So you and someone special have decided to buy a tandem, and you have
a ton of questions. Hopefully this article will address some of those
questions. I've been riding tandems since 1986. John and I got together
on a tandem date in 1993, and have been happily riding together
ever since. We have used our tandems for everything, fun fast rides,
commuting, touring and offroading. Hopefully some of our experience
will be of help to others.
- Tandem - a multi seat bicycle with riders seated one behind
the other. Most often the term refers to two seater bikes, but tandem
is also the generic term for other multi-seaters like triplets (for
3) and quads (for 4)
- Sociable - a side by side bicycle built for two.
- Captain or Pilot - the rider in front (on a conventional
- Stoker - the rider in the rear (on a conventional tandem)
- Sync, Timing or Crossover Chain - chain that connects
the captain's cranks to stokers cranks
- Sync, Timing or Crossover Rings - chainrings typically found
on the left side of the bike
- Eccentric - part which allows sync chain to be adjusted.
Captain's bottom bracket threads into the eccentric
- Drum Brake - brake threaded onto rear hub, typically used
to curb speed on a long descent without overheating the rims.
Why a tandem?
Tandems are an ideal solution for partners of different riding abilities
who want to ride together. Tandems are also great for blind riders
or riders with some physical limitations that may keep them from riding
a single bike. And tandems are also great for two strong riders looking
for a new challenge.
Tandems really fly on flats, rolling terrain and downhills. Climbing
is considered to be more difficult, but a well coordinated tandem
team can climb amazingly well. (But since tandems have the reputation
for climbing slowly, it is considered bad taste to whistle when flying
past singles going up hill!)
Tandems are also great for loaded or semi-loaded touring because
the extra weight is less noticeable than on a single, but be aware
that there is half the luggage space. Of course everyone knows
that when touring you will fill your bags, no matter what the size,
so this could be an advantage.
Communication is the absolute key to riding a tandem. It has been
said many times that a tandem can make or break a relationship. I
wouldn't recommend tandem therapy to a couple who fight saying "He/she
never listens to me", but I would recommend a big bike to a couple
who don't get to spend enough leisure time together.
Tandems also attract all sorts of creative comments, like the one
that always surprises me every single time I hear it, "Hey buddy,
your girlfriend isn't pedaling!" Where do these witty people
What size bike should we buy?
The front of the bike should fit the captain. One rule of thumb for
a road tandem is to get a bike with a front seat tube smaller than
the captain's road bike (provided of course that the road bike fits).
The most common method for starting and stopping involves having the
stoker clipped in, so the captain needs to be able to straddle the
bike with both feet planted firmly, while the stoker spins the pedals
into position. Don't forget pedals hurt when they whack your shins,
so the captain needs to get a wide stance over the bike. The other
thing to be aware of is that the stokers handlebars attach to the
captains seat post, so the captain's seat can not go all the way down.
You'll need an couple of inches for the stoker stem clamp. The captain's
reach should be the same as on his or her single bike.
Typically (on production tandems), the rear size will be 1 or 2 inches
shorter than the front.
Sizing in the stoker compartment somewhat different than on a single
bike. It is not as important for the stoker to be able to stand over
the top tube, since it should not be necessary for the stoker to get
off the bike, except at the end of the ride, when the captain can
lean the bike way over for the stoker. More on this in section about
stopping and starting. Of course, the stoker must be able to reach
the pedals when on the saddle.
Rear top tube lengths can be misleading if trying to compare to a
single bike. Remember the stem length will be subtracted from the
top tube on the back of a tandem, rather than added as on a single
(or the front). Also keep in mind, that even if you can replicate
the geometry of saddle to bars, that the position may not actually
be fully usable, due to the captain sitting right where the stoker
wants his or her face. Now this doesn't mean a stoker will be uncomfortable.
Since the stoker doesn't actually steer, his or her position can be
quite different from that on the single bike, but still be comfortable.
Rear tops tubes have been getting longer over the years. There is
a compromise to be made though. A longer rear top tube may add weight
and handling issues. Some builders do a better job than others finding
the best compromise. Large, tall or stokers with long torsos should
look carefully at rear top tube lengths, and their position relative
to the captain's.
If the stoker is really tiny, relative to the captain, there are
a few options. Some manufacturers make frames with much broader size
differences between front and back. Custom builders can definitely
do this. And finally, there is a device referred to as a kid back.
