Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Custom Tandem: Dream or Nightmare?

**For the squeamish, I thought I should preface with a warning that there is a mildly graphic (depending on your tolerance level for "graphic") photo included about half way through this post. It's not obscene, but I felt it only fair to forewarn those who are sensitive to such things.

"Eeeeek!!" I screamed aloud, despite the fact that, as is typical during the week, I was alone in my work space. I had just received word that our new tandem had been shipped and would be arriving soon. My excitement was plentiful so off went a quick message to Sam to let him know that we'd be in possession of our new double-steed in the next few days. I sat smiling ear-to-ear, clapping my hands like a giddy school girl.

If you are unfamiliar with our tandem history, I was a person who swore up and down that Sam and I would never, ever, ever ride a tandem bike. I was convinced that we would end up killing each other. He would want to travel too far or too fast and I wouldn't be able to keep up. At least, that's what I'd convinced myself was the truth and was our general reason for not trying it out. Even after my mom and step-dad had offered to let us ride their single speed cruiser tandem as a test, I was insistent that it would not go well and I was in no way going to put us through that sort of pain. I really believed that our pedaling styles would be too different - not to mention all of the other potential pitfalls that ran through my mind.

Still, for years I had -- mostly silently -- dreamed that it could be a possibility for us. I often idealized tandem riding, but I'd quickly return my mental state to one of what I believed to be reality: Sam and I were not meant to ride a tandem.

Then, as you may recall, I started what some might term a mild obsession with Rivendell's Hubbuhubbuh tandem. I had been on the reading list from the time it was announced as a possibility and the more I read, the more I found myself wanting to try it out. Just when we thought we'd missed out on our opportunity, one appeared somewhat magically and before we knew it, we were riding a tandem.

We had our down points with it, but overall we really enjoyed riding together. The biggest problem, however, was the fit. The captain position is set up at its most compact and is still truthfully too large to be effectively piloted by either of us. Still, we powered on, riding like little fiends over hilly and flat terrain, through dirt and gravel -- we just couldn't seem to stop.

Over a very short span of time, we realized we were going to have to find a tandem that fit us better, particularly if we wanted to ride more than about 50 miles (80km). Neither of us wanted to go a custom route (both for the time involved and the cost), but after an attempt to rent the smallest tandem we could find locally, we realized that unless we were willing to wait indefinitely for a mythical x-small tandem to show up secondhand somewhere, we'd have to go the custom route.

We decided on Rodriguez Bikes to do the build after a fair amount of reading and chatting with our (relatively local) tandem dealer. The biggest reason for selecting Rodriguez over the local dealer was that I'd had a custom bike made with Rodriguez in the past and there was a level of familiarity.  I have not had good luck with custom bikes in the past, but this was a situation that was requiring a custom, as far as we were able to determine. With both riders being under 5'4", finding something out in the open market that might work would take nothing short of a miracle.

And so it came to the moment described above during which my insides felt ready to burst with excitement. We both had some trepidation in regard to this entire process. It's a similar feeling, I'd estimate, to someone who's only ridden a cruiser turning around and ordering a custom road bike. Perhaps it's not quite that extreme since we do have a fair amount of experience riding singles of all different sort, but knowing that we'd only experienced riding one tandem, we had moments of wondering (or at least I did) whether or not this new two-wheeled friend would be what we hoped for.  It meant putting a lot of trust in the builder to make something that made sense for us.

Since we were going custom, we also had the opportunity to choose the paint color. There are endless possibilities when it comes to paint and I don't have a great history of being decisive with these sorts of things. From single colors to fades to fancy specialized paint jobs, the choices quickly became overwhelming. I love having the opportunity to choose our own color, but it's easy to go from one extreme to another trying to figure out what we really want. Plus, we both had to agree on something and we tend to have very different ideas of what looks good. In reality, I know Sam would let me choose whatever I wanted, but because it is something we both ride, I really wanted us to both have input into the color choice.

