.
Tandem bikes are harder to fly with and transport
This is a problem for those who plan to tour or travel with their tandem bike. Because tandems are so long and heavy, they are difficult to fly with or carry on a bus or train. Some airlines, bus companies, and train lines simply prohibit luggage as large as a tandem bike. Tandems are also difficult to carry with a vehicle. They are too long to fit on a standard bike rack on top of a car.
Flying with a tandem requires more planning than flying with a solo bike. If you want to fly to your touring destination, you may have to call multiple airlines to find one that will take the bike. You may end up spending hours waiting on hold on the phone. You’ll also have to pay oversized luggage fees in most cases. This can cost hundreds of dollars per flight.
The good news is that you usually can find a way to fly with your tandem. You just have to be careful about size and weight restrictions and budget enough for fees. Many airlines have a maximum weight of 32kg for tandem bikes. You’ll always want to be sure to check with the airline before your flight when flying with a tandem. To avoid excessive fees or being turned away, you shouldn’t just show up at the airport.
If you like to use multiple modes of transport while touring, your tandem may cause some headaches. For example, if you want to take a bus or train to the next city instead of cycling, you’ll have to make sure the bus or train can accommodate the large bike. Hitchhiking with a tandem will be nearly impossible as most average sized vehicles can’t accommodate a tandem. In some cases, you may have no option but to ride or hire private transport. Depending on your style of touring, this may be problematic.
One solution is to have S&S couplers installed on your tandem bike. This allows you to break the bike into two or three pieces so it can pack down into two smaller, more manageable bags. The packed bike will have the same dimensions as your wheels. For example, if your bike has 26” wheels, the packed tandem will fit in two 26” x 26” boxes. One rider can carry each. This makes it much easier to fly with your tandem because the boxes will be standard-sized for checked luggage. When packed down, the bike can also fit inside of a car, bus, or train.
The drawback is that S&S couplers are expensive. Having 6 couplers installed costs around $2000 on top of the price of your bike. This would allow you to break the bike into 3 pieces. You can have 2 couplers installed for around $700. This would allow you to break the bike into 2 slightly larger pieces that will fit in a standard bike box. Another drawback is that it takes a good amount of time to pack a tandem for a flight and put it back together. Another option is to ship your bike with a service like bike flights.
The brakes can overheat more easily on a tandem
Due to the weight, tandem bikes build up a lot of speed going down hills. During a long descent, you might have to brake hard and often to shed enough speed to safely descend the hill. When you brake, the friction from the brake pads rubbing against the rim or rotor converts kinetic energy into heat. Because tandem bikes are so heavy, the heat buildup is far greater than on a solo bike. You really have to be careful not to overheat your brakes when riding a tandem.
Excessive heat buildup can cause a rim, tire, or tube to fail if you’re using rim brakes. The most common problem is a blowout. The air inside of the tube heats up and expands until the pressure becomes great enough that the tube and tire fail and blow off the rim. This can damage the rim. It can also cause you to lose control of the bike and crash.
Disc brakes can also overheat and cause the braking force to fade. When the pads overheat, they become soft and can’t produce as much stopping power. If you’re traveling too fast, you might not be able to stop. Hydraulic brake fluid can also overheat if you’re using hydraulic disc brakes. When you let off the brakes, the pressure in the system drops and the fluid can begin to boil. This causes your brakes to stop working completely. If this happens, you could crash and suffer serious injury.
There are a couple of ways to avoid overheating your brakes on a tandem. You can simply stop mid descent and let them cool down. Another option is to install a drum brake in addition to your rim or disc brakes. These do a better job of dissipating heat. They work well on long descents. Many tandems have a drum brake as a kind of an emergency or brake. Another solution is to descend at higher speeds. According to this interesting article, brakes heat up less at speeds above 35mph than below 15mph. Brake hard and less frequently and descend faster.
Tandem bikes are expensive
A decent mid-range tandem costs around $2000-$3000. If you want a custom-made model, you’re looking at spending around $3500-$5000. Custom tandem frames start at around $1500. If you want a high-end tandem with fancy features such as a titanium frame, S&S couplers, hydraulic disc brakes, heavy-duty wheels, an internal gear hub, and all the bells and whistles, you could easily spend over $10,000. In general, tandem bikes are more expensive than two separate bikes.
Tandems are more expensive for a number of reasons. The main one being that they are specialty items. Tandem bikes are hand-made in small numbers. Because demand is lower, they are generally not mass-produced in factories. They are also more complicated to build than regular solo bikes and more materials are required. The frame requires more tubes and welding. There is more engineering involved. It takes more man-hours to build a tandem. Getting S&S couplers installed alone costs around $1000-$2000. All of this adds to the cost.
If you’re on a tight budget, you’re better off buying two separate bikes. You can buy a decent touring bike for $1200-$1500. You’ll probably save $500-$1000 by buying two separate bikes instead of a tandem, depending on the quality of the bikes that you buy. Generally, 2 $1500 bikes will be of similar quality to a $3500 tandem.
