Stoked on Tandems
By Chris Kostman
Originally published in California Bicyclist, August 1991
Chances are, if you’ve yet to get stoked on tandems, then you’re probably a closet smart aleck just waiting for the chance to thrill us with your wit and humor. Trust me. We tandem riders have heard it all. It’s like a non-stop amateur comedy show when we’re out frying the highway or the trails on the two-fer: “Hey! Which one of you is doing all the work?” or “How come the guy on back has his feet up?” Being the friendly sort that I am, I’ve yet to retort with something truly deserving, witty, and appropriate, but if I did… “Well, guess what, Jay Leno wanna-be? This bike has one freewheel, not two, so the bike only goes as fast as both pairs of legs make it go!” But that wouldn’t be good for the bikie image and promoting universal harmony, so I just bite my lip instead.
Of course, that’s only the beginning… It is absolutely inevitable that when I’m captaining and the stoker is a female, we hear something along the lines of the following. To me: “That’s some cute baggage you’ve got there!” or “How come you’re doing all the work?” or to her: “Smart move. You’ve got him doing all the work!” or “Looks like you’re just along for the ride!” Yep. The retreads are out in force when we roll by on the tandem. What blows me away is that we hear this type of stuff from women half the time! Sexism is bad enough without the women participating. Not to mention that Elaine Mariolle is the stoker most commonly found sharing Mr. Moots with me. If those clueless nimrods only knew who she is! (She’s as far from the baggage department as anyone, male or female, can be! However I will grant that she is cute, very cute… Of course, even if your female stoker is not a RAAM winning studette, there’s no reason for anyone to assume that she’s any weaker than her male counterpart.) At any rate, do us tandem riders a favor and heed this advice from Scot Nicol of Ibis: “Before you say something stupid, realize it’s been said fifty times before.”
All of this begs the question “why is the woman usually riding in the stoker’s seat?” Simple: The laws of physics and the designers of tandems decreed that the heavier rider should captain and the lighter rider should stoke. So… since women are generally lighter and smaller than men, they usually stoke. No sexism, machoism, or mindless libido flapping going on, just plain old physics.
Here’s how Nicol explains it: “When a tandem is steered around a curve, the frame ‘winds up’ before the rear wheel tracks the same curve. In other words, the captain sets the line, the frame gets thrown to the side by the stoker’s weight, then the rear wheel follows on a slightly different line.” This effect, called stoker lag, increases exponentially as the stoker’s weight goes up or as the tandem frame’s torsional rigidity goes down. To the captain, this unnerving effect feels as if an invisible pair of hands suddenly yanked on the bars. Here’s how to avoid this dreaded effect: Buy a torsionally rigid tandem, such as those from Ibis, Moots, Ritchey, or Santana to name my fav’s. Put the heavier rider up front. The stoker should stay smooth, calm, centered over the center of gravity, and avoid quick movements.
My first tandem was a British made Dawes, a bike not exactly overflowing with torsional rigidity or a lengthy rear top tube. I took my buddy Jim Offutt (6’4″ and about 200 vs. me at 5’11.5″ and 145) out once and nearly turned us into road pizza every time he reached for a water bottle. Needless to say, Jim learned to captain quick. My regular tandem partner back then was fellow RAAMer Jim DeGraffenreid who was absolutely ideal in terms of the physics involved. We were essentially identical in height and weight, so we balanced the bike well, and could switch positions at a moment’s notice with no adjustments to the bike. Way cool and way rare.
Another reason to put the heavier rider up front is to suspend his or her weight in the middle of the bike instead of right on top of the rear wheel. This makes it more comfortable for him or her, plus is a bit easier on the bike.
So why ride a tandem? If you need to ask, then you’re not too observant, but let me illuminate you with a few of my favorite reasons: On flats and downhills, tandems are simply faster. (And who wouldn’t want some free speed?) Even on an uphill, where tandems supposedly lose some ground, a well synchronized pair on a stiff steed can at least keep up with the singles, if not even drop all the solo artists. And it’s a kick to share the ride with someone, especially someone that you don’t have to worry about dropping. Elaine adds, “if you’re going to hurt, you might as well hurt with a friend.” Plus, despite all of the bozo comments which I outlined above, a tandem is truly a universal smile machine. Other riders consider you a novelty, cars give you more space (gasp!) and … drum roll please… off-road tandemists are greeted with a positively friendly smile of incredulity by the same fellow trail users (read: hikers/horse-types) who would only begrudgingly give up any trail space to a pair of mountain bikers on singles. (I hope I haven’t let the cat out of the bag with this last pointer. This is one of mountain biking’s best kept secrets!)
So what type of tandem should you get, you ask? In other words, a road tandem or a mountain tandem? A good question with a simple answer. Buy a mountain tandem! The good ones are all superior in terms of torsional rigidity, the 26″ wheels are sturdier and will accelerate quicker, and you have the option of paved or unpaved riding surfaces. Throw on slicks and hit the road or knobbies and hit the trail. Or take either setup into either locale. The extra weight of the bike and its two pilots gives supreme traction on either wet roads or on gnarly single track. In fact, it’s downright amazing what a tandem can do on technically challenging riding surfaces. Except for their larger turning radius, tandems are awesome off-road! Also, a mountain tandem is sized smaller, allowing a greater range of rider sizes. (How else could Elaine and I fit on a stock sized tandem?) Besides, a well made mountain tandem will plain outperform any road tandem. Nicol, whose company is largely dedicated to building and promoting mountain tandems, puts the comparison of road versus mountain tandems this way: “We’ve designed our bikes for the people who are graduating from those other bikes.” In other words, mountain tandems are the higher evolution of the tandem species. Nicol said it. I agree. I wrote it. And what’s in print must be true.