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(Frequently Asked Questions)

I started riding as a pilot (front-seat) on tandems with people with vision-impairments in 2003. It has been rewarding and great fun. Riding around Perth on a tandem I’ve been asked “what is it like to ride a tandem?” many, many times, so I thought I’d compile an FAQ to answer some of the more common questions. My good friend and very experienced tandem rider, Adriana Lepore has answered from a stoker’s (backseat) perspective.

– Beau Tang

Q: How did you get involved?

Beau: I’d been commuting to work for a long time and riding by myself on weekends but was getting a bit bored. There was no way I’d join the “lycra-loonies” racing around town, but surely there were other alternatives? I don’t know what prompted me, but I contacted the Association for the Blind (WA) in 2003 and they put me in contact with the WA Tandem Cycling Advisory Council. WATCAC is a great volunteer organisation that encourages and supports vision-impaired cyclists. Through them, I was eased into tandem cycling and now ride tandems at least twice a week. I’ve ridden with several “stokers”, but mostly with my good mate Leon and I now wear lycra with pride.

Adriana: Many years ago the Association for the blind offered various recreational activities for their members to try out. I took up Water skiing then was introduced to Tandem cycling by the Recreation Officer. One day a guy by the name of Hab turned up at my house and told me we were going out for a 15 kilometer ride, I just looked at him and said, “You’ve got to be kidding”, fifteen years later and we are still riding a tandem and loving it.

Q: Is it difficult to ride a tandem?

Beau: No, although tandems are different and it takes a little practice and little teamwork. WATCAC periodically runs introductory tandem clinics on safe courses mostly in Manning and Como with accredited cycling coaches. I attended two of these, probably 3 hours in total, and was ready to hit the road. WATCAC organises regular recreation rides with experienced leaders and these were a good way to build some confidence. I now have tens of thousands of tandem kms under my belt and it just feels normal.

Adriana: It’s not that it is difficult to ride a tandem, it just takes more communication and more energy due to the extra weight to push around and of course you tend to talk more. From a stoker’s point of view, it takes a bit of patience when riding with different Pilots as they have different quirks and styles of riding and some don’t like to use many gears.

Q: Who controls the bike?

Beau: The pilot steers, brakes and controls the gears, i.e. all of the immediate stuff, but at different times Leon will call the shots, he’ll say, “harder gear” and I’ll change up, or he’ll see the shadow of someone catching up with us (Leon has a little vision and is very, very competitive) and put his foot down and I’ll join in. I don’t race, but Leon has, so if we’re in a bunch ride and there is a sprint on, Leon generally takes charge. As a team, we have to agree on which rides we’ll do and how we’ll tackle them, which is not difficult as we’re good mates and know each other well.

Adriana: From a stoker’s point of view it is a team effort but the Pilot is responsible for the controls as they have the eyes. Teamwork is very important, as without both riders working together the tandem won’t be as efficient. Believe it or not, the stoker in many circumstances is the better navigator.

Q: Is it different to ride from a single bike?

Beau: Yes. A tandem is longer so U-turns need to be taken carefully. A tandem accelerates slowly, so we have to try harder to keep up with single bikes at traffic lights and such. With two people on board, a tandem is nicely balanced and feels just like my single bike, but a tandem without a stoker feels very, very odd. Tandems are heavy because they are long and carry a heavy load – no lightweight carbon here.

Adriana: It is different in that there are two people on a tandem so whatever you attempt to do needs to be communicated. If the other rider isn’t aware then sometimes the result could be an unfavourable one with both riders tumbling to the ground as a tandem is easily unbalanced.

Q: Are they fast?

Beau: Oh yes. On the flat, a tandem has a speed advantage over a single bike, maybe because we have the legs of two bikes but the wind resistance of one. Downhill, a tandem is a rocket; I’ve heard stories of tandems clocking the speedo over 99km/h. I’ve been up to 80km/h on occasions, which is quite fast enough for me. Up hill we lag behind single bikes. Momentum is the key. On short climbs if we can get a run up, we can power over, on long climbs, it is a grind.