This is a second set of cranks, mounted higher on the rear seat tube
to reach the shorter legs. This is commonly used for riding with children,
hence the name, kid-back.
And if the difference is in the other direction, larger stoker with
smaller captain, frames can be adjusted and custom frames can be designed
for extremes. It is less common to have a larger rider in back, since
it can be harder for a smaller captain to control a bike, if the center
of gravity is higher in the back. It certainly can be done, and loads
of folks will step forward and tell you they have. In fact, I have
captained with taller and heavier stokers myself. The stoker should
be aware that his or her movements have a greater affect on the bike
than with a heavier captain.
Finally if the bike will be ridden by various riders, it can be setup
in an adjustable way. Most production tandems now come with an adjustable
stoker stem. This makes it easy to setup the fit initially for a stoker,
but also to allow for different stokers. There are adjustable front
stems as well, but these are less common. The Look ErgoStem is a good
choice for the tandem with different captains. Also stems with a bolt
off front make changing stems to achieve a different length or angle
What kind of bike should we buy?
Try to test ride as many as you can to determine which bike will
fit your needs and desires. If you are new to tandems, the more the
ride, the better each one will feel, so be sure to ride the early
bikes again after you become more comfortable with tandem handling.
There are a lot of tandem makers out there now. Santana is one of
the oldest and most successful production builders. Other companies
that build production big bikes include Burley, Cannondale, and Co-Motion.
Calfee, daVinci, LongBikes and Meridian are newer players in the tandem
market. Most of these companies also do custom bikes. And there are
many custom-only tandem builders, like Bilenky and Erickson.
There are big bikes available for less than $2000. Some cost $6000
or more. One rule of thumb is that a tandem will typically cost 3X
the comparable single, since you need twice as many parts, and they
need to be stronger.
There are lots of different frame designs and materials, and of course
in lots of different sizes. Steel is still one of the most popular
materials, but tandems can also be found in aluminum, carbon-fiber
and titanium. Then there is wheel size difference. You can get 26
inch wheels or 700C. If you want to do strictly offroad, the 26 inch
wheels and maybe some form of suspension are a good idea. For strictly
road riding, 700C may be the obvious choice. If you want to do a mixture
of road and trail, or expedition touring, 26" wheels offer great
versatility and strength. Smaller captains may need to consider 26"
wheels to get a good fit.
26" wheels do offer great versatility. There are a variety of
tires available from 1" narrow slicks to wide knobblies. Typically
the clearances on frames built for 26" wheels is good enough
to use any tire. While wide and knobbly 700C tires are available,
most frames (for 700C) don't have the clearance for really wide
tires. Tandems tend to be better than singles in this regard though,
and many production models will take a 32mm tire.
We do all kinds of riding and have now acquired three different tandems
to meet our demands. We have a lightweight, unencumbered go fast tandem
with 700C wheels, for fast club rides and supported tours. We have
a mountain bike with bombproof 26" wheels and a suspension fork
for playing on singletrack, and finally we have a touring bike with
s&s couplers, racks, fenders, lights and sturdy 26" wheels
for loaded tours, bad weather, and travel. We considered a 700C tandem
for the expedition touring machine, but would need to go somewhat
custom to get the clearances we wanted. We found a production 26"
wheeled bike that meets our needs well.
S&S couplers are one
of the greatest inventions ever for tandems. These couplers allow
a tandem frame to be split into three sections and packed away in
an airline legal sized suitcase. While one can travel with a tandem
without couplers, it can be a hassle. Couplers make life so much simpler.
If you plan to do much travel, definitely consider couplers!
Finally there are recumbents. We actually had a recumbent tandem
trike for a while and had a blast. If you ride a recumbent single,
you'll definitely want to consider a recumbent tandem - and you probably
already know where to go look!
Can we test ride or rent one?
Ask local tandem owners to recommend a shop. Some shops may offer
rentals or longer test rides for tandems. When you go to a tandem
shop, ask to see the tandem expert, or take a friend who knows tandems.
