The captain swings his leg forward over the handlebars in order to mount the tandem. This is the first advice I received before I took my very first ride on a tandem, and I think it encapsulates nearly all of the best advice for successfully riding a tandem.
Of course I was going to receive good advice like this, given that I was living in one of the tandem and other zany bicycle products capitals of the country – Eugene, OR. Forget Portland. Yes, Portland is now America’s test kitchen for all things bicycle and otherwise alternative transportation. But Eugene has been ground zero for bicycle design, culture, and characters for decades now. It’s home to Co-Motion, a fine handmade builder specializing in tandems (and amazing single touring and racing bikes of which I am the proud straddler of one each); Burley, maker of ingenious bicycle trailers now, but were then renown for their tandems, rain gear, and recumbents; Bike Friday, building innovative, quirky folding travel bikes; even the Center for Appropriate Transport, which could probably fabricate anything for you, including a trike that hauls a half-ton: I rode it and it’s for real.
I was told to swing my leg over the handlebars when mounting the tandem by my favorite bike guy in town, Bert, who worked at Paul’s Bicycle Way of Life. He sold me my Co-motion Americano, and we built it up together over beer and cookies. He was also the one who suggested I take out the Co-motion Big Al they were testing in the shop that week. When Bert explained to me the unorthodox mounting technique, it signaled to me that my chief responsibility in riding a tandem is to my partner. You don’t want to kick your leg over the back and tag your stoker in the teeth. But more than that, everything you do on the tandem is about keeping your partner safe and happy. You want the same things on a tandem that you do on a single bike – stability, momentum, speed, comfort, safety – but the starting point is different on tandem. Before those things can be achieved, you have to take into account your partner’s happiness. Lay the ground work, and then you can haul ass. And get honking.
That first tandem experience in the Coburg hills outside of Eugene was exhilarating. It also spoiled me for other, lesser tandems, allowing me to ride one of the higher-end, lightest, stiffest, best-handling, and very spendy tandems on the market. The bike, and more importantly the experience of being in synch with a partner, together the whole time, talking, struggling, laughing, and picking up huge momentum on the downhill sold me on an eventual future of tandeming. It took me eight more years before I finally acquired the used Burley.
Of course, good tandem advice isn’t the only you’ll receive in Eugene. The place is full of earnest bike nerds intent on pure functionality and innovation, on whom a prevailing fixation on bike fashion over utility would be lost. Before I left Eugene for a cross-country bike tour, one man asked me if I was going to equip my touring bike with a fairing. A fairing? I asked. Fairings are those bulbous windshields you might see on some recumbent land-speed record racers. He told me that for protection from the elements and for an aerodynamic advantage in the wind, I’d be an idiot for not using a fairing, emphasizing his point by claiming that every cyclist in San Fransisco uses a fairing. Hmmm. Try swinging your leg over that.