Adriana: It all depends on who your front rider is, if they are a thrill seeker then you can fly especially downhill which is awesome. Unlike Beau, I have clocked speeds of 90km going down a steep hill but if you have a confident front rider then it won’t be a scary experience.

Q: Do you race?

Beau: I don’t, but Leon has at National and International events. That’s how I met Leon, he wanted to compete, but couldn’t train all the time with his racing partner so I got involved to help his road training. People with vision-impairments compete on tandems at Paralympic events on the velodrome and on the road. In the past tandems have competed in ATTA time trials and some club races, but some clubs won’t allow them to enter their events. Leon and I enter the BWA Cyclo Sportif events with some mates – three of whom are also tandem pilots – and have a lot of fun.

Adriana: I have competed in State and National events both on the road and Velodrome. My current front rider and I competed in the Busselton Half Iron man last May in the teams event where all our team members were vision impaired; it was great to be part of such a prestigious event. The exposure for tandem cycling has improved over the years thus allowing many vision impaired people to participate and compete on an equal level with single bike riders.

Q: How does the stoker know what is going on?

Beau: Initially with a new duo on a tandem, there is a lot of communication as the pilot keeps the stoker informed, but over time as a partnership forms the two riders build an understanding and don’t need to talk about the ride as much. Leon and I know each other very well now, so our communication is more often about how the Wallabies or the All Blacks played or how to solve the world’s problems than it is about the ride. When we do speak about the ride, it is mostly little warnings so that he will be ready, e.g. “we’re coming up to a stop sign.”

Adriana: Initially there is quite a lot of instruction and communication and that is equally the responsibility of the stoker as well as the front rider. As Beau mentioned above, once you have spent a reasonable time cycling with one front rider then riding together is second nature as you learn to anticipate many aspects of the ride and it becomes a very social activity.

Q: How do you know if the other one is slacking off?

Beau: I’d feel it in my legs. Both sets of cranks are connected by a chain on the non-drive side of the bike and spin at the same speed. If one rider backs off, the other notices the increased resistance immediately. Conversely, if one rider puts in more effort, the other notices the decreased resistance. In practice, both riders know that they can’t hide from the other and neither wants to feel that he/she is letting the other down, so typically both put in about the same amount of effort.

Adriana: It is not an easy practice to slacken off as it makes the ride very unenjoyable for the other person, tandem is team work and it is hard to ignore that.

Q: It is a big responsibility being a tandem pilot?

Beau: I used to think it was, and would finish a ride with sore arms and shoulders because I’d been holding the bars in a death grip. Over time, as I gained experience, I learned to relax. I also realised that the back riders aren’t like passengers needing me to look after them; they’re cyclists like me and run the same risks that I do. Now I seldom think about it in terms of responsibility.

Adriana: From a stoker’s point of view the responsibility is to make sure you do your share of the work and to inform the front rider of things they may not be aware of. The stoker does put a lot of trust in the front rider, but as I see it, the front rider isn’t going to jeopardise his or her own safety.

Q: Is it fun?

Beau: Big time. A tandem on song is something to experience. I’ll never go so fast on my single bike. There is the social aspect too. On a tandem, you’ve always got a mate to keep you company.

Adriana: It is great fun, there are days when I don’t want to go out on the tandem but once I do I realise how much fun it is and that I would really miss it if I couldn’t do it anymore. I have met a lot of wonderful and amazing people through tandem cycling, especially my current front rider who I will be cycling with till I am at least 80 years old.

Q: Have you had any stacks?

Beau: Not many. One when a car tried a U-turn in front of myself and Janet (another stoker) and we dropped the bike and slid under the car – which thankfully stopped. Other than that, nothing serious. There was one where – new to cleats – I pulled the bike up on Leon’s driveway without telling Leon we were stopping and without pulling my shoes out. We ended up on the lawn, Leon asking, “what happened?” and me laughing. Of course it is scarier for the stoker because they can’t see what is happening, we’ve had a few close calls where all I’ve been able to say while it is happening is “Sh*t! Sh*t! Sh*t! …”, which doesn’t do a lot to keep Leon informed. I joke that on a tandem, the pilot is the stoker’s airbag. Seriously though, I don’t think that a tandem is intrinsically more dangerous than a single bike.

