Tandem Cycling: Because Four Legs are Better Than Two

by Peter Glassford
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Tandem Cycling: Because Four Legs are Better Than Two

One of the great things about cycling is that it can be a social sport. You see groups going out all the time, friends riding together and couples making a sporty date of it, too. With benefits including camaraderie, positive shared experiences, enhanced skills on the bike and riding with a para-athlete, there’s little reason not to jump on a tandem.

It’s not as easy as jumping on a tandem bike and effortlessly pedaling away, though. It takes practice and synchronization — and if you’re a couple trying it for the first time, it could be an indicator of your compatibility,  so beware!

We’ve broken down the basics for a successful trial run:

1. DECIDE WHO’S CAPTAIN

The choice of who is captain (the one who drives the bike) is already made if you are riding with a para-cyclist or your skills or size surpass your partner’s. Generally for couples, the man or larger, stronger partner will ride in the front and the woman or smaller rider will take the back. If you have equal skills and sizing, then the decision becomes trickier but may also present you with the option to trade off the responsibility on long rides to get a mental break (just like during a long drive). Resist the urge to take the controls just because you are a slightly better rider. If your skill levels are close, the more alert and safety-conscious rider may be the better captain in the back. The rider with more fitness can be a great stoker (in the front).

2. WORK TOGETHER

Whether you end up as stoker or captain, it’s important to review the lingo you’ll use to communicate changes to your normal pedaling rhythm. Most tandem teams will have words for upcoming bumps, stops, turns and gear changes, plus specific pacing strategies, like surging for hill or to make a light. “Communication helps you go faster because you tell your partner when to push harder or take it easy,” says Évelyne Gagnon, a road racer turned para-cycling tandem captain. “It’s also important to communicate what’s happening in the race (or ride), how you’re feeling and when you need to get up for a hill.”

On the note of hills, you’ll have to plan and communicate — and be courteous. Tandems will give you high-speed descents and flats, but ensure your partner’s expectations for speed match yours and that you ride within your combined abilities, which will grow as you ride more together. Anything you’re used to doing that is explosive or sudden — including late or hard braking, standing and moving the bike side to side or shredding corners — will need to be dialed back when riding with a partner.

If you like to be a bit more competitive and are interested in helping someone who needs a pilot, follow Gagnon’s lead by riding with a para-cyclist and be ready for the fun and camaraderie tandem racing brings. She even found her solo riding skills improved because of tandem. “You can become a good pilot if you have an open mind,” she says. “I’ve always been the cyclist who’s afraid of everything: downhills, turns, big packs. With tandem, I learned to handle my bike, to communicate how I was feeling and most importantly I was able to help another person experience racing!”

3. GET MOVING

As Gagnon suggests, you must practice — a lot. First, the captain should try riding around a safe area, without the stoker, to get a feel for the bike without needing to compensate for the stoker’s weight shifts. It will take several practice sessions to feel confident enough to go on the road. Keep the sessions short to avoid frustration, and consider using flat pedals for the captain initially.  

When you are ready to try two riders, try this trick to get moving: The captain should keep both feet on the ground and hold the bike securely while the stoker climbs on and clips both feet in. The captain will then clip in one foot and get ready to go. The stoker then says “ready” and starts to pedal, at which point the captain eases onto the saddle and gets his or her other foot clipped in as they roll away powered by the stoker’s pedaling.

4. PICK A TANDEM ROUTE

Selecting the right route is important to ensuring a good ride because hill climbing can be a real struggle on the tandem bike. Since the wheels on a tandem are under much greater stress with the weight of two riders, you’ll have to be cautious (or avoid) off-road, bumpy and aggressive riding scenarios.

In the end, the tandem ride, especially for couples, can be romantic — if you plan for it. These tips can help ease you into your first of many tandem rides that’ll ideally make your solo rides even stronger.

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  • David Bean

    You can safely ignore everything this writer says once you read the first paragraph. Does he even know how many wheels a tandem has?

  • BikinHowd

    Maybe they do something different in Canada, but the article on tandems seems to be written by someone who has no clue about riding a tandem!!!
    The better, stronger rider is typically the captain, and rides up front so he can control the bike safely… the stoker, in the back, has no controls typically, not even brakes, and essentially stokes the bike. Look at the picture accompanying the article to see that your writer is wrong!

    Howard T Maher
    Richardson, TX

  • Wayne Bird

    Wow, I’m so glad David and BikinHowd have already commented on this article. As one who owns and rides a Co-Motion I couldn’t believe what the author was stating. I started questioning my knowledge because I just couldn’t believe someone would write an article they had no clue about. Well, thanks for my sanity check, and to give the author the benefit of the doubt, maybe Canadians really do things differently there. It would be interesting to hear the author’s comments.

  • David Blue

    I’m Canadian. I’m a captain, too. If a couple follows this advice they would most likely get injured.
    If its on the internet, it must be true.

  • jsaintclair1

    This tandemista has been reassured after reading the earlier comments: the author definitely IS clueless. Here is just a sample of his bloopers: * the stronger partner rides in the back? recipe for disaster. The ideal stoker is one who doesn’t ride alone.
    * stoker in the front? must be a typo error
    * what’s “para-cycling”?
    * the way to “get moving”: WRONG. The stoker doesn’t start to pedal until the captain is in the saddle, especially when taking off in a lower gear.

  • Debbie U

    This same blog was posted on another site; I wrote a long answer informing them of the proper way to ride a tandem….no reply from them. The one truth is that long, long ago, the stronger rider was in the rear…which is where the term “stoker” came from…certainly not on the type of tandems we ride now. I also commented on that blog about the photo with riders without helmets and suggested that future cycling photos should be promoting safe riding.