Of course, there are some ways to reduce the cost. You could buy a used tandem. You could also buy an entry level tandem. Recreational models are available for around $600-$1200. These lower-end models probably wouldn’t hold up to long distance touring but they work fine for exercise and weekend rides around town.
Wheel problems are more common on tandem bikes
A fully loaded touring tandem with two riders weighs well over 450lbs (200 kg). That amount of weight puts a massive amount of stress on the wheels. Particularly the rear wheel. If you’re not careful, you will run into wheel problems on your tandem. For example, if you ride over rough roads too fast, you can easily break spokes. It’s also easy to crack or bend a rim if you ride off a curb or hit a pothole too hard. If your tire pressure is too low, you can get pinch flats or cause rim damage if you bottom out.
To avoid wheel problems on your tandem, you’ll want to make sure your wheels are properly built from high quality components. Make sure the spokes are properly tensioned. For added strength, you may want to install wheels with extra spokes. Wheels with more spokes are stronger than wheels with fewer spokes. 48 spoke wheels are common on touring tandems that need to handle the weight of riders plus heavy gear. It’s a good idea to carry extra spokes as well in case some break.
Another way to improve wheel strength is to use smaller diameter wheels. 26” wheels are more common on tandem bikes than larger 700c wheels because they are structurally stronger due to the smaller diameter. They are less likely to flex or crack. You’ll also want to make sure that your tires have the proper air pressure in them to avoid bottoming out.
When packing, you should try to reduce the weight on the rear wheel. Try to place heavy items in your front panniers. Some tourists mount larger panniers to the front of their tandem. There is a trade-off to doing this. The bike will be a bit harder to steer due to the extra weight up front. The benefit is that the rear wheel may last longer.
Another way to reduce stress on the rear wheel while touring is to haul your gear in a cargo trailer. This way, the trailer handles the weight of your gear instead of the bike. This may be necessary if you’re riding a mid-range or low-end tandem with cheap wheels. OF course, trailers do complicate your setup a bit. They have their own set of benefits and drawbacks. For more info, check out my panniers vs trailer pros and cons list.
More stopping distance required
It takes a massive amount of braking force to stop a tandem bicycle. The reason is that a tandem with two riders is nearly twice as heavy as a solo bike with one rider. For example, a fully loaded touring tandem with two riders can weigh 450lbs (around 200kg). That’s a lot of weight. Tandems only have two wheels and use the same brakes as solo bikes. For these reasons, your stopping distance will be longer on a tandem. You’ll need to begin braking a bit earlier to stop safely.
To be safe, you want to be sure to have strong brakes installed on your tandem. Disc brakes are preferable because they provide more stopping power than rim brakes. Disc brake rotors have a larger braking surface than rims. You’ll also want to have large rotors. Hydraulic disc brakes can provide more stopping power yet. You may want to consider installing a drum brake to use when descending hills and for emergencies.
For more info on tandem brakes, check out this excellent article from Sheldon Brown.
Tandems have a larger turning radius
Because tandems are longer than solo bikes, they require more space to turn. If you make a wrong turn down a narrow street or bike path, you can’t easily make a u-turn or lift the front wheel and pivot the bike. The rear rider may have to get off the bike while the captain makes a 3 point turn. In some cases, it’s easiest for both riders to just get off the bike, lift it up, and turn it manually. This is a minor inconvenience that you’ll have to deal with once in a while.
You can’t haul as much gear on a tandem
This is important to remember if you plan to use your tandem for bicycle touring. On a tandem, you’re limited to 4 panniers plus a few accessory bags. You need to pack enough food, clothing, and camping gear for 2 people in those bags. You’ll also need to pack your tools and spares. This means you need to pack light. There isn’t space for luxury gear when riding a tandem.
To compare, you can haul 8 panniers when you take two separate bikes. Even when factoring in the extra spare parts you’ll need to pack, that’s almost twice as much luggage capacity. If you like to pack luxury gear, you’re better off with separate bikes.
There are some ways to increase your luggage capacity when riding a tandem. One popular option is to use a cargo trailer. This can effectively double your luggage capacity at the expense of some weight and energy loss. Trailers can haul up to 50-100 lbs of gear in a large dry bag. You can also mount bikepacking style frame bags in your tandem frame for a bit more space.
You must constantly communicate with your riding partner
To effectively and safely ride a tandem bicycle, the captain and stoker must remain in constant communication. For example, the captain has to tell the stoker when they are going to shift, when there is a bump, when they are turning, when they are braking, when they are going to stop pedaling and start coasting, when they need to pedal faster, etc. Pretty much every action requires communication.
The stoker must also communicate with the captain. They must tell the captain if the speed is alright, if the gear is comfortable, if they want to stop pedaling and start coasting, or if they want to stop and take a break, or if they are uncomfortable for any reason.
