A Life Together: Adventures in Tandem
By Andy Brown, posted 24 April 2018
Contact on twitter @justridethebike
Sarah Fox lets us in to her family's secret for the best holidays. Get yourself a tandem.
19 years ago Brian and I became the proud, and slightly bemused, owners of a mint green Toucan tandem. We’d tested the Dawes entry level model and decided it had too much lateral flex... like riding a snake. We tested the top-of-the-range Cannondale but didn’t have the cash. Luckily, given our 13” height difference, Swallows had a suitable second-hand tandem, which we duly bought, strapped to our (also newly acquired) Pendle tandem roof rack and took home.
We’d hired tandems a couple of times before, once along the Avon Cycleway and I’d laughed with the sheer exhilaration. It was like being on a rollercoaster... I wasn't in control and yet I was cycling with the wind in my hair and my life in the hands of the pilot. What could be more fun?
We had a blast. Before the kids spoiled our fun, our tandem adventures saw us cycling along the banks of Loch Awe and Loch Katrine, and up the steep hills of the Yorkshire Dales and the Rossneath Peninsula. The smell of burning rubber in the Dales, shortly followed by the alternative (uncontrolled descent) in Scotland, were enough to convince us that we urgently needed a hub brake. Apart from a suspension seat post for the stoker, the imminent arrival of our first born meant we had little time to carry out the other improvements the tandem needed.
Once our first son arrived, our adventures were based around feed, nap and change times. We rode the tandem around the quieter Cheshire lanes and made the most of the Monsal, Tissington (left, 2010) and High Peak Trails. As our family grew, the tandem became our default transport from our holiday cottage or tent, rather than the car that got us there. The kids started in the trailer and graduated to the bike seat and then the tag-a-long, before I was peremptorily removed as stoker and my place was taken by one of our sons, pedalling with kiddie cranks. Now I had to keep up with them!
Highs and Lows
We got admiring glances as we pushed it through the narrow streets of Padstow although our family blended seamlessly into the others on the Camel Trail. Of course, the high points were occasionally balanced by simmering glares of those who had tried to pass with their caravan as we struggled up the narrow and steep hills of St Issey and Little Petherwick... When we rested at the top of the hill I occasionally exchanged words with the motorists, claiming that I preferred my ‘soft top' to theirs.
The tandem was our escape from the car. We packed the trailer with picnics, spades, boogie boards and swim kit before setting off for a day at a beach, Creeley’s or Bedruthan Steps. We didn’t have to worry about parking spaces, fees or the tides at Port Isaac. And we always deserved an ice cream.
As the kids grew, our adventures took us to France, Germany and even Italy by ferry and, naturally, we took our tandem and various solo bikes with us. The boys grew up with bikes, sitting in and on them from a few days old, in a car seat strapped inside the trailer. We saw more, chatted more and stopped for anything, like a field of sunflowers near Saumur (2010).
We Eurocamped with another family and they got a kiddie-back so our two families with six kids spent happy days cycling around quiet roads, to vineyards, to festivals, to odd places. It seemed utterly normal.
The tandems were a lifesaver for anyone too tired to cycle home... if we had enough bikes to jiggle around! The tandem was safer when the kids couldn’t be trusted to apply their brakes or pay attention to staying upright. It allowed the stoker time to gaze at the countryside. It meant adult and kids could learn the rules of the road together. It was our trusty steed, the workhorse of our holidays. The rack always seemed to have food, clothes or drink attached; panniers packed with artisan cider or cheese, baguettes strapped lengthwise to stop them breaking, or souvenirs from our jaunts. We might have put them to practical use occasionally by packing waterproofs and a first aid kit too!
Of course, owning a tandem is not normal in the sense of something done by the majority of the population, never mind the majority of the cycling community. We were rare shimmering beasties. We didn't join any official clubs but as tandem owners you are part of an elite set. Those chained to each other through up hill and down. Through fitness and lethargy. And slightly more bike mad than the rest of the world, including when the Tour de France passes within metres of your sister/aunt’s house in Huddersfield (left, 2014). Abruptly our youngest decided he was not going to ride with dad again and we removed the kiddie cranks after we finally got the hint.
So now we have our tandem back for two adults with no day-tripping teens. What adventures will be next?
Sarah, Cheshire UK
All photo credits: Sarah Fox, 2018