A tandem is a major purchase and it is important that someone
at the shop be willing to spend a fair amount of time with you. You
may need to make an appointment or pick a non-peak time. Some shops
take this very seriously. Ideally, someone should take you both for
a ride as stoker, treating the potential stoker gently, and abusing
the future captain by hitting bumps, starting and stopping without
saying, swerving, going too close to the edge of the road, etc., so
that the captain really knows what not to do. If only one shop in
town carries tandems, and they are not helpful, go to another
town. Really try to find a shop that appreciates the enormous amount
of money you are about to start spending. (You will be back to buy
replacement parts - tandems wear parts much faster than singles. You
may also want all the matching clothes, etc.)
It takes a little more than a 5 mile test ride to know what you like
and don't like. In fact it takes a little more than that before some
people will keep their feet on the pedals all the time. As you try
different bikes, each one will likely feel better than the previous
one. This is not necessarily because each one is better. It is more
likely because you are becoming more comfortable. Be sure to reride
the early bikes.
If there are other tandem riders in your area, you may be lucky enough
to find someone who will let you try out their bike for an extended
ride. John and I love introducing folks to tandeming.
Some shops and resort areas do have rentals. Unfortunately my experience
with rentals has not been as good as it should have been. Maintenance
has sometimes been ignored, and a poor experience on a poorly maintained
rentals can turn a team off tandems forever.
What does the captain do?
On a typical tandem setup, the captain steers, pedals, shifts, brakes,
avoids bumps and potholes, calls them and coasts over them when he
or she can't, never scares the stoker for any reason, and does whatever
the stoker asks him or her to do.
The captain inspires complete trust from his stoker. The captain
must demonstrate good judgment and good bike handling skills, so the
stoker can relax and give up direct control of the bike to the captain.
The captain does not stop pedaling without first telling and receiving
confirmation from the stoker.
The captain never pulls out in front of cars, crosses tracks
at a bad angle, runs lights, etc. He always lets the stoker know what's
going on, when something unusual happens. He never says "UH OH"
or "Oh Shit" without immediately explaining why to
I have helped train a lot of captains in the past 10 years and have
captained many tandems myself. The first thing I tell a new captain
is to treat the tandem as a loaded touring bike, with the exception
that the luggage pedals. (It helps if they have toured!)
With the long wheelbase, the bike will be more stable than a standard
road bike, although at first it may feel squirrelly, with two people
fighting each other. When training a new captain, I have him or her
get on the bike and ride around the parking lot, or up and down the
street a few times alone, just to get the feel. Then I hop on and
while still in a safe area show the affects a stoker can have, leaning,
stopping pedaling, etc. It is actually important for both team members
to know the affect of bad riding, and not do it.
If you can't learn to ride with an experienced rider, have someone
videotape your first ride together. You'll really enjoy watching this
What does the stoker do?
On a typical tandem setup, the stoker pedals, reads cue sheets, opens
energy bars, pinches the captain when he fails to call bumps, and
enjoys the scenery around the bike. Yes, the stoker gets to see the
captains back, but provided the stoker's neck works properly, he or
she gets to look around a lot more than the captain, who's up front
keeping an eye out for bumps.
The stoker trusts the captain completely. The stoker does not make
sudden unexpected movements. The stoker does not stop pedaling without
first telling and receiving confirmation from the captain.
How do we start/stop?
The captain should do what it takes to find himself standing over
the top tube. This may involve swinging the leg over the front, or
over the rear, taking care to clear the handlebars, or leaning the
bike and stepping through, sort of. The stoker should stand clear
while this activity takes place.
With the captain standing over the bike, and holding it upright,
with saddle propped against the buttocks, the stoker should get on
and get both feet on the pedals. I use clipless pedals and highly
recommend them for tandems. If not attached to the pedals, your feet
can easily come off, but the cranks continue to turn because another
person is also pedaling. This can hurt!
The captain should have his legs spread wide enough, so that when
the stoker rotates the pedals, he will not get hit in the shins by
his own pedals. The captain should decide which pedal he wants down,
and be consistent about it. The stoker will back pedal to get that
pedal in position and then the captain should get his foot on the
pedal. When the captain is ready to start, he should announce his
intention to do so, and wait for acknowledgment from the stoker. Then
he should push off with the other foot and start pedaling. The stoker
should start pedaling at the same time. The captain may be able to
get into the other pedal without coasting or may say "Coast"
and then engage the other pedal. When starting on hills or in traffic
it may be best to get moving with this foot on top of the pedal and
then attempt to engage when it is safer. The stoker can keep you moving.
