Those of you who receive American Randonneur– a quarterly publication of Randonneurs USA– may find this article about randonneuring tandem basics familiar, as it is a piece that was recently published in the Summer edition. I’m reprinting it here. Thanks to Mike Wali for the pics in this piece.
Whenever Felkerino and I take our tandem out, people frequently stop to inquire what it’s like to ride a bicycle built for two. In response we exchange knowing looks and provide an oversimplified and vague response– something along the lines of “It’s fun.” In truth, it’s much more than that.
Ed and I began riding tandem together in late 2004, and the following year we completed a full Super Randonneur series on a Cannondale mountain tandem modified as much as possible to suit our randonneuring needs.
A decade of steady tandem riding helped us hone our skills as a team and also brought about an awareness of the differences in riding long on the same bike compared to riding single.
Know Each Other’s Fitness Level and Riding Style
When Ed and I first started riding tandem, we quickly assessed each other’s fitness. Ed was a seasoned randonneur, and I had participated on weeklong supported tours and was able to ride a century with no lasting fatigue. While Ed was the stronger cyclist, we both possessed a level of fitness that allowed us to attempt our first 200K together with confidence.
It’s also important to have a compatible riding style. If you like to grind a big gear, then riding with Ed would not be your thing, as he likes to maintain a higher cadence than many riders I know. I also prefer a higher spin on the tandem, though I pedal a slightly heavier gear when on my single.
Adjust the Bike for Both of You
Adjustment of any brevet bike must be just so in order to enjoy pain-free all-day (or longer) riding. When it comes to riding tandem, that goes for both people.
Dialing in a tandem takes time, especially if the bike is not custom-fitted to each rider. During the course of a brevet, adjustments to things like saddles may be needed. Don’t be afraid to stop and turn a bolt if it means continued comfort of the team.
Depending on the size of each rider, a stock tandem may not work well for longer distances. We tweaked our Cannondale mountain frame for two years straight until we finally concluded that no amount of fiddling would make it fit us comfortably. Knowing that we wanted to continue to ride brevets together, we invested in a custom-sized Co-Motion Speedster, which made a world of difference to my comfort, especially on multi-day brevets.
Develop a Common Approach and Shared Goals
It’s important to have a shared understanding about how you plan to train and approach brevets. Otherwise, you might find yourself reaching for a coupler wrench or the nearest saw.
In our first year of riding brevets together, Ed and I agreed to take each brevet as it came. If the 200K went well, we would attempt a 300K together. If the 300K worked out for us as a team, then we would move onto the 400K.
Since then, we discuss our randonneuring goals early in the year. Do we want to complete a Super Randonneur series? Are we interested in attempting a 1000K or 1200K? After our rough outline of the rides we want to do comes together, we then develop a training approach. We mutually agree on when we’ll ride long on weekends, how long is long, where we’ll ride, and when we’ll clip in.
We also discuss how frequently we will stop during a ride, especially on a brevet. It’s easy to inadvertently throw away time on a long ride. Generally, our goal is to spend around an hour per century off the bike.
As much as possible, we stick to our agreed-upon plans. Doing so shows respect for the team and commitment to our shared goals.
Handling the Hecklers
Tandems inevitably attract the attention of onlookers. “She’s not pedaling!” “Someone’s chasing you!” “Who does all the work?” These are just a few of the greatest hits of heckling you’ll hear when you ride as a tandem team.
It’s helpful to think about how you, as a team, will handle these comments, whether it be to ignore them or develop pat responses.
Manage Brevet Highs and Lows
During brevets, especially the 400K or 600K distances, it is normal for riders to experience ebbs and flows of energy. This can be because of bonking, fatigue, or just plain riding your brains out.
Ed knows that I take a while to warm up in the morning, and I know that he has more zip than I do in the early hours. After a year of trying to push the pace (which consistently ended with me throwing up by the roadside) we start our rides somewhere in the middle.
My energy tends to dip around sunset, but then returns after nightfall. I like night riding and digging in during the final miles of brevets, whereas Ed often doesn’t have the same pep. I remember feeling fantastic one evening, riding under the full moon, chatting away with another rider, and realizing that Ed was not sharing in my state of bliss at that moment.
We have also learned to recognize the signs of bonking in each other. For example, when Ed starts throwing peanuts all over the place, I know he needs to eat. He knows when I start speaking incessantly about melancholic themes, I need food.
By sensitizing yourself to each other’s differences in energy flow, as well as maintaining an awareness of your partner’s physical state, you can minimize frustrations and work together as a team through a ride. You can look out for each other, suggest a short break, or maybe shove a Clif bar in the other person’s face.
Empathy for Each Other’s Position, Captain and Stoker
The stoker really has to trust the person captaining the bike, and the captain has to rely on a stoker who maintains a steady position and is responsive to the choices the captain makes.
The captain has the main view of the road and ultimately makes all the stopping and steering choices for the team. Since I know Ed is managing all of that up front, I make sure to keep an eagle eye on the cue sheet so we avoid missing turns or other cues, especially at night.
Since the stoker also has an increased ability to ride hands-free, tandem teams may wish to work out a system where the stoker helps with providing food to the captain. In our case, Ed has an easily accessible front bag, which allows him to eat on the bike as he needs.
I believe night riding can be challenging for stokers. When it’s dark out in a rural area, there are no lights and I cannot see in front of me. Ed blocks my view. Peripherally, I have no view, either, as it is dark outside.
My saving grace is a clear starry evening so I can occasionally look up and see which constellations are keeping us company. That darkness can be a real mental challenge. Nothing insurmountable, but an element the stoker must manage.
On the up-side I have a draft from the captain, which works against me during the summer months since the draft doesn’t allow the same level of breeze to flow over me, but comes in handy on cold days. In exchange, the captain takes the full brunt of the cold, wind, and any bugs that fly into the bike’s path.
You Only Go as Fast as the Slowest Person
When I ride solo, I don’t have to worry about anybody but myself. If I want to stop for a minute or press on in a fit of ambition, I can easily do so. It isn’t like that on a tandem. If one person needs to stop for any reason, both people stop. If one person wants to push the pace, but the other person isn’t feeling it, the pace doesn’t ramp up.
This is why all the elements above are so important to keep in mind. If you have shared expectations, an agreed-upon plan, an understanding of each person’s riding style, and empathy for one another, you have laid the groundwork for successful randonneuring on tandem.
It’s a whole different kind of accomplishment to complete a brevet on a tandem. Tandeming makes randonneuring a team sport. It takes two people, working together on one bike, pedaling toward a common goal, to make it happen. Let me know if you give it a whirl.