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Basic tips and terms for those wishing to learn to ride a tandem.

"I want to ride a tandem.  You answered questions I was afraid to ask a the risk of sounding foolish."

So you have decided that you want to stop going it alone on your bike but you have never ridden a tandem. Learn some basic information here so you can have some idea of what is involved in learning to ride a tandem or triple or quint.

I'll take you through some basic tandem terminology, discuss my points on riding a tandem, and show you an article from the late Sheldon Brown on riding a tandem.

Basic Terms

  • Tandem - bicycle built for two, typically with rider in front steering and pedaling and the rider behind pedaling and reading cue sheets
  • Sociable - a side by side bicycle built for two.
  • Captain - rider who steers, typically the ride in front, but on an Opus Counterpoint the rider in the rear is the captain. Follow the link for more on what the captain's duties are riding a tandem.
  • Stoker - rider in the rear (except on Counterpoint)Follow the link on the "Stoker" for more on what the stoker's duties are riding a tandem
  • Sync or crossover chain - chain from captain's cranks to stoker's cranks. Some debate on which side the chain should be placed. Different crowds have different thoughts on how this can place torque on the bottom bracket and other lower frame members.
  • Drum brake - brake threaded onto rear hub, typically used to SLOW a tandem on a long descent without overheating the rims.
  • Disc brakes - used in all weather conditions to STOP a bike. Will not contribute to rim wear in bad weather. Wheel out of true will not cause pulsation in the brakes.
Have more questions about tandem terminology? Try searching here for an answer.


Ride a Tandem

It really isn't all that hard. The key learning to ride a tandem is communication. It is the duty of the driver to inform the stoker of all upcoming events including turns, decelerations, stops, evasive maneuvers and bumps.
One of the worst things you as captain as you learn to ride a tandem is the failure to inform the stoker of upcoming bumps.

It has been said many times that a riding 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 get a couple who don't get to spend enough leisure time together on a big bike.
My wife and I really enjoy the time we spend on our tandem. We are together, sharing time and a pastime we really like. Now that I have the child adapter for the stoker, my 6 year old rides with me. She loves it too. My son has already asked when he can learn to ride a tandem.

How do we start/stop?

Inevitably, if you want to learn to ride a tandem, you will have to learn  to start.  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 a camera the first time so you can laugh later)

While standing over the bike, and holding it upright (some recommend having the seat lean bicycle pedalagainst one buttocks), the stoker should get on and get both feet attached to pedals. I highly recommend when you do begin on your journey to learn to ride a tandem, some type of clip-in pedals systems for tandems. They make emergency stops safer, and eliminate the gasp from the stoker as the captain leans over to grab his toe strap. Personally, I use Crank Brothers Egg-Beater SL Pedals and my wife uses the Shimano SPD MTB Pedals. Both of these pedals offer a recessed cleat that won't interfere with your walking around should you bicycle pedalget off and stop at a rest stop. Road shoes generally don't offer the best walking experience. A lot of people who ride a tandem do them in groups or other more "social" situations where the group may get off and walk a bit or stand around and socialize.

Something to keep in mind while mounting the tandem is for the stoker. S/he stoker should be very aware of the effects of leaning, and should NEVER lean in the direction opposite from where the captain has a foot down.

(again a note on shoe choice. mountain bike shoes may afford a safer experience for a tandem team. Road shoes are typically smooth soled and can slip at a stop causing an embarrassing tip over)

See my shoe section for more information on shoe selection for what is right for what conditions when you ride a tandem.

During all of this mounting on the back of the stoker, the captain should have his legs spread, so that when the stoker rotates the pedals, he will not get hit by his own pedals. The captain should announce which pedal he wants down, and should 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 he is ready to start, he should announce "ready to go" or something similar and wait for acknowledgment from the stoker. At this point, the captain will push off with the other foot and start pedaling. Since most tandems are connected rather than independent drive, the stoker will start pedaling at the same time. The captain may be able to get into the other pedal without coasting or may say "Coast", if you are riding a coupled tandem, and then engage the other pedal.

When you find yourself starting on hills or in traffic it may be best to get moving with this foot on top of the pedal and then ride with your foot unclipped and wait to engage when it is safer. The stoker can keep you moving as they will be clipped in. Stokers should be aware that starting up this way can be hard on your body. The knees and ankles are not so good at taking high torque situations as well as abrupt starts and stop, so be careful. Congratulations, you have taken a step from watching and wanting to ride a tandem to actually doing it.

When stopping, the captain should put down one foot and hold the bike steady, while the stoker remains in place. This will prevent any unannounced changes in the angle of the bike that the captain will have to try to overcome. Stoker, stay in place until the captain has unclipped and put a foot down.

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. Remember to communicate this if you don't have an uncoupled tandem.  This is where the pedals come into play again.  Being comfortable with your pedal and shoe combination makes this a piece of cake.

When both the riders are getting off the bike, at an ice cream shoppe,roadside pie palace (RAGBRAI!!!), candy store or somewhere else the stoker wants to stop (you'll learn this guys), the captain should stop like he would at a light or stop sign. The stoker should then get off the bike and get clear so the captain can then get off the bike, making sure he is aware of the handlebars in the back. (Stokers might want a camera the first few times for these moments as well. There is nothing like seeing your captain catch his foot in rear handlebars and try to extract him[her]self gracefully. A tandem kind of goes over like a skyscraper. It starts out slow and builds into quite a large crash and pile of debris.  Oh, and it hurts too.

Learning to ride a tandem just takes practice and communication!

The late Sheldon Brown put out a good article several years ago that may give you another point of view on learning to ride a tandem. This article can be found in its entirety at this site.

A good piece of advice from that article was to read, "The Tandem Scoop: An Insiders Guide to Tandem Cycling". This is a good book and after reading it, I can recommend it. Sheldon knew what he was talking about so if he recommends a book, it is a good one. If you have never visited the site he had, check it out. I have used it for years as a general reference guide.

Remember that learning to ride a tandem should be fun!  You didn't get a tandem for the exercise alone.  You can do that on a single bike with your friends.  You did this for "together" time.

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