Stokers should be aware that starting up this way can be hard on knees
and ankles, so be careful.
When stopping the captain should put down one foot and hold the bike
steady, while the stoker remains in place.
For stokers who are heavier than their captains, it may be necessary
to start with only one foot engaged, and both riders push off. This
stoker will also want to disengage at all stops.
When both riders are getting off the bike, at an ice cream store
or coffee shop or at the end of the day, the captain should stop like
he would at a light. The stoker should then get off the bike and get
clear. The captain should then get off the bike, making sure he is
aware of the handlebars in the back.
Can we stand?
I try to avoid making standing sound difficult. Fear seems to be
the biggest issue with new teams standing together. If you don't believe
that it is difficult, standing can come quite naturally. The captain
should announce his intent to stand. The stoker should acknowledge.
This is important because the stoker may be doing something else and
not have his or her hands on the bars. It is usually best to upshift
before standing and on the count of three stand up. Upshifting is
important, since when you both stand you will have more force than
seated (just like on a single). It is even more critical if you are
standing on flats. When standing on steep climbs, try to leave at
least one lower gear to go down to once you sit back down.
Initially, it might be best not to rock the bike. Once you are able
to stand, keeping the bike in a straight line, work on rocking.
Neither rider should have a death grip on the handlebars. Let the
bike move easily under you. The more you stand together, the more
in-sync you will become and the better you will get. You will have
slightly different climbing styles, relative to your single bikes,
because your styles will start to merge on the tandem.
The ability to stand is what has allowed us to do long rides
on the tandem, since standing while pedaling will relieve the pressure
on the butt that all tandemists experience.
Should we have our cranks in phase or out of phase?
We have ours in phase. I like this setup for starting/stopping and
standing. Some people set them up 90 degrees out of phase and say
that this eliminates dead spots in the pedal stroke, since while one
may be pedaling through the dead spot, the other isn't. This is a
matter of personal preference and is very easy to change. Loosen
the eccentric and the timing chain tension, derail the timing chain,
set the phase you want, put the chain back on, tension it, and tighten
Can we trade positions?
Trading positions can be good, since it allows each person to understand
the workings of the other position. If you are close in size, you
should be able to change positions with relatively little trouble.
But this may take some effort on the part of the captain. Good stokers
are special people. We trust our captains completely and don't steer
the bike from behind. This takes a little effort and practice. It
also takes complete trust in your captain. Some people are unwilling
to give up total control of the bike, and when they are stokers, they
make a ride miserable.
If you plan to trade a lot, adjustable stems are probably a good
idea. These are available for both positions. Extra long seatposts
with the heights etched for each rider may also help.
If your height difference is over 6", trading may not be practical.
What kind of accessories do we want?
Bells or horn! Tandems attract a lot of attention, and a friendly
greeting can make even the most serious and grumpy person laugh!
Aero-Bars. Yes it is possible to use aero-bars on the front of a
tandem. The captain should have excellent bike handling skills with
aero-bars on his single first. The stoker should be aware that motion
from the back can cause more problems, but it can be done.
Clipless pedals are great on a tandem. (See comments above)
Suspension seatposts for stokers are quite popular. Softride beams
are also popular. Stokers suffer a good deal more saddle abuse, since
they are over the rear wheel and can't see bumps. I have used both
a suspension post and the softride beam.
What kind of components?
Tandems are abusers of components. You will wear out chains, chainrings,
freewheels, rims and tires at a rate you never imagined before, especially
if you ride a lot of miles.
What parts are tandem specific?
- Hubs - The spacing on a rear hub will most likely either
be 145 mm or 160 mm. Tandem manufacturers have split into two camps
with regards to rear spacing, with Santana and a few others in the
160 camp and Co-Motion, Burley and Cannondale in the 145 camp. We've
been using 145 for years without trouble. (Current road standard
is 130 mm and offroad is 135 mm). Hubs with larger axles tend to
hold up to tandem abuse better. Due to the added weight and stress,
tandems may also have more spokes - 40 and 48 spokes are pretty
common for tandems and loaded touring tandems. Also tandem
rear hubs may have threading for a drum brake.
