Learn all about how to go cycle touring on a tandem bicycle. The pros and cons, practical advice, and how to keep on pedaling through an argument.
After Brad and I finished our Master’s degrees we decided to take 6 months off to travel. I wanted to go backpacking around Europe. Brad wanted to Cycle the length of the Trans-Canada Highway.
We negotiated… and decided to tour Europe on a tandem bicycle.
Beyond booking our flights into Amsterdam for July and out of Paris in December, we really didn’t do any advanced planning.
As only 22-year-olds can do, we arrived in Europe with two sets of panniers, a few dozen power bars, and a secondhand tandem that we’d bought from another Grad student. Even though cell phones were already a thing in 2002, we didn’t bring one with us. All we had to guide us was a few maps we’d purchased in Amsterdam and hopeful enthusiasm.
Our route took us from Amsterdam to Tallinn. From there we took a ferry to Sweden to visit a Grad school friend. Then we flew back down to Germany and resumed our trip to Prague, cycling down to Budapest, over to Barcelona, and back up to Paris.
Even back then, Brad was into data. He kept a daily diary of everything from how much we spent to how far we cycled and our average speed. Here are the final tallies:
- Total distance cycled: 7817 km
- Average distance per cycling day: 70 km
- Average speed: 19 km/hr
- Average cycling time per day: 3 hours 42 minutes
Why a Tandem?
In our case, the tandem was fairly necessary. Brad went to SFU and cycled up Burnaby Mountain every day. Whereas, I rode the bus out to UBC. The tandem was pretty much the only way I was going to be able to keep up with Brad.
Here’s a mini vocab lesson, for anyone new to tandem cycling. The pilot is the person in the front who is steering. The stoker is the person in the back who is doing all the pedaling (smile). Most bikes are set up so that the taller person is in front and the smaller person is in the back.
If you’re thinking of cycle touring, there are lots of reasons why a tandem bicycle is pretty awesome:
- It allows strong cyclists to help weaker cyclists. It’s also perfect for cycle touring with kids.
- It’s easy for pilots and stokers to chat with each other, which breaks up the monotony of a long stretch of highway.
- The stoker is hands-free. Stokers don’t have to hold onto the handlebars all the time. So they can do all sorts of useful things, like: check maps, pull out snacks and water bottles, take photos, fight off wild beasts, etc.
- Twice as much power means it’s twice as fast. Tandems aren’t always faster… but they are definitely always faster downhill!
- It’s the ultimate trust exercise. Pilots learn to trust that their stokers are actually pushing. And stokers really learn how to zen. They can’t choose the direction or stop the pilot from crashing. They just have to hold on, embrace their inner Buddha, and hope for the best.
How to Survive Without Killing Each Other
We had a lot of arguments… shouted at each other across a crowded tram in Budapest, hoping that no one knew English well enough to realize why we were yelling. I jumped off the back of the bike in rural Poland and marched down the road on my own. It’s hard to spend that much time with one person and not go a little bit crazy.
Eastern Europe was particularly hard for me. Brad is fairly fluent in Russian and German, so he did all the talking. There were several weeks where I didn’t talk to anyone but him. The highlight was watching Lost in Translation, which was playing in English with Latvian subtitles. At least it gave me a narrative outside of my own circular thoughts.
The best way to survive such an intense trip involves the same advice I’d offer for any complicated relationship: allow yourself to get angry, then allow yourself to forgive. That can look different depending on who you are. There is no one-size-fits-all advice for how to cooperate, even if you do meditate daily and avoid all caffeine and alcohol, you’ll still have to find your own way to express anger and forgiveness.
–Side Note: the most aggressive conversation I’ve ever witnessed was while staying at a super eco-hippy, commune. They kept going on about non-violent communication and it was pretty darn intense.–
General Advice For Anyone Planning to go Touring on a Tandem
If you’re seriously considering cycle touring on a tandem bicycle, here are a few pieces of advice from my well-seasoned experience.
- Buy a good tandem. The tandem bicycle we bought off of the grad student sucked. It broke down all the time. Every time we got to a city the first thing we had to do was go to a bike store for new brake pads, spokes, and chains.
Then it was stolen in Stockholm, which was horrifying because we were so broke we couldn’t afford to start backpacking instead or even fly home early. Via a very long and involved story, we ended up getting a really good deal on an amazing secondhand tandem.
It had hydraulic hub breaks, a 46-spoke rear wheel, and a separate stoker handlebar. Each of these features was so necessary, that I would never recommend buying a cheap tandem.
- Not everyone is meant to be a pilot or a stoker. It does take a lot of zen and forgiveness. It also takes a bit of synchronized pedaling… so it’s good to practice.
- Unless you want to tow a trailer, you’ll need to travel light. Single bikes can hold 4 panniers and a rat pack…. and tandems can also hold 4 panniers and a rat pack.
- Tandems usually fly for the same price as a single bike, however, they are much more complicated to pack for travel. You’ll need at least two bike boxes and a lot of packing tape.
- It’s also harder to get a tandem on a train, bus, ferry, or car. Practice your blissfully innocent expression and be prepared to explain how a tandem is still just a bike and therefore all the usual bike transportation rules apply.
- It’s also harder to park a tandem in a typical bike storage area. So you may need to do some creative lifting and rearranging to get it into your hostel’s basement bike storage or rooftop parking area.