Coming Attraction

Coming Attraction

With 20 years of hindsight at my disposal, I’ve come to a realization. Tandems are a bit like God. Either you believe in them, or you don’t. Either you appreciate the intimate experience from sharing a set of wheels and each turn with another rider, or you just don’t see the point; sometimes you even think it’s a really bad idea. Sure, I’ve met the fence-sitters, folks who think the pomp, circumstance and ceremony of mass is pretty cool, but they’ve never been baptized, so to speak.

And I’m comparing tandems as a category to God and not to religion because, as it turns out, each brand stands as something of a religion. Bill McCready of Santana has been the best public face of tandeming for more than 20 years. He’s single-handedly pushed more technological advancement in tandems than every other brand put together; he’s the man who first brought disc brakes to tandems, way back in 1999. If he’s not the pope, I don’t know who is. Co-Motion has carved a separate path and has been, as a brand, much less outspoken in its views, but among the go-fast types I know, their bikes have been renown for having the best handling among these school-bus-long bikes. Think of them as the Episcopals or Lutherans—soft-spoken and easy going. There’s a whole host of others, such as Davinci, which gives the captain and stoker the ability to pedal independently. For some, it makes perfect sense, but for many captains, the thought that you can’t make sure your stoker’s inside pedal is up as you enter a turn isn’t so much a recipe for disaster as a complete oven-ready meal.

In 1997 I found myself with a girlfriend who rode and an interest in climbing on the back of a big, long bike. How could I say no? A buddy worked an introduction to a shop with demo tandems and a friend who was an experienced stoker. We gave it a try one Saturday. The single clearest memory I have from that day is that as we and the group we were riding with (composed mostly of singles, which is tandem-speak for normal bikes), Natalie, my stoker, stood up, leaned over me, and she gave us a kick of acceleration that would have made Carroll Shelby smile.

Yep, I like this.


I ended up purchasing a tandem, a Cannondale that I probably put 10,000 miles on with an ex. On one occasion we managed to string out a popular training ride, going 32 into the wind. No one came by us until the sprint. So shattered was the group that people were still coming around us a full minute after we’d stopped pedaling. Good times.

But the ‘Dale started collecting dust when I met my wife. She likes bikes, but had no interest in sitting behind me on a bike, not as long as she had one of her own. You could say ours is a mixed marriage. It was following a conversation with the pope, er, McCready, when I mentioned looking forward to the day that I could pick up a trail-a-bike that he rounded on me told me not to. Bill does this. Trail-a-bikes are to Bill like birth control is to the real pope. That’s not how you do things. And then he made his case: The handling is compromised. The kid can coast full time and thereby lose the lesson of how going somewhere has a metabolic and psychic cost—you have to pedal. He talked about the lousy gearing on the trail-a-bikes that meant even if the kid wanted to pedal, they might be over- or under-geared.

The trail-a-bike was a sin against a child’s future as a cyclist.


Glad we settled that.

So I called his sales manager and ordered a child stoker kit. That tandem quickly became Mini-Shred’s favorite way to make the commute home from kindergarten. But I sold it ahead of our move to Sonoma County. I only did that because of the photos above. I struck a deal with the folks at Co-Motion for one of their Periscope tandems. What makes this an unusual tandem (and gives it its name) are the telescoping seat tubes. Each seat tube features a quick release clamp with a telescoping section of tubing followed by another quick release that secures the seatpost. It can accommodate riders from wee lad to NBA star. One bike will be able to accommodate either of my sons, in time.

Aside from the coming review, the Periscope will be a recurring feature in posts. Part of our purpose in tackling this project was to look at the challenge of spec’ing a tandem today. It’s not easy; triples are all but dead and most teams need low gears for the hills. More important, I think the Periscope has the potential to be a great tool for passing cycling on to your kids. I’ll venture to say that the Periscope is the single most important innovation in tandeming since the disc brake.

Keep your eye on this space. Even if you’re not a believer in tandems, maybe you can consider the coming posts as part of your survey of world religions.


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  1. Quentin

    First of all, thank you for writing about tandems with kids. I’ve also come to the same conclusion that they can be a great way to pass the sport on to kids. I had to learn a lot of things about tandems and tandems with kids in particular by trial and error. Here’s hoping your writing about it will be useful to others. I agree with the “pope” on Trail-a-Bikes, having owned one and crashed one. If I were starting over again, I would never bother with it and just get a proper tandem sooner than I did.