Both riders should also communicate when the other does something they do not like. For example, if the captain took the bike down a hill too fast and made the stoker feel unsafe, the stoker should speak up. If the stoker stood up to pedal and shook the bike too much, the captain should say so. If the other rider is doing something you don’t like, and you don’t say anything, they will keep doing it. After so many miles, this can get on your nerve and will eventually lead to an argument. This is a common problem for some couples. In fact, tandems are sometimes called ‘divorce bikes.’ To continue riding smoothly and safely, you need to keep communicating.
Maintaining this level of communication can get annoying at times. Sometimes you just want to pedal along in silence. Sometimes you simply forget to communicate something to your partner.
If one rider makes a mistake and causes the bike to crash, you both crash
When a tandem bike goes down, both riders go down with it. It is possible that both riders get injured during a crash. The bike could also get damaged. This can be a safety issue. For example, if one or both riders were badly injured in the crash and the bike was damaged, there is no way for one rider to go get help for the other. When you ride separate bikes, the rider who did not crash can go get help. It is unlikely for two separate bikes to fail catastrophically or crash at the same time.
Tandems are harder to ride in hilly areas
Tandems tend to be slow going up hills. You’ll often have to gear down to your lowest gear to climb. Coordinating your pedaling while climbing can be a challenge. If you have to stop going up a hill, it can be particularly difficult to get going again.
The best solution to this is to ride often, grow stronger, and improve your skill. Tandems aren’t slower going up hills for physical reasons. This issue is usually skill-related. Experienced riders can actually climb faster on a tandem than on a solo bike because two riders can create more power. You can also use the tandem’s momentum to your advantage if you’re riding in an area with rolling hills. Gain as much speed as you can going down one hill and let it carry you as far as possible up the next.
Tandems are harder to ride off-road
To keep the rear rider comfortable and prevent rear wheel damage, you’ll have to go pretty slow while riding your tandem off-road. This can get frustrating. It is also harder for the captain to communicate everything that’s going on. For example, when riding off-road, you can’t anticipate every bump or turn. Pedal strike can be a problem as well when the terrain is bumpy or rocky. For these reasons, tandems aren’t ideal for frequent off-road use.
That said, there are tandem bikes available that are designed to be ridden off-road. These are basically tandem mountain bikes. These models feature wide tires and extra strong wheels. Some models feature a full suspension system. To safely ride one of these off-road you’ll need to have a skilled team that can communicate well together.
It can be difficult to find a tandem that is the correct size for both riders
Tandems need to fit two riders. This makes the chance of finding a bike that fits both you and your riding partner much lower. You may need to adjust stem lengths and swap out the handlebars to make the bike fit. One rider may need to make a compromise on the way the bike fits.
It is much more important for a tandem to fit the front rider than the rear rider. The front rider needs to be able to straddle the frame with their feet spread wide and flat on the ground so they can safely balance the bike while stopped. They also need to be able to comfortably and efficiently control the bike. Frame geometry and handlebar position are important.
Ideally, the front rider should sit in the same position that they would while riding a solo bike. If you have a comfortable road bike, you should try to replicate that fit on your tandem. Probably the most important measurements for a tandem frame are the top tube and head tube because these cannot be adjusted. If the fit isn’t perfect, the seat tube and stem length can be easily adjusted to dial the bike in.
It’s important to keep in mind that changing the stem length to improve the fit can have a negative effect on the bike’s handling. You don’t want the captain’s stem to be too long or too short. For more info on stem length and steering, check out this guide.
When it comes to the stoker, the fit is a bit less important. In fact, the stoker doesn’t even need to be able to straddle the bike with their feet on the ground because they don’t have to put their feet down when stopping. The stoker does need to be able to pedal efficiently and powerfully and feel comfortable. If a frame doesn’t fit the stoker, you can install an extra-long stem and different handlebars. The stem length doesn’t matter for the rear rider because the handlebars are fixed in place. You can also adjust the seat height and position.
In some cases, the only way to get a perfect fit for both riders is to order a custom made tandem. The framebuilder can take measurements of you and your partner’s bodies and build a frame to custom fit both of you. If you’re planning to us the bike for long distance touring, this is probably your best option. This may also be necessary if one rider is significantly taller than the other. You probably won’t find an off the shelf tandem that fits a 6’6” captain and 4’11” stoker. Of course, the drawback is that custom bikes are expensive.
You have less independence while riding a tandem
If one person doesn’t want to ride, nobody is riding. This can be an issue while touring. For example, maybe one person wants to take a rest day and the other doesn’t. In this case, the tandem becomes a burden. If you were touring with two separate bikes, the rider who didn’t want to rest could go out and explore the area or run errands while the other rested.
You also have to ride the same route as your riding partner and ride for the same amount of time as your riding partner. You can’t go off and explore on your own. Also, you can’t continue riding without your partner if they want to call it a day. You’re stuck doing everything together. If you’re touring long term, sometimes it’s nice to do your own thing for a while.
The stoker, in particular, has very little independence. They don’t control the bike. Maybe neither you nor your riding partner want to be a stoker. Maybe you both want to control your own bike. In this cases, you’re better off riding two separate bikes.
