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Tandem FAQ

by Pamela Blalock

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 tandem)
  • 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 come from?

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 relatively painless.

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 the stoker.

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 tape later!!!

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 the eccentric.

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 of others.
  • 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 part.
  • 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 wet.

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 bike.

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 rear wheel.

Matching clothes?

Many tandem teams dress like twins, but you don't have to!

How do we pack a tandem with couplers?

Click here.