After the frame, good hubs are one of the biggest investments. Phil
Wood makes the best, most reliable hubs for tandems. They are also
quite expensive, but well worth it. Shimano tandem hubs, at a fraction
of the cost are good for the budget minded. And there are loads
- Rims - There isn't really anything tandem specific
about rims for a tandem, except you likely want sturdier ones, and
given that you may want a wider tire, a wider rim. There is also
the issue of spoke count. Rims in 40 and 48 hole are available,
but may be harder to find in shops that don't regularly handle tandems.
- Cranks - Standard cranks normally have chainrings on the
right side and no chanrings on the left. Timing cranks, the ones
on the left with chainrings have reverse pedal threads, as does
the captain's right crank
- Eccentric - The eccentric goes into the front bottom bracket
shell. The front bottom bracket goes inside the eccentric. The eccentric
is what makes it possible to tension the timing chain. As the name
suggests, it has a non-round axis, and as you rotate it, the timing
chain can be made tighter or looser. This is a truly tandem specific
- Timing chain - there is nothing special about a timing
chain, except that it is long, and doesn't need anything to aid
in shifting. We have a stash of old pre-indexed shifting chains
that we use as timing chains and on our fixed gear bikes. But any
chains will work. You just need about 1 and 1/2 chains to work.
- Stoker stem - This is another tandem specific part. The
stoker stem attaches to the captain's seatpost. Therefore the size
must match the captain's seatpost size. There are a variety of stoker
stems, some adjustable, so you can change the reach easily. One
can usually get the proper height by adjusting up or down on the
captain's seatpost, but if there is not enough post to get the proper
setup, some post do have different angles. If no adjustment is necessary,
one can get a nonadjustable stem in a specific size and save some
grams. Most companies have made adjustable stoker stems pretty standard,
so they are easier to come by.
- Stoker handlebar - The tandem issue here is clearing the
captain's hips. The stoker may use narrow bars on a single that
would be too narrow to clear the captain's hips, so a wider bar
may be necessary. This is highly dependent on relative positions
and varies considerably from team to team. Many stock bikes do come
with wider bars for the stoker. A stoker also may not need or want
a full drop bar. Bullhorns, like those found on time trial and triathlon
bikes seem quite popular.
- Wider captain's handlebar - While they aren't tandem specific,
a captain may choose to use a slightly wider bar than on a single,
simply to gain more leverage, or control.
- Long Cables - Tandems are much longer than single bikes,
so cables need to be longer to get all the way back to derailleurs
and rear brakes. One can avoid the use of special long tandem cables
by using a DaVinci
In-Line Cable Splitter. This little device is designed to make travel
easier with (or without) coupled bikes, since you can decouple the
cables and separate the handlebars from the rest of the bike, without
having to readjust cables. They also make it possible to use standard
single bike cables on a tandem. This could be quite helpful if you
find yourself with a broken cable out in the boonies!
- Derailleurs and shifters. Modern derailleurs have become
much better in recent years at handling the wide range of gears
demanded by tandems. Tandem dynamics are such that it is easy to
spin out a top gear, or bog down in a low gear if you don't have
a really wide range. Thanks to microdrive on mountain bikes, offroad
front derailleurs aren't of much use on tandems, since tandems
demand much larger big chainrings. The Ultegra triple front derailleur
is designed for only a 10 tooth difference in outer rings. But the
new Dura Ace front derailleur is designed for a 14 tooth difference
in outer chainrings. This is great for tandems, who often want a
really big outer ring, combined with a more moderate middle ring!
Offroad rear derailleurs will work. If you want larger than
a 27 tooth cog in the back, go for the offroad rear derailleur.
Otherwise, the road models will work quite well. So while there
are some considerations for gearing when choosing derailleurs, there
is nothing tandem specific about a derailleur.
- Two of many things. Everything else is pretty standard.
You just need two of them - bars, saddles, pedals. Just choose according
to the preference of the rider. Captains and stokers may use different
pedal systems, saddles, etc. They do not have to be the same.
What kind of brakes?
Good brakes are essential. Many tandems are now fitted with linear
pull (v-brakes). When combined with an appropriate brake lever, these
brakes are very good on a tandem. I don't actually like v-brakes on
a single, because it is so easy to do an endo with them, but tandems
don't have that problem. The problem is that lots of folks want integrated
brake-shift levers and these are not designed to work with linear
pull brakes, so some adapter has to be used that ultimately compromises
the advantage of the linear pull lever. Lots of folks will tell you
that they work fine, but they could be better.