You have to trust and rely on someone else while riding a tandem
Both riders rely on one another to keep each other safe. If one rider makes a mistake or has poor judgment, both riders can suffer. For example, the captain could take a hill too fast and ride into a ditch. The stoker could shift their weight at the wrong time and cause the bike to wobble or swerve. Some people don’t like the idea of trusting or relying on someone else for their safety while cycling. The stoker has to trust the captain 100%. If they don’t, the ride will be unpleasant for both parties.
You have to worry more about pedal strike
When riding a tandem, both riders have to move their feet to change the position of the crank arms and pedals. When leaning into a turn, you have to be careful to position the cranks so your pedals won’t hit the ground. You want the crank arms to be horizontal or the pedal facing the inside of the turn to be up. This is particularly important while riding downhill at high speeds. A pedal strike could cause you to crash.
One solution is to plan a foot position for coasting. For example, maybe you agree to hold the cranks horizontal with your right foot facing forward whenever you coast. This will greatly reduce the likelihood of pedal strikes while coasting and descending hills. Of course, this only works if your pedaling is synchronized (in-phase pedaling). If you’re not synchronized (out of phase pedaling), it becomes more difficult to avoid pedal strikes.
With a tandem, you’re stuck riding with someone else
Sometimes you may simply want a break from your riding partner. Spending so many hours with someone can get tiring. Maybe you had a disagreement and you just want to ride alone for a while. Maybe you just don’t want to talk to anyone. With a tandem, you can’t do that.
Also, there is no solitude when you ride a tandem. You are constantly chatting back and forth. This can get annoying at times, even if you’re only communicating about the ride. Sometimes you’ll miss your solitude. Many tandem riders also own a solo bike so they can ride alone if they choose.
Tandem bikes can cause arguments
If your relationship with your riding partner isn’t the healthiest or most stable, you may want to avoid riding a tandem together. It’s easy to get into an argument. One rider can easily make a minor mistake and upset the other. For example, maybe the captain forgets to tell the stoker about a bump and causes the stoker some discomfort. Maybe the captain forgets to call out a shift and messes up the stoker’s cadence. Maybe the stoker shifted their weight while reaching for an energy bar and caused the bike to wobble. Over time, all of these small mistakes could lead to an argument and ruin your ride.
One way to reduce the likelihood of disagreements is for the captain to take all of the blame. In most cases, whatever went wrong is the captain’s fault anyway. If the stoker stays happy, most likely the captain will stay happy as well. Good communication also goes a long way to prevent arguments.
If, after riding for a while, you find that you and your partner keep bickering with your riding partner, it may be that tandem riding isn’t for you. Some couple’s personalities don’t allow for tandem riding. For the benefit of your relationship, it may be best to ride two separate bikes. There is nothing wrong with this.
Both riders have to cycle at the same cadence while riding a tandem
On a tandem, both sets of cranks must turn at the same rate. This is necessary due to the design of tandem bikes. Both cranks are connected with a timing chain so they cannot turn independently. This means both riders must ride at the same cadence.
This can be challenging for teams that have different levels of cycling skill. For example, an experienced cyclist may prefer to ride at a cadence of 80rpm. Their less experienced partner may feel more comfortable riding at 60rpm. One rider will have to compromise. Most likely, the experienced cyclist will have to slow down a bit. With practice, the less experienced rider should be able to cycle at a higher cadence over time.
You can’t be as spontaneous while riding a tandem
While riding a tandem, both riders have to agree about where they’re going and how they’re going to get there. One rider can’t just suddenly change their plans mid-ride unless they both agree on the new plan. This can be a problem while touring.
For example, maybe your riding partner likes to plan every day’s route in advance but you like to play it by ear and explore the road less traveled. You can’t be a free spirit on a tandem. You have to take your partner’s preferences into consideration.
Another factor that limits spontaneity is transporting the bike. You can’t just put a tandem on just any bus, train, or plane and travel to a nearby city or country. You have to plan ahead. Also, you often can’t hitchhike with a tandem. It’s too big to fit in most cars.
The stoker doesn’t have a good view
One major drawback to being a stoker is that you’re stuck staring at the back of the captain’s head. You don’t have a clear view of the road ahead. You can only look to the sides. The drawback is that you miss those big panoramic views where the road opens up. You might miss some wildlife spotings. Some stokers try to lean to the side to get a clearer view of the road ahead. This can throw the bike off balance and make the captain’s job more difficult.
That said, the stoker does get to freely look around while riding because they don’t have to keep their eyes on the road at all times. Sometimes the stoker spots things that the captain can’t.
Tandems draw attention
Sometimes you just want to blend in and not be bothered. This is difficult when riding a tandem because the bike draws so much attention. People will point at you and stare. Particularly when you’re riding in a country where tandem bikes are uncommon. When you ride two separate bikes, you can blend in. That said, touring bikes loaded with panniers always draw attention.
