Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Tandemania: First Rides with the Rivendell Hubbuhubbuh Tandem

Several years ago, the thought of riding a tandem seemed like something I really wanted to try. I spent months reading just about everything I could find on the subject, but ultimately came to the decision that Sam and I probably weren't a couple who would ever actually give this method of riding a try. I'm a bit klutzy and I had created a mental world of potential problems from what I had been reading, so after all the information I'd synthesized, the conclusion was reached that it just wasn't something for the two of us.

Some people called riding tandem "the divorce maker" which didn't put it in the best light. Others proclaimed that it took a great deal of skill and compromise in order to ride together. Occasionally the thought popped back into my head, but I'd remind myself that it wasn't something for me. I would watch others riding tandem and think it was a magical activity for only the very few among us. I idealized the thought of being able to ride with someone else on a bicycle, but knowing that I tend to be a clumsy person and a bit in my own world when I ride, I had decided that it wasn't something I would ever do.

Over the last few years, Sam and I have virtually stopped riding together. There are a few factors that have played into this reality, but the biggest reason put mostly simply is that Sam has become stronger every year, while I continually stay the same, or some years even seem to get weaker with riding (which is not to say that I am a weak individual, but rather that he rides much longer and harder than I do more regularly). We ride around town if we're going somewhere, but that's about the extent of our wandering on a bike together. While I know he is capable of slowing to my speeds, I feel guilty any time we ride together because I am aware that I'm slowing him down, or I become silently angry because we go too far and I don't feel as though I am capable of the ride's distance.

You can see how all of this would play into my existing fears of riding a tandem. While it is said that a tandem is a way to balance out weaker/stronger rider combinations, I imagined that we would end up in arguments over speed, distance, cadence, and so on. I don't like fighting - with anyone - but least of all Sam, so I still wasn't convinced this was something we should try.

Early this year, the subject came up again though. Sam, having joked more than once that he wants to get me on a tandem so that we could do races together, was talking about the idea more seriously. I laughed it off, knowing that tandems probably weren't a good idea for us. Still, the thought that had started many years prior was lingering in the back of my mind. It didn't help that I was on the email list for Rivendell's Hubbuhubbuh (HHH) tandem bike and would occasionally get updates about its specifications and expected delivery date.

We chatted more seriously about the possibility, wondering if perhaps the HHH could be the right experiment for us, but we talked about it so long that we missed out on the opportunity as the small sizes went incredibly quickly.

In my research during the years before, I had learned that there is a tandem-specific shop in the Denver area. One weekend day when we'd become a little more serious about the possibility of a tandem, we took a trip down to this shop and spoke with the owner. He was very pleasant and allowed us to peruse the tandems he had on the floor. Of course, if we wanted a stock frame, there really aren't many options for us. With each of us being under 5'4", the bike world rarely makes frames that fit, let alone something that is so much more specific. The shop owner did have one stock Co-Motion frame that he thought would work and encouraged us to set up a time to come back and take it for a test ride.

Over the weeks that followed, we talked about the idea more and came back around to the conclusion that perhaps tandem riding was not in our future. Frankly, I worried about being in either the stoker or captain position for various reasons. I was also unsure of whether Sam would really want to slow down enough to be able to ride in tandem, together, or if I'd be able to keep up with his leg power.

Then, one evening when I couldn't sleep, I was reading an update from Rivendell and saw that there was a small tandem frame remaining (and that they'd be ordering just a few more before they called it quits on the HHH). Something lit inside of me again and I wondered if maybe we should give it a try. With all the back and forth we'd had over such a bike, and other bicycles that had been sold to make room for a potential tandem, we thought maybe it was time to take a leap and see where it would take us.

We knew the Riv would be a stable bike which we thought would be good for our first attempt at tandem riding, but still had some doubt about the size of even the small frame. Knowing that it would be a tight fit, we thought if we sized down a bit on the tires (Riv recommends pretty wide tires at 60mm) that perhaps we could just make it work.