    I don’t own a Periscope, but I think it’s probably the best option out there. For a while I owned a tandem from the “other” maker of tandems in Eugene, Oregon: Bike Friday. It also allows a huge range of fit that can fit small kids (as young as 4 in my case), but the small wheels and flexibility of the frame are an acquired taste that I never completely acquired, so I’m trying something else now.

  2. Bart

    I’m very much looking forward to this discussion. I have two daughters, ages 3 and 5, and I’m trying to figure out how to get them on the bike with me. We have a trailer (turns into a fighting cage match after 15 minutes when they’re both in it) and we borrowed a trail-a-bike but that didn’t work for the 5 year old. They both have kick bikes (the 5 year old is on the verge of figuring out the pedals but is still scared) and I’m looking at the WeeHoo double tag a long and that looks promising. But I really like the idea of a tandem to give the experience of the way “Daddy rides”.

    1. Quentin

      I remember the kids fighting in the trailer. That’s when I started thinking about a tandem. At one point we had one kid on the tandem and the other on a trailer bike behind my wife’s road bike, but we eventually got a second tandem. We didn’t spend a whole lot of money on either of them, but I’m now upgrading one of them. The problem is that the kids are now big enough (9 and 11) to have their own bikes and claim that they would rather ride them than the tandem, but small enough that they really can’t do the kind of rides on their own bikes that I want to do. I’m struggling with the question of how much I’m willing to spend on a tandem upgrade because I don’t know how much longer I can convince them to keep riding with me.

  3. rich

    We have Comotion Cappccino. They don’t build them now. It has a carbon fiber softride beam for the stoker. I had them also build it with a stoker seat tube. I could use that to attach a trail-a bike that they painted to match. That made it a handful to drive. But we did several 30 milers on it. I could also remove the beam and install a seat post and seat to take my daughter only. Love that bike.

  4. brian ledford

    If you weren’t going to riding with small (and later less small) children, would you choose a periscope over a traditional tandem? I’ve been eyeing the ritchey breakaway tandem, largely because I have enough spare/upgraded parts in the garage, that building up a frame into a full bike wouldn’t be that hard/costly. So basically, if you knew all your potential stokers were going to be a minimum of 5’4″, what would you do?

  5. brian ledford

    re: trail-a-bikes, I’m a fan. not so much from the going for a ride part, but it worked brilliantly to teach my son what it feels like to balance on a bike. it did have the gearing issues, but that could be worked out by deliberately limiting the gearing on the bike. And having someone on the bike to correct his balance allowed my son to feel what balancing felt like. So it took him maybe 15 miles (over multiple days) on a trail-a-bike and then he hopped on his single and was upright instanntly. I did spend some time not pedaling and letting him push us both, as well. so, not a tandem or a replacement for one, but definitely worth it (to us) as a training tool.

  6. John Kopp

    I have a Schwinn Paramount tandem that I acquired about 35 years ago. The previous owner had just built another tandem because the close seating arrangement was not that comfortable. I had outfitted it with kiddy cranks for my daughter, but that didn’t work out for reasons I won’t discus now. My friend Ed had taken 5 year old Charlie with him to RAGBRAI around this time and they road it on a tandem with kiddy cranks. Not sure of the brand of tandem. Charlie road the whole way, including a century ride one day. Quite the trooper, but I swear I saw him sleeping on the back seat with his feet still in the pedals a couple of times.

    I rode a few rides on the tandem with various stokers. Put a strong rider like “Thunder Thighs” and you could really fly. But going up a hill is a bitch. Then I met Ann, a bike enthusiast, and we tried it a couple of times, but didn’t really work out. As Padraig hinted, too damned independent. We work well in a canoe, but not tandems or a double scull. Won’t even try a pair (scull). but I digress. Guess I am an agnostic as far as tandem faith goes.

    As Ed and Charlie showed, a tandem can work well even with a small child. But a child stoker kit is not a simple thing to set up, so major adjustments for different riders take some time. The Periscope looks like a great option. Looking forward to hear more.

  7. Andrew

    The trail-a-bike that we had was just dangerous, IMO. I have a strong upper body, and there were several times where I nearly crashed because of the way the trail-a-bike made the bars pull. I’d much rather just let my kids ride their own bikes, and ride slowly next to them.

  8. tedder

    Did you see “tandems are worse than ikea?” It’s cute.

    I love the idea of a tandem, but having the personalities of stray cats makes the concept difficult. I want to go try one with a fit friend though, I’m always impressed with the level speed.