Some riders don’t like the look of tandem bikes
Tandems look a bit goofy. They remind people of the extra-long bikes clowns ride in the circus. Some people think tandems look a bit cheesy. Particularly if both riders are dressed the same. Some riders simply don’t want to ride a non-traditional bike because they attract attention.
How to Ride a Tandem
As mentioned earlier, riding a tandem is a bit different than riding a solo bike. Some tandem skills take a bit of time to develop. It will also take some time for you to get to know your riding partner, their style of riding, and their preferences. In this section, I’ll outline a few tips to make the transition from a solo bike to a tandem a bit easier and make the ride a bit smoother.
How to Start Off on a Tandem
This is probably the hardest but most important skill you’ll need to learn. When starting out, it’s important to note that it is difficult to ride a tandem in a straight line at low speeds. The bike wants to weave and turn if it’s not perfectly balanced. For this reason, you need to be able to get the bike up to maneuvering speed quickly so the front rider can safely steer and control the bike. Both riders need to cooperate and do their jobs to get the bike moving safely and quickly.
To start off on a tandem:
- Make sure the bike is in a low gear. If you have an internal gear hub, you can simply shift down. If the bike has derailleurs, the captain may need to ride a few feet alone to shift down.
- The captain straddles the bike with both feet planted on the ground with the bike sitting straight up. Their feet should be spread wide for extra support. If necessary, the captain can lean the top tube against one of their thighs for additional support.
- The captain applies the brakes. This way, the bike doesn’t try to roll while the stoker climbs on.
- The stoker then straddles the bike and sits down on the saddle. If they need to, they can rotate the crank so the near pedal is at the bottom position. They can use it as a step to climb on and lift themselves up onto the saddle. This may be necessary if the frame is too large for the stoker to put both feet on the ground when straddling the bike.
- The stoker clips in or puts both feet on the pedals. The captain balances the bike so the stoker doesn’t need to put a foot on the ground.
- The stoker then rotates the crank to the preferred starting position. For most teams, this will be with the right crank arm angled 45° up in relation to the ground.
- The stoker lets the captain know that they are in position and ready to go.
- Both riders check for traffic, pedestrians, other cyclists, or other obstacles in the road.
- Both riders confirm that they are ready to push off.
- The captain moves their foot to the higher pedal and pushes down hard while lifting themselves up into the saddle.
- The stoker pedals as hard as they can, supplying most of the power to get the bike up to maneuvering speed. During the initial takeoff, the stoker will supply around 90% of the power.
- The captain mounts their second foot. The stoker may have to stop pedaling momentarily to give the captain time to clip in. Tandems are difficult to balance at low speeds. The captain should wait until the bike is up to speed before they clip both feet in. You don’t want to try to coast and clip your feet in at low speeds.
The first couple of times you start off, this process will feel a bit complicated and awkward. After a couple of tries, it becomes second nature. Both riders need to coordinate during take-off so the bike doesn’t tip over, swerve, or wobble too much.
You may also vary the above process a bit to find a routine that works better for you and your partner. For example, maybe you prefer to start with your left foot. Some teams prefer that both riders keep one foot on the ground until they’re both ready to take off. This is only possible if the frame is small enough that the rear rider can reach the ground while seated.
Stopping on a Tandem
When the captain needs to stop the bike, they should communicate this action with the stoker. Both riders should stop pedaling and the captain should apply the brakes as they normally would. If the captain needs to stop fast, they should apply the brakes immediately and tell the stoker that they are stopping. This gives the stoker a bit more time to respond and stop pedaling.
While slowing to a stop, the captain needs to keep the bike as upright as possible. If the bike leans too far, the captain may not be able to support the weight of the stoker and bike when stopped. The captain also needs to remember to unclip both feet before the bike comes to a complete stop if they are using clipless pedals. They should place their feet wide apart on the ground when stopped.
During the stop, the stoker should center their weight as much as possible. This makes it easier for the captain to balance the bike when it comes to a stop. An unexpected shift of the stoker’s weight could cause the bike to fall over. Generally, the stoker will remain with their feet on the pedals until the captain tells them to put their feet down. Sometimes the stoker may need to put a foot down to prevent the bike from falling over. Once the bike is stable, the rear rider can hop off first.
If one rider wants to coast, they must tell the other rider. This is necessary because, on a tandem, both riders must coast or pedal together because the cranks are connected with a timing chain. The cranks can’t move independently.
Both riders should agree on a default coasting pedal position. Ideally, the cranks should be horizontal. This reduces the likelihood of a pedal strike while leaning into a corner. After one rider announces that they want to coast, both riders should stop pedaling at the default pedal position. You may need to make a couple more revolutions before stopping pedaling in the correct position.
Generally, less experienced cyclists like to coast more often than experienced cyclists. This could be because the speed or cadence is too high or the rider is simply feeling fatigued. Experienced cyclists prefer to continue pedaling to maintain their rhythm and keep their legs warmed up.