Up front, we were also aware that the Rivendell tandem would not be meant for any sort of racing or club riding, but that isn't really what we were looking for either. We wanted to be able to ride some dirt trails and other local roads together and hoped that this would be the right decision.
Sadly, our HHH only has one headbadge as they were sent unattached to the frame and one was crushed in shipping.
Going with the parts Rivendell recommended, Sam built up the tandem (his first tandem build!) in our dining room. We quickly discovered (as should've been obvious, but wasn't something we really thought through beforehand) that the tandem is so long, finding a place to assemble, tune, or work on the bike in any way is a bit of a challenge. Even picking up the frame from the shipping carrier was a bit comical, but we made it work.

We ran into a few issues during the build. One of the problems was the seat post for the captain position. Because we both have short legs, the only way we could get the saddle in a good position was to lower it almost completely into the seat tube. The problem was that the top of the seat post sent is tapered and this is where the mount for the stoker handlebars would sit, so we couldn't quite get it to work. After obtaining a non-tapered seat post for the captain's saddle, we managed to get things working a bit better.

We had also decided not to buy new handlebars at the time of purchase since we have so many in the stash to choose from, but when we tried to use what we had, we just couldn't get the fit quite right, so we ended up having to get a new set of bars for each of us. After a couple of weeks of fussing and trial and error, it was time to set out on a test trip.

The decision had been reached that I would ride captain and Sam would be the stoker. It is, perhaps, a bit unconventional for a male-female riding team (though I have seen such duos on occasion), but fortunately Sam does not feel emasculated or lesser by allowing me to pedal in the front position. It also put me slightly more at ease (slightly) to be at the front than riding in the rear. This did, however, put a huge responsibility on my shoulders which I did not take lightly.

For our first tests, we each set out alone in the captain position to test out the bike. It did not seem wise for two new-to-tandem-bike riders to set out together when we had no idea how the bike would handle. Personally, I had visions of the bike flipping up or out the side with only one rider on it, but that is not what happened (Thank you television for putting that thought in my head!). Strangely enough, it rode pretty much like a normal bicycle with only one person, except that the handling was a bit different and the extreme length that followed behind, creates the need for wider turns.

Of course, riding a bicycle built for two as a single was not the goal, so we knew we'd have to actually try out riding it together. I did my best not to get panicked by the thought of being responsible for both riders, and we discussed beforehand our basic plan of starting and stopping, as well as a few minor things that I have to do because of injuries (like starting on a specific foot when stopped).

Initially, we had tried to start off as we had been told we should with Sam up in the stoker seat ready to pedal and me still on the ground to hold the bike; however, this was not working for us in any way. While I could hold and steady the bike with him in position, my back/hip issues prevented me from being able to steady the bike and get into the saddle. Instead, we decided to simply do a quick count and then both start pedaling from the ground together. This worked much, much better for us, though I admit it may not be the best for every tandem team.

The plan was simply to ride in a straight line down our street about 100 ft (30 m) and then stop (if we didn't have to do so before hand). Instead, we ended up going around a couple of blocks, stopping and starting (shaky starts, admittedly) and trying to get a feel for this new type of riding. We were both surprised at the ease with which we were able to get going. I think we each had visions of very short stretches of riding before we'd be able to go anywhere, but things had gone so well in our early test runs (we took a few more before setting out) that we decided to actually venture outside of the neighborhood.

Our first real ride took us just shy of 12 miles (19 km) over some back roads with a couple of minor hills to get a feel for how we'd work together. It was strange and interesting as we both quickly learned about each other's riding habits.

One of the first minor inclines we encountered, I could hear Sam breathing somewhat heavily behind me, after which he commented that I seemed to really like to "mash." I really don't think of myself as someone who pushes in harder gears, but when I realized that I felt like I would normally be in a more difficult gear, we were going to need to find some compromise between what each of us normally does on our own. It isn't that Sam doesn't normally push, but I was getting the sense that when he pushes, he does so in a lower gear. I asked Sam to tell me when he wanted to pedal easier or harder and we'd make adjustments as we went.

As we headed back to home, Sam suddenly made an unannounced adjustment on his saddle which caused me to let out a short screech while trying to steady the bike. We both began to realize that until we become more used to this type of riding, we really do have to speak out loud most everything we intend to do.

Surprisingly (at least to me), the first ride went as well as one could expect for a first tandem outing. In fact, we both actually had fun. We started to find our groove and we were able to start to find our way of working together. Even though I knew I had to announce everything going on (coasting, stopping, bumps, etc), I would occasionally forget or would make a statement too late. But, we both knew this would be part of the process and Sam took everything in stride.

