cycling · disability

Bicycles built for two


I’ve always loved the idea of a tandem bicycle. Why?

Cycling plus togetherness. Really, what’s not to like? There’s a fun and helpful article by Sheldon Brown on the reasons to ride a tandem with lots of advice about technique here.

The cute bike pictured above, complete with hula skirt on the basket, was spotted at the Chatham Kent Y triathlon I was at last weekend.

My partner and I felt the same way about tandem bikes. We loved the idea. We talked about it lots. Of course, it could never be our only bike, we agreed. See How many bikes is too many? where you’ll learn that I’m not afraid at all of owning more bikes. The more the merrier.

And fun to go fast together, we thought. That is, until we tried one.

Control freaks are us. The larger cyclist goes first. This means the view of the smaller cyclist, in our case, me, is the back of the larger cyclist. In no time I was scared and pukey. Stop!

Unlike this couple we won’t be improving our relationship by riding a tandem bike.

Okay, we thought but we could use it with the kids. I’d ride in the front with my daughter in the back. Nope. Turns out we’ve raised a family of control freaks. Tandem bicycles aren’t for us after all. We’ll ride together sure but each on our own bike.

I have a friend at our velodrome who owns a tandem track bike but again, since I’d be in the back, I didn’t volunteer.

Tandems are in the news this week with the unveiling of the bronze statue memorializing Jack Layton. The life-size bronze sculpture depicts the former federal NDP leader riding a tandem bike.  The front seat of the tandem is empty and visitors are encouraged to sit down and have their photo taken with Layton who was a tremendous advocate for cyclists.

According to the CBC, MP Olivia Chow and Layton’s spouse “recalled how the couple rode a tandem bicycle, which they bought each other as a wedding present. When they rode together as newlyweds, Chow would occupy the rear seat. The statue unveiled Thursday features Jack in the back seat, a switch Chow explained was intentional. “When we rode together, I had Jack’s back,” said Chow. “Now Jack has your back.”” Read more here.

Olivia Chow, Doris Elizabeth

The one time I was asked to consider riding in front of a tandem bike was in Australia when I was on sabbatical in a city that had a program for blind cyclists. I couldn’t do it as I was just a visitor but it seems like a terrific idea. You can read about the program here. I like the slogan of the umbrella group of which tandem cycling is part,
“Inclusive recreation for Australians of all abilities.”

I think if I became blind myself I wouldn’t mind being the stoker, the person in the back. Presumably I’d still love cycling. One of my complaints, the view, wouldn’t matter in that situation. Liking to be in charge on a bike might still be an issue but I suspect lots of my control freak tendencies might have to change, or find another outlet in the case of that disability. I don’t know.

There isn’t such a group in London but there is in Toronto. If you’re a sighted cyclist, consider it. If you’re blind and interested in biking, here you go.

“The TRAILBLAZERS Tandem Cycling Club, a registered charity, provides recreational cycling to people who have limited or no vision, the opportunity to cycle with sighted volunteers on our tandems (bicycles built for two).”
Toronto Trailblazers

Have you ever ridden a tandem? Front or back? Loved it or hated it?


8 thoughts on “Bicycles built for two

  1. Rode in front a couple of times and I have brought up the rear on other occasions as well. I agree that it is a little disconcerting giving up control but the fun is what I go after. I will still talk to the front driver about handling and corrections but it is a matter of trust. For a group of control freaks I guess that’s easier said than done right?

      1. nope, remember not to crane over people to see where you are going, often we look and we automatically turn the handlebar to steer.

  2. I rode in the back. My partner is 5’10”, I’m 5’1″. No, I didn’t enjoy it.

    That was well…18 yrs. ago or so. 🙂 Instead we ride separately near one another.

    I do plan to see the statute next time in T.O. My partner worked with Jack Layton on Metro Toronto’s cycling committee for a few years when we lived in Toronto.

  3. The taller person does not have to automatically go in front with tandems. There are actually people who think in makes more sense to put the shorter person in front. I always assumed that heterosexual couples ride with the guy in front because of gender roles (like men driving the car, etc.) rather than functionality.

    1. I thought the larger person did. Interesting. Here is the faq from a tandem company: We often hear that tandem riders are “sexist” because the guy usually rides in the front or captain position. While it is true that usually the guy goes up front, this is due to physiology not psychology!Tandems handle much better when the heavier, larger rider is in the captain position. By putting the larger ride up front the weight is better distributed on the frame. All modern tandems are designed for the bigger person, who is typically the guy, to sit in the front or captain position on the tandem.When you get up close to a tandem bike, you’ll see that almost all tandems are taller in the front position compared to the rear. Manufacturers build their bikes this way for many reasons, which include important issues such as frame stiffness and aerodynamics. As such, this places the taller rider in the front and the smaller rider in the stoker position. Unless a couple is very similar in height, it just makes sense to fit the taller rider up front and the smaller person in the back as the tandem fits each rider much better this way.We are guessing that you probably know this, but men and women are different! This is especially true when it comes to strength. Captaining a tandem bicycle requires more strength than riding a single, since the captain must control a heavier bike and the combined weight of two people. For most couples this means it makes sense for the man to captain the tandem.The bottom line? For most couples that tandem, the guy acts as the captain and the woman finds herself stoking. While it is possible for some couples to switch positions on the tandem, and sometimes necessary for the woman to captain (as in the case of sight-impaired men) for most tandem teams it really comes down to a matter of size, stature and strength.Finally, ask any stoker that you meet if SHE minds riding in back: Chances are pretty good that she LOVES it!

  4. My ex and I rented a tandem once; I was the stronger cyclist (by a WIDE margin…) so he figured that would be a way for us to be able to ride together. After one or two false starts (we discovered that weight distribution problem for ourselves), we did have a fun ride. But wow, control issues are right. Yikes.

    My current sweetie is a cyclist, and we’re pretty evenly matched size -wise, but our cadence is very different. We might test ride a tandem someday but I’m in no hurry.

    That condescending little bit “Finally, ask any stoker that you meet if SHE minds riding in back: Chances are pretty good that she LOVES it!” would put me right off dealing with that particular tandem company, EVER. GAH. There is no possible polite response to that…

    There must be a way to design frames around that size issue, other than the combination recumbent tandems (those do look cool though).

    Last summer I almost got to ride with Dominic Gill:

    He was doing a project in Alberta and wanted to talk to locals. That would have been fun. Sadly the scheduling didn’t work out.

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