You’ll have to compromise on how often you coast while riding a tandem. When one rider wants to coast, the other should agree. There are a couple of ways to avoid coasting excessively. The captain can upshift into a harder gear if the cadence is too high. They can slow down if the speed is too high.
When one rider is ready to start pedaling again, they can inform the other and both riders can resume pedaling.
On a tandem, the captain is responsible for shifting the gears. You need to shift a bit more frequently while riding a tandem than a solo bike. It’s kind of like driving a large truck. You may need to start in a low gear then shift through 6-8 gears to get the bike up to cruising speed. This is necessary because a tandem is so much heavier than a solo bike.
Before shifting a gear, the captain should communicate to the stoker that they’re going to shift. This allows the stoker to prepare for a change of cadence. If the captain doesn’t call out a shift, the stoker could lose their rhythm or even slip off the pedal.
After announcing a gear change, both riders should momentarily take some pressure off the pedals while continuing to spin. The captain should shift at this time. Reducing pressure on the pedals makes the shift smoother and reduces the likelihood of grinding gears. The drivetrain will last longer as a result. Shifting a tandem takes a bit of practice but becomes natural over time.
Before you stop, it’s a good idea to shift down into a low gear. This makes it easier to start off again. If you use an internal gear hub, you don’t have to worry about this because the captain can just downshift shift into their desired gear while stopped.
Descending Hills on a Tandem
Tandems can reach incredibly high speeds going down hills. This is possible because a tandem has nearly twice the kinetic energy of a solo bike due to the extra weight of the second rider. A skilled team can reach speeds in excess of 60 mph. While descending on a tandem, you need to take care to avoid pedal strikes and avoid overheating your brakes.
A pedal strike at speed could cause the bike to slide out from under you. There are a couple of techniques you can use to avoid pedal strike. The simplest solution is to move the cranks into the horizontal position while descending. The drawback is that this position sometimes doesn’t give you enough leverage for cornering at speed.
Another solution is to move the pedals as you corner. You’ll want to move your foot facing the outside of the corner into the bottom position so the inside pedal is sticking straight up. If you corner the opposite direction, you’ll want to rotate your pedals so the pedal facing the inside of the corner is always up. Both riders need to coordinate the pedal movement.
Another common problem you will encounter while descending with your tandem is overheated brakes. Due to the weight of the bike and riders, tandem brakes create a massive amount of friction. This builds up in the form of heat.
If you use rim brakes, the pad rubbing against the rim can cause the rim to overheat. This can cause your tire to blow out. At the very least, you’ll need a new tube. A blowout can also damage your tire. Worst case, you could crash.
If you use disc brakes, the pads can overheat and become soft. This causes braking performance to fade. With hydraulic disc brakes, the hydraulic fluid in the brake lines can get hot enough to boil. When this happens, you will lose the ability to stop.
There are a couple of ways to reduce the likelihood of your brakes overheating while descending on a tandem. First, you can stop to let them cool down mid descent. Next, you can brake less and descend at higher speeds. The air passing over your brake calipers and rotors helps to keep them cool. You can also install a drum brake for descending. These can dissipate heat better and do not overheat as quickly as rim and disc brakes.
Most tandem teams include one rider who is an experienced cyclist and one who is less experienced. This is common when couples or parents and children ride together. One problem you can run into is that the more experienced rider will want to ride at a higher cadence than the less experienced rider.
The captain, who is the more experienced cyclist, gets to select cadence by selecting which gear to use. Experienced cyclists prefer to ride in a lower gear at a higher cadence because it is more efficient and easier on the knees.
The problem is that it can be difficult for an inexperienced cyclist to keep their legs moving fast enough. Inexperienced cyclists tend to pedal slower in a higher gear. For example, a strong cyclist may ride at a cadence of 90rpm while a new cyclist may ride at a cadence of 60rpm. Pedaling too fast can cause discomfort for a new cyclist. Sometimes they simply can’t keep up.
It’s important to remember that the captain is responsible for keeping the stoker comfortable. If necessary, the captain must be the one to change their cadence to accommodate the stoker. The captain will have to pedal at a slower rpm and select a gear that is comfortable for the stoker to pedal.
At the same time, the stoker should work on improving their skill and technique so they can spin at a higher cadence. After all, it is a healthier and more efficient technique. Over time, most teams strike a compromise and cadence becomes a non-issue.
New tandem riders often find climbing to be slow going. This is usually caused by different cadence preferences which cause a coordination difficulty. While climbing with a tandem, it’s best to ride in a low gear at a high cadence.
You should also avoid stopping in the middle of a climb because it can be difficult to get going again on a steep hill if you’re inexperienced.
Standing Up to Pedal
Standing while riding will allow you to generate extra power by ‘pumping’ the pedals. This motion also uses a different set of muscles and allows you to use your body weight to pedal. In addition, it gives you the chance to relieve pressure from your sit bones and give them a break for a while.
Standing is an advanced technique in tandem riding. You won’t want to try this until you’ve mastered the skills outlined above. You’ll also want to make sure you and your partner feel comfortable with the other rider standing before you try standing up.