Living on our tandem-high, the next day we decided to try again. We had made some adjustments to my handlebars in hopes of getting a bit more weight on the front end and made some saddle adjustments. One thing is for certain, the HHH tandem was not made for shorter riders, despite calling it a small. This time, we were planning a slightly longer route, but one that had lots of places for us to turn around and head home if things went awry. We had the potential to do 25+ miles (40+ km), but could also shorten the route quite a bit as well.

A few miles in to the ride, my hands started to have problems which meant pain. About 5 miles (8 km) into the outing, I had to pull over to stretch my hands. After a quick stretch, we continued on though the pain persisted.
Snow dusted Longs Peak in the distance distracted us while we took a few photos.
We climbed and descended a few short hills, discovered we already had some cable stretch and needed a quick tune-up, and were already starting to become more accustomed to pedaling together. Sam was taking on the responsibility of signaling turns and waving to others (people really like to wave to tandems it seems), I was getting better about announcing happenings, and it felt as though things were coming together.

Sadly, because of the handlebar flip, we had to head home sooner than we wanted and only ended up completing about 18 miles (29 km) of our intended ride. Still, for a our second ride out together, we thought it was all-in-all a successful trip.

It was the end of the weekend and we knew we wouldn't get time during the week to ride together, but would still ride individually. My first trip out alone on Monday had me far over-steering my commuter bike, which I found comical. It was almost as though I'd forgotten how to ride alone in a matter of two days. Sam didn't seem to have this struggle, but each of us adjusted quickly back to riding alone. I did find a bit of disappointment in riding solo though. Heading to the gym Monday morning, I missed that extra power from having a second set of legs. It's amazing how quickly we humans can become accustomed to things.
By the time our second weekend with the HHH rolled around, we were excited to get pedaling again. We didn't get to ride on Saturday because of commitments, but Sunday we were ready to go.
The dilemma was in regard to how far to go. We made a decision to head up toward the mountains to a town called Lyons and see how things went. As we set out, there were a lot of others out riding and we had a few brief conversations with people passing us or those who we passed (usually the former).

We arrived to The Stone Cup, a coffee shop in Lyons, fairly quickly, but took some time to stretch and admire our surroundings. If you've never been, the town is beautiful, particularly in the fall. The Stone Cup is also quite a gathering spot for cyclists, particularly in the summer. We were a bit late as we were riding in autumn, so there weren't quite as many people on bikes to be found stationed here, though we still enjoyed our stop off.
These stone bears really wanted to check out the Hubbuhubbuh.
Even if you've not visited, you may recall seeing Lyons in the news during the Colorado flooding four years ago. The town was pretty well completely under water and is just recently getting back to its full wonderfulness. Sadly, there is still evidence of repairs being made to structures and roadways throughout the area. For most, Lyons is a pass through on their way to the mountains or returning back to their Denver-area homes, but there is quite a bit to enjoy in this town at the base of the Rockies.

But, I've digressed from the original focus of this: the HHH tandem.

We had so much fun on our ride out to Lyons that when we got home we both felt as though we should've made a longer trip out of it. Instead, we decided to eat a bit and head out again in another direction, allowing us some more time to practice pedaling in tandem.

The weekend following we got tied up on Saturday fetching a Craigslist find which ended up occupying the entire day, but when we got out on the tandem Sunday we wanted to try to go a bit farther than we'd been pedaling in a single trip thus far.
Looking south from another small community, Berthoud.
About fifteen miles into the ride, we were chatting about whether we should head back towards home or continue in our outward direction. We decided on a whim to continuing going out which took us on a path of long, continuous climbing. Though I've ridden the same route prior on my own, it's been about four years and my mind betrayed me when trying to recall how much climbing there was to be done.

As we climbed, we both got quiet and then suddenly started laughing because we were so entirely focused on getting to the summit of the climb that we realized we'd stopped speaking at all.

Despite the more-than-expected climbing, we had another great ride. In fact, we haven't had a bad ride, even with the few hiccups along the way. We've taken the HHH on dirt trails and ridden on paved roads and it's fun to ride regardless. Of course, it's still early on in our time together with only about a half dozen or so rides of any distance undertaken together, so it will be interesting to see how things progress over the coming months and years. To this point though, I think we're both happy with the decision to try tandem riding. It's given us time to be together, to work as a team, and just enjoy something we both love doing.

