top of page

On a bicycle made for two? 

by Emily Woodhouse, posted 5 October 2017

Contact JRtB on twitter @justridethebike

Tandems are still definitely made for two, but there is lot more to them than just a dated novelty song. Emily Woodhouse, entrepreneur, writer and adventurer debunks four popular tandem myths.

1. It’s a novelty bicycle


Ever since Daisy had to ride one to her wedding, tandems have been plagued by the image of a novelty bike. In fact, we have had the misfortune of someone singing the song out of a car window behind us. Ouch.


If you’re riding a tandem, many people assume that you’re not serious riders. This is categorically not the case. Tandem is to a solo bike as a two-person (double or pair) boat is to a scull. They’re different, but both propel you effectively.


A tandem has some definite advantages to other bicycles. You have twice the weight for the same air resistance as a solo bike. This means a trundle uphill, but exceptional speed downhill. There’s a reason that most tandems come with at least 3 brakes fitted. We managed to boil water off our disc brake half way down the chevroned hairpins of the Swiss mountains.


Tandems have even been used to break records. Charlie Mitchell and Dominic Irvine completed LEJOG in just over 45 hours on the same bike. I can’t find a reference for it, but I’m sure I heard someone did the end to end taking it in turns to sleep on the back. Sounds a bit dangerous! When we took ours on a sportive, we got a bit of banter… until we started overtaking lycra-clad carbon-framed roadies on the way up hill.


2. She’s not pedalling


Please let’s clear this one up. It is physically impossible for the person at the back of the tandem (called a stoker) not to be pedalling. Perhaps I look like an easy target, but people go out of their way to tell me that I’m not pedalling at the back. In fact, one woman was so keen to tell me, on a particularly steep hill in Luxembourg, that she managed to get the message across without being able to form a sentence in English. Thanks. Would it be different if I was male? I don’t know, but here’s the mechanics behind the tandem to set it all straight.


There are two sets of pedals on a tandem and two chains. The back chain works like a normal bicycle. It runs through the gears and levers. The second chain links the front pedals to the back pedals. So, if one person pushes down on a pedal, both pedals move. Unlike a ‘tag-a-long’ designed for children, who only pedal when they feel like it, if one tandem rider gets bored of pedalling neither can go anywhere.


3. There’s so much room!


Tandems are often taken on tour. It’s the equivalent, in my mind, of going on a road trip in the same car rather than separate vehicles. It’s fun, but for such a big bicycle there really isn’t a lot of space for panniers. Most tandems have room for two front panniers, two back panniers and a rack pack (plus all the frame space if you can find bags for it). Just like the car analogy, you’ve halved the amount of stuff-carrying space. If you were travelling on two separate bicycles, then there’s be twice as many opportunities to hang panniers.


4. If I can ride a bike I can ride a tandem


Tandems are not as straight forward to ride as you might imagine. For a start, you need to communicate with each other very effectively. The first time I rode a tandem, it took us several goes to even start pedalling. Most tandems have both sets of pedals in sync, so there’s a dead spot after your first push off – which can feel a bit sketchy the first time!


Tandems are all about working together. If you’re the stoker, then you have to really trust the person in front of you. You relinquish the steering, the gear changing and most of the braking. At the front, you can’t stop when you feel like it, nor change cadence or direction without warning. The pilot takes control of most of the technical aspects of riding and spends most of the time watching the road. This frees up the stoker for map reading, photography, eye-spy, entertainment and anything else you can manage whilst still pedalling. Get the right team and you’ll have an amazing time.


Emily Woodhouse is an entrepreneur, writer and adventurer. She currently commutes 21 miles to work by bicycle and has been cycle touring since she was 15. Last year she cycled from Cambridge to Plymouth via Switzerland on a tandem - 2,276 miles, one bike, four legs, seven countries and an inordinate number of performance enhancing pastries (83 to be exact). Read more about her journey here:

Tandem bike myths
Tandem bike myths
Tandem bike myths
bottom of page