Tandems.

The arguments for two-people-two-wheels have hardly changed since the invention of the tandem over 180 years ago. Behold a machine weighing less than two bikes but with almost the same rolling resistance and wind resistance as a solo.

Tandem riders are a couple of steps up the ladder of sociability from solo cyclists. Conversation is easy, physical abilities are evened out, and co-operation is essential.

OK, there are drawbacks for some. Being the stoker can cramp your style and you have to let someone else decide on road positioning, tactics and gearing. If you're not already initiated you may need to experience a good few types of tandem before you can know what works for you both. Handlebar choice, for example; tandem bars will almost certainly be different from the bars installed on your solo.

Being so long, a tandem frame has to be designed to prevent flexing. Oversize tubing and internal bracing will do the job. The combined weight of two riders can put severe loading onto the wheels and tyres, especially when cornering. Wheels with 36 spokes or fewer will start to collapse. They should have 48 or 40 tandem gauge spokes. Tyres take a tremendous pounding. The recommended pressures are 120 psi on road and around 80-100psi off road.

A stiff frame is particularly important when two riders are powering up a hill. Then powering down them can be an exhilarating experience but not if you need white knuckle braking to stop. Relying entirely on rim brakes can cause the rims to heat up damaging the tyres and tubes. This is why modern tandems are fitted with auxiliary drum brakes or disk brakes front and back: you can brake as hard as you like with no chance of the rear wheel becoming airborne over your head.

The Family Tandem

A tandem is an excellent investment for a cycling family. It can take a child-seat and the long wheel-base, great stability and double power make tandems excellent for towing trailers transporting the youngest members. But children can soon begin to join in pedalling. Some off-the-shelf ‘kiddy back' tandems are low enough at the rear to accommodate children from around eight years old. Almost any standard tandem can be adapted by fitting a smaller saddle, kiddy-cranks, crank-shorteners or pedal blocks. You may also need child-safety bars around the youngster on the back.

The Off road Tandem

A tandem is subject to much greater stress than a solo bicycle. Take it off road and the punishment gets even worse. The popularity and resulting evolutionary development of the mountain bike has been as much a spur for re-evaluating tandem design as it has for solo-machines. The advantages have returned to the road in the form of reliably stiffer frames and heavy-duty components. Interestingly, it was the availability of tandem rated components which allowed the invention of mountain bikes in the first place.

The cost of perfectionism

You can have a tandem custom-made, which involves a considerable consultation process. We once interviewed a UK tandem-maker; George Longstaff (now sadly deceased, but Longstaff Cycles lives on). He gave some interesting perspectives:

“Making tandems can be very problematic because couples can have very different ideas and personalities. I can't remember how many times we've had to make tandems with different coloured front and back ends. The hardest task our enameller had was painting a tandem with one side in red and the other in white. The couple only realised how eccentric this was when a neighbour asked them how it was that they set off in the mornings on a red tandem and returned on a white one! Quite a lot can happen in the three to five months that it takes to supply an order. Couples split up. We were once asked if we could put the back on half a machine sawn in two after a particular nasty divorce. Fortunately we got the other end from the other party and did the job.”