This is necessary because it is challenging to stand and pedal smoothly without causing the bike to lean, sway, or lose balance. Many riders have a tenancy to lean the bike from side to side while standing and pedaling on a solo bike. You can’t do this on a tandem or you’ll throw the other rider off balance. Both riders must trust one another and be able to coordinate themselves with one another before they can stand and pedal.
Before standing up, you should let the other rider know your intentions. The captain should hold the handlebars steady and both riders should pedal smoothly. Once both riders indicate that they are ready, either one or both can slowly and steadily stand up. While standing the rider should pedal smoothly and remain centered over the bike.
If you find that you’re not comfortable standing to pedal a tandem, there is no reason to do it. In fact, most cyclists stand too frequently. Skilled riders rarely, if ever stand. If you feel the need to stand to produce more power, you could simply downshift instead.
Communication While Riding a Tandem
Communicating with your riding partner is crucial while riding a tandem. If there isn’t enough communication, both riders suffer. It is particularly important for the captain to call out commands to the stoker. The stoker must also communicate their preferences and concerns to the captain. Over time, every team will adopt their own communication style. A few common commands include:
- Shifting- During a shift, both riders should reduce the pressure on the pedals while continuing to spin. This makes the shift smoother and reduces wear and tear on the drivetrain. Drivetrain components will last longer because they won’t clunk or grind during a shift. The stoker also needs to know when a shift is going to happen so they can anticipate a change in cadence.
- Coasting- If one rider wants to stop pedaling and start coasting, they need to notify the other rider so they can stop pedaling. It’s a good idea to agree on a pedal position for coasting and braking. For example, maybe you both feel most comfortable with the cranks in a horizontal position with the right foot facing ahead. This position will also reduce the likelihood of pedal strike.
- Braking- The captain needs to notify the stoker when they need to apply the brakes so the stoker can stop pedaling. The captain can then slowly apply the brakes to slow the bike down. Both riders should agree on a pedal position for braking.
- Stopping- If the captain needs to stop the bike, they should notify the stoker. This way, the stoker can stop pedaling and center themselves to help the bike stay balanced as it comes to a stop. Both riders should assume the same pedal position that they use while braking.
- Bump- The captain needs to notify the stoker of any bumps in the road so they can take some weight off the saddle. This is necessary because the stoker can’t see the road directly ahead.
- Ready to go?- You’ll need this command when you’re starting from a stop. To accelerate up to maneuvering speed from a stop, the stoker must produce most of the power. Both riders should also check for traffic and obstacles before they start moving. This is important because tandem bikes are hard to control until they reach a certain speed.
- Speed up- This command may be necessary to get out of a tricky traffic situation. For example, maybe a traffic light is turning yellow and you need to speed through the intersection before it turns red. Maybe a gap in traffic is closing and you need to speed up to make it through. In these cases, both riders should output as much power as possible.
- Turning- For the most part, the stoker should be able to anticipate turns. Once in a while, the captain may need to make a sudden and unexpected turn. For example, maybe there is an obstacle in the road they need to swerve to avoid. In this case, the captain should try to warn the stoker so the stoker can lean with the bike into the turn.
- Slow down- If the cadence is too high for one of the riders, they may want to slow it down a bit. The stoker may also want to call out this command if the captain is descending a hill too fast. Because the captain controls the brakes, they may feel comfortable with a speed that the stoker is not comfortable with.
- Standing up- If you want to stand up to pedal, you should notify the other rider. Standing can momentarily unbalance the bike. Also, try not to rock the bike while standing and pedaling.
While calling out commands, it’s best to use the same tone and command every time. This makes it easier for the other rider to tell the difference between a command and conversation. For example, if your command for shifting is ‘shift’ you should say ‘shift’ in a similar voice every time you shift gears. You shouldn’t switch it up and say ‘gear’, or sing the command in a funny voice. This can confuse the other rider.
Exactly how many commands you need to call out to each other depends on a number of factors including your experience, how long you’ve been riding tandem together, the terrain you’re riding, and personal preference. After riding tandem with the same partner for a few thousand miles, you’ll get to know each others preferences and you can communicate less. Experienced tandem teams rarely need to call out shifts, coasting, or braking. They learn each others riding styles.
It is also important to tell the other rider when they did something you weren’t comfortable with. You should also apologize if you make a mistake. Open communication makes the ride much smoother and more enjoyable. For example, if the stoker gets angry at the captain for not calling out a bump and the captain gets angry at the stoker for rocking the bike, but nobody says anything, arguments can happen.
Parts of a Tandem Bike
There are two parts that exist on tandems that don’t exist on solo bikes:
- Timing chain (synchronizing chain)- Tandem bikes have two chains. The timing chain connects the front and rear cranksets with equal-sized chainwheels. This allows both riders to pedal together to deliver power to the rear wheel. A second chain connects the rear chainrings to the cassette. The timing chain is usually adjusted for tension with an eccentric bottom bracket at one end. Tandem bikes can also use a belt drive with two belts. For more info on tandem chains, check out this guide from Sheldon Brown.