After some discussion, we had narrowed the paint possibilities down to two. Sam decided that he wanted to be surprised and that I should choose between them, so after some back and forth (one option was bright and fun and involved some paint fading, but I feared we might grow tired of it over time; the other was simple, single color, and more subdued) I chose one and kept it secret (which was definitely not easy for me!!) so that when the box was opened, Sam would have a bit of that surprise moment he wanted.
The box arrived on a Tuesday and as the delivery company was bringing the box to the door, I could see a large indentation, as well as several smaller holes and impressions in the box. My stomach sank. Great, I thought, just what we need to deal with. The driver was kind enough to assist me with opening the top of the box to check on the contents and surprisingly, there didn't appear to be any damage to the bike. I breathed a small sigh of relief, but knew we'd have to inspect it further when it was completely removed.

The bike had been sent almost completely built with only the need to attach the handlebars to the stoker position, rotate the front handlebars, and attach our choice of pedals and saddles. Sam had protested the full build somewhat because he believed it would be better for us to choose our own parts, but ultimately we made the decision to go with a full build, knowing that we could upgrade parts down the road. We were told it should be just a mater of minutes before we would be riding our new tandem once it arrived. This sounded ideal.

When Sam arrived home, we pulled the bike from the box and the remaining items were attached. I was amused at the comically small size of the bike. "It looks like a tandem for kids," I said, laughing at the absurdity of its size, particularly in comparison to our current tandem. "No problem with stand over now." I'm not sure if we're both used to riding too large a bike or if it really is that small, but the tiny size had thrown me completely for a loop.

If I may take a brief detour from our present path in this tale, the two of us were holding on to a (misguided) belief that when this tandem arrived, it would be perfectly wonderful and all of our tandem woes would be solved. Having gone through two custom single bike builds in the past, I should have known better, but I was living in my dream land in which (apparently) all prior experiences disappear into another plane of existence, logic completely abandons my body, and utter bliss is all that exists.

We had shared some email conversations with MG of Chasing Mailboxes regarding tandems (we figured who better to offer some advice than a duo who ride long distances regularly on a tandem - and we must thank both of them again for sharing their thoughts with us) and MG had cautioned us with a bit of wisdom. One of her last statements read:  "As you know, it takes time to really dial in a bike, ESPECIALLY a tandem. They're like cats, each with their own distinct personality."

Ah, cats. They're so soft, fluffy and cute. Perhaps it was the wrong part of those words to focus on (okay, it was definitely the wrong part to focus on!), but when one is lost in the depths of excitement, it's super easy to ignore such sage words. Perhaps it wasn't so much ignoring this thought, but rather glossing over it a bit, believing that we would be okay because, you know, it's built for us - it can't be that bad to get 'er moving down the road, right?

And so, we return to our story as Sam and I prepared our newly unpacked tandem for our first test. At least we weren't being completely foolish and realized that I should take the tandem out for a quick spin around the block alone first, just to make sure everything was feeling good.
The Rodriguez built as it came to us with pedals/saddles added
Before even riding the tandem, we noticed that the color appeared more of a yellow-green than the darker, olive green we'd expected. With the dim lighting in the photo above, I'd say it looks a bit more green than in real life (though with time together the color doesn't seem quite as yellowed as it did initially). Still, we didn't find it unattractive... and, paint is fairly easily changed, if desired, especially on a steel frame, so we weren't particularly concerned with this bit.

The next issue we faced (and the more important one) was fit and feel. After a short run down the block with the tandem, nearly everything felt wrong. I tried again around a couple of blocks and things just continued down the same path. I felt as though I had absolutely no control of the bike -- and this was without another person on the back. I felt crammed into the cockpit when I stood between the saddle and the stem, something I'd worried about all along with the sizing. The bike seemed to wiggle all over the road whether at slow or higher speed. The only way I could explain it to Sam was that it just felt "wrong."

He rode the tandem alone too just to see if he could understand what I was trying to express. He came back unsure of how to help me feel more at ease.

"Maybe we just need to ride it together," I suggested.