Some observations we've made during our short amount of time riding tandem and about the HHH, in no particular order:

-- Even the small size of the HHH is likely best suited (at least for the captain position) for someone at least 5'7" or taller. At not quite 5'4", it's really a stretched reach (even for someone used to long top tube bikes), so it would've been nice to see an x-small frame for the HHH. Stand over is a bit dicey as well, even having it built up with narrower (42mm) tires, but it works - just barely.

-- Finding a middle ground for each rider to be happy hasn't been terribly difficult for us. As captain, I was catching myself constantly asking if Sam was okay until he became completely annoyed and told me just to pedal and he'd tell me if something wasn't working. As long as there's a system that works, I don't think it really matters what the specifics are.

-- All of the reading done prior to riding a tandem put a lot of fear in my head about what would happen when we were both on the bike together. It was really a relief when we just rode and realized it wasn't nearly as scary as we'd thought it could be. Part of this I would think is because of the way this particular tandem frame was designed/built.

-- Uphill can be quite a challenge and downhill can have its own problems with potential to get out of control easily. Though I've always appreciated on some level the work tandem teams do, I have a new found respect for people who do races or long-distance touring on tandems!

-- Thus far, distance seems to be a physical challenge for us. As Sam said on our last ride, "Forty miles (65km) on a tandem seems to feel more like 75 miles (120km) on a single!" I think that's about the best way I can explain it too. While in some instances it seems easier (having the extra set of legs is certainly beneficial), it seems to take a greater toll on our bodies over a shorter distance (we've presumed simply because of the additional weight, and perhaps the gearing as well). It will be interesting to see if this evolves or changes as we ride more.

-- Both others on bicycles and motorized traffic seem to be a bit kinder to us on the tandem, with rare exception. On one ride though, we crossed paths with another tandem and while we were (perhaps overly) excited to see another duo on a tandem, they did not seem to share our excitement. We smiled and said, "Hey! Another tandem!!" as we crossed paths with them and were met only with scowls and glares. Apparently tandem riders don't appreciate it when other tandem riders cross paths with them... or, perhaps they were just having a rough day.

-- Despite some thinking of tandem bicycles as "divorce makers," I think a tandem amplifies however the duo communicate and deal with each other in every day life. If you don't get along well in life, I can see how it could create problems on a tandem, but if you can get through things without too much drama, I don't think a tandem is going to make or break any relationship, assuming both are amenable to compromise.

-- Riding a tandem is fun! Personally, I miss it when I'm riding alone sometimes, but I still enjoy my single bikes too. The nice thing is that it feels like a treat when we have a day or two to ride together.

-- A mirror seems like a really important piece of equipment, on a tandem in particular. We mounted one to the front basket, but it moves around so much that it's not reliable at all. The next round trial, we'll try mounting one to my helmet to see if that stays put a bit better (or at least, it should be easier to adjust while riding).

-- It's a lot easier to hear each other talking on a tandem. We sometimes struggle hearing when riding single bikes together, and have been known to go back and forth with a lot of "what's?" as we ride. Tandeming seems to take that small annoyance away. Yay!

-- Speed: My average speed has increased riding tandem while Sam's has slowed. Of course, I'm used to riding about 5-7+ miles per hour (8-11+ kph) slower than he does on an every day basis (I'm a lollygager on the bike unless racing or training to race, which isn't often), but I ride bikes that are about 6-20 pounds (3-9 kg) heavier than his. Because of this...

-- I think Sam struggles more (though we both definitely feel it) with the weight of the bike because 1) he's the stoker and has the power to really push (or not) the speed of the tandem, so he often takes it upon himself to push, and 2) he's used to riding much lighter bicycles which obviously puts a greater strain on his legs.

-- Both of our posteriors hurt far more than riding single. Our hope is that we'll become confident enough at some point to try standing or even standing AND pedaling together so that we can get some relief for our sit bones. It's easy to forget that we tend to do this naturally on our single bikes, but when riding tandem, we have to make sure to coordinate such efforts.