- Bottom tube- This is the frame tube that connects the two bottom bracket shells on a tandem. This tube does not exist on a standard single person bike.
Other than these two parts, tandem bikes are pretty much the same as solo bikes. Of course, there are some differences. The rear derailleur and brake cables will longer and there are two seats, cranks, and handlebars.
How to Get Started With Tandem Riding
Riding a tandem isn’t for everyone. If you’ve never ridden a tandem before, it’s best to try one out before you buy to see whether or not you like it. This way, you avoid spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on something you don’t even like.
Probably the easiest way to get started is to rent or borrow a tandem. Some bike rental places have a tandem available. You might have to make a few calls to find one. There are also a number of tandem facebook groups, cycling clubs, and meetups. If you’re friendly, someone may let you and your partner take their tandem for a spin to try it out.
Once you get your hands on a tandem, take it somewhere flat and without traffic or pedestrians. An empty parking lot or residential street would work well. You want to have plenty of open space because you might be a bit wobbly at first. You don’t want to start riding on a busy street or crowded bike path.
A Note About Buying a Tandem
Buying a tandem can be a challenge. They are a niche item, after all. Most bike shops don’t carry them. In most cases, you can’t just go into a bike shop test ride the bike that you want. Usually, you have to order your tandem online or through the manufacturer.
To start your search, you may want to check to see if any of the bike shops in your area sell tandems. Many big cities have a specialty shop that carries a few. Even if they don’t have the model you want, you may want to stop by and see what they offer. You may also keep an eye out for used tandems on places like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or your local equivalent.
The best place to buy is probably online. Lower-end recreational tandems are affordable and commonly available. If your budget is on the higher end, you can buy a custom tandem directly from the manufacturer or through a bike shop.
Most riders don’t need to buy custom. You can usually make a tandem fit with a few minor adjustments such as changing the stem length and saddle height. Most riders will also choose their own grips, handlebars, saddle, and peddles. If you and your riding partner have a large height difference or if you want to install specific parts, like an internal gear hub or belt drive, you may need to order custom.
For some help choosing exactly what features you may need for touring, check out my guide to choosing a touring bike.
Who Should Ride a Tandem?
A tandem bike can be an excellent choice for couples and close friends. Particularly those with different levels of cycling skill. Tandems also work well for parents and children. The more experienced rider can act as captain and control the bike while the less experienced rider helps out by pedaling. This is a great way to get your non-cyclist partner, friend, or child into cycling. Both riders get to contribute and experience the ride together. It’s easy to talk and enjoy each other’s company as well. Riding a tandem makes cycling a social experience. It gives a sense of teamwork as well.
Tandems can be an excellent choice for long distance bicycle touring because they are faster, lighter, and more efficient than riding two separate bikes. While touring on a tandem, you’ll cover more distance per day or spend less hours in the saddle each day. They also require less frequent maintenance. This is nice while touring as well.
In order to successfully and efficiently ride a tandem, both riders must trust one another completely. It is particularly important that the stoker trusts the captain because the captain is in control of the bike. If you have a strong and trusting relationship with your partner, a tandem can be an excellent choice.
Who Shouldn’t Ride a Tandem?
Tandems aren’t ideal for everyone. If your relationship with your riding partner isn’t 100% solid, you’re probably better off riding two separate bikes. For example, maybe you have poor communication skills or maybe one of you doesn’t like to compromise. These kinds of issues can lead to arguments. Having said this, riding a tandem can be a good way to strengthen a relationship.
Another good reason not to ride a tandem is if you don’t trust your partner’s skill. For example, if your partner likes to ride too fast or if they ride unsafely and take unnecessary risks, you probably won’t want to ride a tandem with them for safety reasons. Some people simply have poor balance, coordination, or judgment. These types of people might not be the best tandem partner either.
You’ll also want to avoid tandems if you’re on a tight budget. They’re expensive. If you don’t feel like learning a new skill, riding a tandem may not be for you. It does take some time to get used to the extra length, weight, and stopping distance.
For some types of tours, tandems also aren’t ideal. For example, if you’re planning a multi-modal tour where you’re regularly transporting the bike on a bus, train, or plane, you may be better off with solo bikes.
Final Thoughts About the Pros and Cons of Tandem Bikes
The choice between riding a tandem and riding to two separate bikes really comes down to your relationship with your riding partner and the level of experience of both riders. A tandem can be a great choice for those with a strong relationship but different levels of cycling skill. The stronger rider can control the bike while both riders produce power and enjoy the ride.
If both riders are strong cyclists or the relationship isn’t the strongest, you might be happier riding two separate bikes. This way, both riders get to have some independence, controlling their own bike. Of course, there are other factors to consider as well including the cost, performance, maintenance, transportation of the bike, and more. Whether you decide to go with a tandem or two separate bikes, I hope this guide has helped you decide.
Do you ride a tandem bike? Share your tips and experience in the comments below!
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