We use bar end shifters, so we can use properly mated levers and
brakes. Bar end shifters are also handy for telling what gear you
are in. Unlike a single, the captain can't just look down to see.
One of our bikes does have v-brakes, mated with DiaCompe 287 v-levers
designed for this purpose. It works quite well. The road bike uses
Ultegra caliper brakes, and they are fabulous. Our touring bike has
old fashioned wide cantilever brakes, designed to work with the cable
pull of standard drop bar levers.
Finally there are drum brakes. A drum brake is a brake threaded onto
the rear hub, designed to act as a drag brake to scrub speed on a
long or technical descent, so the rims don't overheat from constant
application of rim brakes. Typically, these are set up on a third
lever, ideally some sort of ratcheting lever, so the brake can be
set and left, and the captain's hands are free to independently modulate
the front and rear rim brakes. Often the third lever is placed on
the stokers bars, and when requested the stoker applies and releases
the brake. We use an indexed shifter and number and volume system
to determine how much to set the brake. "3" means 3 clicks,
"4", 4 clicks, "5", 5 clicks, and "5"
means pull harder! The drum is not an emergency brake, and not really
designed to stop the bike. It does perform quite well keeping speed
under control on long descents. There is much debate in the tandem
community about where to mount this lever. There are several ways
to mount this on the captain's bars, a thumb shifter, a barend, if
using integrated shift-brake levers, or on something like a Kelly
Take-off to keep it close to the brakes. I recommend against the old
setup of having both rim brakes on one lever and the drum on the other.
Independent modulation of rim brakes is crucial, especially in the
What about suspension?
Tandems have a reputation for being harsh on stokers bums. Stokers
can't see the bumps and may not get the warning to unweight for them.
Suspension is widely used to make a stoker's ride more comfortable.
There are several types of suspension. Suspension seatposts are among
the most economical. A suspension seatpost can be added to any standard
frame. There seem to be two main types, telescoping and parallelogram
style. Telescoping models can have problems with stiction, and offer
less travel than parallelogram types. They tend to be much cheaper
though. Parallelogram linkage posts offer more travel, keep the distance
between saddle and pedals pretty constant, and don't have stiction
issues. I use a Cane Creek Thudbuster,
a parallelogram style post, on our touring tandem, our offroad tandem
and my fixed gear single.
Softride suspensions are quite
popular for tandems, since they absorb road shock like nothing else.
The frame must be designed to take the beam, so it is a more expensive
option than changing a seatpost. (In the early days, a retrofit kit
was offered, but it had shortcomings - limited tube diameters, and
less stability than a designed for beam frame.) Co-Motion
and Burley both build a stock
tandem with a beam, and most other manufacturers and custom builders
offer beams as an option. A beam adds a bit of weight and it also
may complicate rear brakes and racks. Since the frame is smaller in
the back, wide profile brakes may present heel clearance issues for
stokers. (Linear pull brakes won't have the same problem.) Also since
the frame is smaller, rear rack mounting can be a challenge, since
rack stays need to be longer. Depending on brazeon placement and choice
of brakes, it can get tricky. Of course, since the frame is smaller
in the back, it will be stiffer, and slightly lighter to offset some
of the weight of the beam. I was an early beam adopter, starting with
a retrofit, then a custom frame, and eventually stock frames (both
Burley and Co-Motion). The beam really helped me for long distance
rides, and I still think it is a great option. We no longer have a
beamed tandem though, since we wanted to eliminate as many potential
troublesome-hard-to-fix in the middle of nowhere parts on our expedition
Frame suspension is now quite popular for offroad tandems. This adds
significant cost, weight and maintenance, but definitely smoothes
out the ride over offroad obstacles. Ventana
was the first to make a true full suspension offroad tandem, and seems
to be the most popular one. Frame suspension is pretty much overkill
for road riding.
Finally, an option for the budget minded cyclist is a suspension
saddle. Brooks make a couple of saddles with springs in the saddle.
The captain already has suspension of sorts from the frame. The captain's
seattube is between the two wheels, so the captain doesn't suffer
the same battering as a stoker or single bike rider sitting over the
Many tandem teams dress like twins, but you don't have to!
How do we pack a tandem with couplers?