Do you ride tandem or have you ridden a tandem bicycle in the past? What was your experience? Any thoughts or recommendations for people just starting out? Has anyone else ridden the HHH tandem? If you have thoughts on that tandem in particular, I'm sure others would love to hear what you think.


  1. Wow, GE, so cool! You two are brave to try this. I would never attempt this with my husband (of course, "never say never" can be famous last words!). Interestingly, I believe your tandem is the same dark teal color as my Clementine.

    1. I was really nervous about it, Annie, but it's actually gone much, much better than I had anticipated.

      I'm not sure if the color is the same... but I'll have to go and look at your Clementine again. :) The color of the HHH is a blue-leaning slate color, I'd say.

  2. We used to have a tandem and found that it was fairly intuitive to ride, although we never mastered standing and pedaling at the same time. But we could stand and coast, to rest our posteriors. The captain would say "standing", we'd both stop pedaling, and whoever needed to would stand. Our tandem was too small for him and too big for me (1.5 ft difference in heights), and my stoker bullhorn handlebars were really wide to accommodate his legs. We took it on a 3-day camping trip on the C&O towpath (~60 miles each day). By the last day, our hands were so sore that we were stopping almost every mile to rest. We really enjoyed it for shorter rides, though.

    1. I can imagine that around 60 miles a day could be rough on a tandem (as stated in the post, I have great admiration and respect for tandem teams that do long distance rides)! I suppose if we take the time to stop and stretch, it might not be impossible.

      I can see that a large difference in height between riders could cause problems, and I also understand needing the wider bars in the stoker position to clear the captain's legs. We have chatted about how it would work on a more road-race type tandem. Even with drops, I'd think the bars would need to be fairly wide in the back.

      Thanks for sharing your experience on a tandem. It's interesting to hear about others' experiences.

  3. This is so cool, I hope to see you guys on the road with your tandem. Interesting that you've got disc brakes on the back and V-brakes on the front. Tandems fly by me on the downhills and like you mentioned, that can be challenging so I imagine the braking is important :)

    1. The brakes are an interesting piece of this tandem. It was meant to be built up with v-brakes both front and back, but has the tab to mount a disc drag brake on the rear (with the purpose of having the drag brake on the stoker's handlebars to assist on big downhill portions). Sam thought it was unnecessary (since we have no plans to be barreling down any huge mountains) to have three brakes, so when he built it, he put just the disc in the back and the v in the front so that they were both controlled in the captain position. We did discuss the possibility of having a disc tab welded to the fork and just making both wheels disc brakes, but we'll see how it goes. Thus far, it hasn't been an issue on the rolling hills around here, but I think if we were going to ride often up into the mountains, it may change things.

      It's been awhile since we've had an incidental run-in with you (Strange, as I feel as though you're one of the few people we tend to run into around town), but hopefully all is going well for you. I'm sure one of those happenstance run-ins are bound to happen while riding the tandem. :)

  4. My wife and I tried a tandem bike, briefly, while on a summer vacation a few years ago. We had stopped at the bike shop to return our rental bikes, and while we were there, we asked to ride one of their tandems. We took it on a couple of loops around their parking lot. It was a distinctly different feeling compared to single bikes, and like you said, it amplifies however the partners communicate in a relationship.

    We're still together, but we've used single bikes (and single kayaks) ever since.

    1. ::laughing:: I can understand choosing the single bike (or kayak) route. Sometimes it just makes life easier to have our own machine to control and do with as we please.

      My mom and step-dad had a tandem several years ago. They rode it two, or maybe three times on very short rides before they sold it off to someone else. It's not necessarily something everyone will enjoy, as I witnessed with them. As you reiterated, a tandem has its own sort of feel/ride type, so it takes some adjusting and patience. I think the more it gets used though the easier it will become (or at least, that is my hope). :)

  5. Awesome! It’s a beautiful bike, and I’m so glad to hear that it has made the two of you able to ride together again. My spouse and I were having a similar problem a few years ago (that is, not being able to ride together very well). We solved it by getting him a recumbent. He’s so much more comfortable now (and faster!) that we ride together almost every weekend.

    1. I've pondered a recumbent bike myself... with all of my issues, sometimes I think it would make things more... well, pleasant, I suppose. :) I'm glad you've found a solution that works!


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