    With the trail-a-bike, I assume you can tell if the stoker is pedaling? Certainly tandems and trail-a-bikes make sense (vs kid singles) for people that go on “organized” rides- more than toodling around the neighborhood and eventually to the grocery store.

  9. Stephen Barner

    I sold my motorcycle and bought our first tandem in 1981 and my wife and I pretty much gave up riding singles together from that point on. The long bike immediatly solved the huge problems that made riding together more stressful than fun. Since then I’ve observed that expert cyclists generally don’t enjoy being on the back of a tandem for anything more than a short ride, though some do, as you can easily carry on a conversation without the need to ride abreast. Tandems are a bit more work to get up hills, but they don’t have to be dogs. If we’re riding with a group that is tough to stay with on the flats, they will drop us on a hill, but we will pass most riders on any terrain on an average club touring ride. The descents are where the tandem really shines, and there have been times when we’ve gone by riders who were fully tucked, going so much faster that we heard them laugh as we flew by. Living in northern Vermont, it’s pretty rare not to break 50 at least once on a tandem ride. The downside of a tandem is that it’s often more work than its worth to ride with a group of singles, as the long bike always wants to go at a different pace than that of the singles, and you can burn your reserves in a hurry if you try to stay with a fast group when your stoker is not willing or able to support the effort. Tandems are most fun when you just want to ride together, or more casually, when you can just back off when the tandem wants to go fast. They are great in headwinds, and often become the engine in a train of singles in those conditions.

    If you and your partner are mismatched riders, and you are both open minded about trying a tandem, then by all means, do it. Just be intelligent and purposeful about it and make sure your first ride is on a no-traffic road, and under the tutelage of a supportive and experienced tandem rider, preferably one who is a lot less opinionated than Bill McCready. If your partner isn’t onboard with the idea from the start, don’t waste your time and money, and remember that first impressions are critical, so never do anything that will diminish you stoker’s confidence in your ability or willingness to captain the bike safely.

  10. Tom

    My wife and I test rode three tandems, after getting a lesson from the owner on what not to do as captain. He put me on the back and said, “Don’t steer erratically,” and proceeded to do so, Then he said, “Don’t forget to call out bumps,” and promptly hit a pothole. Last, “Don’t steer too close to large, immovable objects,” and came within six inches of a dumpster. Lesson learned. By the third test ride, a Cannondale Tandem 29er, I was grinning like an idiot, and my wife and I were in sync like we’d been pedaling one for 100 miles, not 1. Call me a convert.

  11. Jay C

    In defense of trail-a-bikes, most of the downsides you mention are avoidable. You can teach them to pedal keep pedaling by reminding them when you hear the freehub noise, and they can now be (cheaply) obtained with gears. I have twin daughters and my wife and I have spent an amazing amount of time on them, including a double tag-a-long. We have tours Iceland, England, and parts of the US using tag-a-longs. Most importantly, it has taught our daughters the joy of riding a bike.

    I hope you have many adventures your family’s new bike!

  12. Todd Bouchard

    I was reminded by the two thumbs down I got from a 9 year stoking on her parents triple that the attention span of a typical pre adolescent is shorter than that required for even a thirty mile ride. At age 6 or 7 when kids no longer want to do something just because you do they get physically and emotionally taxed stoking a tandem for more than an hour or two. When we take our kids out on that typical three hour weekend ride, we are doing it for ourselves so keep it novel and exciting. My 8 year old and I rode our Landshark with crank shorteners on the hilly medio route of Levi’s Gran Fondo last month in under 5 hours and he had a great time doing it in that festival atmosphere.

    With respect to trailer bikes, I would take a pulling a recumbent trailer bike e.g., Weehoo, down a hill at 50 over an upright trailer bike on the flats at 18 any day of the week. It is just not safe to be in traffic when a 40 pound kid can throw a 300 pound tandem team all over the road.

  13. Willis

    After 23 years of riding tandems with my wife and young girls (now teenagers and not too interested in riding with their MAMIL dad) I wouldn’t change a thing. My wife and I bought our first Santana Arriva 4 months after we got married (on lay away…but the shop owner looked at us…and let us take it home while we paid…Thank you Jerry!) Eventually we sold the Arriva to another family and upgraded to a Team Scandium (the Rocket Sled) a few years ago…But some of the best bike memories I have with my girls are them calling out the speed as we hammer down the road. Then, asking me if the other kid got up to that speed…Mr. Bill McC. was spot on in his take on how kids experience tandems. All good.

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