Tandem Tips from ecovelo

Our final guest post is from none other than ecovelo, bike-lifestyle blog extraordinaire. (Technical difficulties prevented me from receiving the post until recently.) Chances are you’re already a fan. If not, you soon will be. Below are thoughts from husband and wife team Alan and Michael about tandem riding.

They say there’s nothing quite like a long ride on a tandem to shine a bright light on a relationship. If the relationship is good, the ride will be too, but if the relationship has its problems, well…

Riding together on individual bikes is not too unlike riding a tandem as a couple. In other words, it can be a real joy or a real pain depending upon how it’s approached. We’ve been riding together for a number of years, and though we’ve experienced a few bumps along the way, we’re fortunate to have a harmonious relationship on the road in which we read each other’s subtle cues and ride together with little effort and zero conflict. We only arrived at this on-road relationship through many, many miles of practice, and lots of talking about how to better communicate and take care of each other while riding our bicycles. Following are a few of the things we think are key to riding smoothly and safely as a couple:

Someone needs to lead and someone needs to follow – It’s usually best if a ride leader is determined before departure to reduce the likelihood of confusion or conflict on the road. Typically the more experienced rider leads.

The slower person determines the pace – The slower person should always determine the ride pace, even if they’re in the following position. It’s the leader’s responsibility to be sure they don’t drop the follower or inadvertently push the pace beyond the comfort level of the slower rider.

The slower person should be on an equal or faster bicycle – If at all possible, the slower rider should be on the faster bike to reduce the speed differential between the two riders. It’s common to see the less-experienced, less-fit rider on the heavier, slower bike, which only undermines the pacing rule above.

The less experienced rider sets the comfort level of the route (traffic levels, infrastructure, distance) – It’s up to the less-experienced rider to determine what type of roads they’re willing to traverse. The leader should never pressure the less-experienced rider into situations in which they’re uncomfortable.

The leader always defers to the less experienced rider unless it’s a safety issue – A less-experienced rider may not understand what they’re getting into and find themselves feeling overwhelmed once they’re on the road. It’s imperative that the leader defers to the follower and respects their need to turn back, take an alternate route, or whatever is necessary to reduce their unease.

Develop a consistent method of communicating (hand signals, voice, visual) – It’s important to learn each other’s signals and cues. Agree upon a set of simple hand signals to indicate upcoming turns, slowing, debris in road, car-behind, etc.

A sure way to put a quick end to a riding relationship is to simply head out the door without a clear understanding of each other’s expectations. Acknowledging each other’s expectations and agreeing upon a plan for the ride, while always putting the other rider’s needs above your own, is the most effective way to ensure a healthy, long-term riding relationship.

Thanks, ecovelo! This really makes me want to grab a companion and go on a ride. What has everyone else’s experience been riding “in tandem.” And has anyone else out there ridden an actual tandem?

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12 thoughts on “Tandem Tips from ecovelo

  1. Becky says:

    My husband and I ride together often, but my favorite way to do so is on the tandem we are borrowing from a friend. When we are on separate bikes, we usually do well, but it often feels like one of us is chasing the other (it varies as to which of us is faster). On the tandem, however, we don’t have that problem. It is also nice to be able to chat without having to shout.

    It has also enabled us to take a 38 mile ride, which I don’t think we would have attempted on separate bikes. Being on the tandem and knowing we can help each other out, makes us feel more emboldened to take on longer rides.

  2. Anna says:

    My husband and I bicycled cross country together two years ago. Often he got ahead of me and would wait up (which is not ideal, especially when I got a flat) but all in all we rode well together and made it all the way across without any major issues. So fun!

    I have been dying to try a tandem. I don’t think we will purchase one, but I would love to ride around together for a day.

  3. nicolas says:

    For urban rides, I usually open the way, and my fiancée and I have developed a call-and-response system for knowing whether everything’s OK in the back: I do a little ring on my bell after tricky passages and intersection, and she rings back to let me know things are OK, adding delay the further back she is. It’s like a sonar, it’s awesome.

    • I quite frequently ride with my young (primary school) nephew and the rules are similar but not exactly the same. We do both quick errand trips and much longer rides as well. I think it’s a valid comparison to think about riding with children (maybe even more so when they are not “yours”) and what the relationship should be.
      I’m the leader, but he always rides in front so I can see him. But this post made me think maybe I should let him “be the leader” and take a bigger role in the route and decisions. It might make it more fun for him too.
      The bike differential is tough question though when his bike has smaller wheels and no gears. I have to always keep in mind that his little legs are doing a lot more work than mine. And communication is always a problem. But that’s what ice cream breaks are for–catching up.
      I’d be interested for other peoples hints for riding with kids….

  4. Amy says:

    I’m so glad to see the etiquette of riding as a pair codified so clearly!

    I’d like to hear whether other riders use a call and response method. In your pair, when does the follower call back? Do you ever give an “affirmative” to say that you got a message from the leader? I’m often afraid when I lead that directions involving more than one word like “right into left lane” or “uneven road” aren’t picked up. And I’ve had to shout “huh?!” on the roads before. Solutions?

    I particularly like Nicolas’ sonar method to check up on the follower without looking behind you. I think it would also do well for the lead rider to have a rear mirror.

  5. Traci says:

    These are great suggestions for riding together. I’ve never tried a tandem bike but would like to. My husband and I frequently ride together and the one issue involves your statement: “The slower person should be on an equal or faster bicycle.” My bike is much heavier and slower than my husband’s, as he has a very light-weight road bike and I have more of a commuter style bike. I really don’t like road bikes, however after many rides together, I know that I would like to be faster, so am considering getting another bike. He always says that he doesn’t mind going more slowly but I often like to ride at a REALLY slow pace, so feel that I’m holding him back.

  6. We rented a tandem in San Francisco. And for most of the ride I could only see my husband’s back. You really have to trust the leader, especially when we were suddenly going down I hill I couldn’t see.

  7. My husband and I have similar (and relatively high) experience and comfort with on-road cycling. We tend to follow most of these rules, but there’s still often tension when we cycle together (not on a tandem).

    He thinks I’m riding too close to parked cars (when I’m maintaining a 4-foot distance), and I think he’s riding needlessly (and, perhaps, obnoxiously to other traffic) far away from the parked cars, curb, etc. I like the idea of biking together, but it often leaves one or both of us stressed and frustrated.

  8. Dottie says:

    Ha, I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one! Riding with my husband can be the same for me :)

  9. Traci says:

    I can identify with that as well! I also tend to get irritated with him because he always wants to go through a red light if there is no other traffic around, while I insist on stopping regardless and waiting. However, I will go through the light if it doesn’t detect bicycles since there are several around our area that do not.

  10. […] I found the web site of htis place in our town where we have our beach hosue that I could rent a tandem bike from. Well we went last weekend for my daughter’s fall break from school and I talked her […]

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