Adriana: I have had a couple of spills not anything major, it is more the case of cars not realising how long the tandems are and that they need more time to stop and that tandems can go at a reasonable pace.

Q: What is it like to ride on the back?

Beau: I’ve done a few long rides on the back of a tandem – at one time we had more pilots than stokers – and enjoyed it. Sitting on the back, I was out of the wind a bit and as it was really wet and windy that was a good thing. Without the responsibilities of piloting I found I was fascinated by my knees, I’d watch them go up, down, up, down… I tried closing my eyes for a while and that was interesting.

Adriana: When I first lost my sight it felt really strange as my balance was affected. As Beau stated above, the stoker is protected from the wind, unless you have a front rider who is very windy, not a nice experience. The responsibilities are different for both riders, I do the navigating for my current front rider and being on the back of the tandem, I tend to wear more of the mud on a wet rainy ride.

Q: Why don’t you stay in the group?

Beau: We join in a number of group rides around town and sometimes the other riders wonder why we go faster or slower than the group at different times. Mostly this is because of differences between the performance of a tandem and a single bike. If we know we’re coming to a hill, we’ll speed up to get a head start because we know the single bikes will catch us on the way up a long hill, or if the hill is short we’ll speed up to try and power over it. If we’re going downhill, we go faster than them because gravity is on our side.

Adriana: My favourite place on a ride is in a group, it is great to be able to ride with a group of bikes both as it is an easier ride due to sitting on a wheel out of the wind and secondly I love the sound of the gears changing and the whoosh of the wheels, it gets the adrenalin going. We aren’t always able to ride in a group due to the pace being faster and we just tend to do a lot of chasing as we are constantly being dropped from the bunch.

Q: Are tandems expensive?

Beau: They can be. Many tandems are custom built, but even off-the-rack tandems can be pricey. I guess that is a function of the extra materials required – remember that tandems are longer and need stronger construction to cope with the extra weight – and the fact that there is less demand for them than for single bikes. Tandems are ridden hard, their chains, clusters and back tyres seem to wear out faster than a single bike’s. The cost can be a barrier for the vision-impaired, so WATCAC owns a fleet of tandems that are available for loan to members. These bikes have been bought with grants and so on, but the fleet is ageing and needs to be maintained.

Adriana: They can be, it all depends on what level of cycling you are interested in and how much cycling you intend to do. As Beau stated Tandems can range from $4,000 to $10,000 for a new road-racing tandem. Recreation tandems can be bought for as low as $800 second hand. Parts on a tandem tend to wear quicker due to extra weight, in particular the back wheel as it takes most of the weight of the tandem. Like single bikes it just comes down to how much you want to spend on your bike.

Q: Why is WATCAC an “Advisory Council”? Is it a club?

Beau: The aim of WATCAC is not to be the single cycling outlet for vision-impaired people. Rather we want to introduce the vision-impaired to cycling and encourage them to make contacts in the mainstream cycling community so that they can integrate with other cyclists. Part of our role is to liaise with cycling clubs and other organisations to remove obstacles that might prevent a vision-impaired person from participating in different events. For example, the Cyclo Sportif (and now BWA) guys have been fantastically welcoming to tandems and have gone out of their way to help us participate in their events. Having said that, WATCAC does have a club feel and we do organise a number of rides through the year.

Adriana: WATCAC did start out as a club for people who are blind or vision impaired so they could have the opportunity to experience cycling. As the years went on it was determined that WATCAC would serve better as an advisory Council to provide people with a vision impairment the opportunity to enjoy cycling in an inclusive environment. Being an Advisory Council has opened up the field for people who are vision impaired to be part of various cycling events such as the freeway Bike Hike held every year in March. This process has allowed vision-impaired cyclists to be part of mainstream clubs in particular Bicycling WA who have been extremely inclusive with their Cyclo Sportif events.