So we set out on a short path around the neighborhood to see how it went. This was a complete disaster. Everything felt even more wrong with someone on the back. I felt as though the tandem's steering was under none of my control and it kind of just went wherever it wanted to go. Every little bump seemed to cause the bike to veer off on its own in an unintended direction.
The bruising (which was truly quite painful) that had developed on my abdomen from hitting the steerer tube each time I dismounted. If nothing else, it illustrates my determination to try to get this tandem to work (and maybe explains a few of the tears too).
I'll save the retelling of each round of this, but there were several, each time ending with me in tears and Sam silently angry. He wasn't mad at me necessarily (though I'm sure there was some of that too), but my frustrations tend to come out in tears while his turns to silent mulling.

Then, I thought perhaps asking the manufacturer for some suggestions to help us get through this initial stage would be helpful. Unfortunately, nothing beneficial came from that conversation. So, we went back to trying to figure things out for ourselves.

There were several weeks of trying to "figure things out" but not actually riding the new tandem. It was suggested by another tandem rider/builder that I try putting weight on the back of the tandem with panniers or something else loaded up so that I could do tests without feeling the pressure of another rider. This seemed like a good idea, so I gave that a whirl too. It was probably the best suggestion I received in regard to getting used to the new ride without putting two people in jeopardy.

We'd also made some changes, putting the handlebars lower and changing the bars themselves to another style, as well as trying different tires. Although the intention with this tandem was to be able to travel longer distances which was the original intention of the drop bars, if I couldn't use them effectively, then it was all for nothing, and I wasn't loving the way the first tires felt either, so both changes seemed like a move in the right direction.

Riding without another person went okay. I felt ridiculous pedaling around on a tandem without another body, but I also wasn't ready to brave it with Sam on the back quite yet. I just needed to feel at least somewhat competent with this new bike -- that at this point wasn't so new anymore. Riding around several miles with the back loaded and with the new set up actually went reasonably well, but the biggest problem was clearing my mind of the initial shock (and fear) of how different the two tandems are from each other.

We continued to make plans for a ride, but would always end up on the Rivendell tandem instead. Summer was slipping away, but every time I thought about riding the new one, I'd become physically ill just at the thought of it. We really were not off to the best start and I wasn't sure how to remedy the situation.

We were even riding occasionally with a tandem group and several of the riders continued to question why we were still riding the "old" tandem instead of the new, lighter one. I'm not sure we ever truly provided a coherent explanation, so I always felt the need to push extra hard to prove that we could stay with the group, even on our heavy (though a joy to ride) Rivendell tandem. I have no doubt that it seemed crazy that we continued to talk about this newer, lighter tandem, and yet never rode it.

One day, a couple of months after having received the new tandem, Sam was exasperated with our lack of riding the new steed. "Let's just sell it. If we're not going to ride the tandem, what's the point in having it?"

He had a valid point. Having money tied up in this custom tandem that just hung from our bike storage wasn't exactly ideal. Somewhere in the back of my mind though, I truly believed that we were going to make this new tandem work for us -- we just needed to ride it and I needed to conquer my trepidation with handling this bike.

Then, one day in August, while Sam had a weekday at home, I suggested that we take the tandem out for a test. I think it shocked Sam just as much as it did me. As soon as the words were out in the universe I began to regret the suggestion. My insides started to turn and I instantly felt ill. However, I knew that if we didn't get some rides in, it was unlikely we ever would.
On an approximately 30-mile ride during our testing period -- The steerer tube still hadn't been cut (and may not get cut) because I always have a fear of wanting to raise the bars higher (or change them entirely). I've managed to "unbruise" though, so I must've figured out how to avoid hitting the steerer upon dismount. :)
The ride was short, but it went surprisingly well. I was still a little shaky and reminded Sam not to push too hard off the starts, but I actually felt somewhat in control. Then, we followed it up with a slightly longer ride, and that one went okay too. We had little hiccups along the way and brief moments of panic from me, but overall, it was performing as we'd hoped. Small bites at a time, this tandem was starting to feel like something I could handle.

Our next outing took us on a little over 50 mile ride with some extra climbing. I was frankly surprised at how I felt, especially given our very rough start with this tandem. We arrived home with me feeling far more confident and Sam grateful that things were heading in a more positive direction.

What was interesting to both of us was after our 50-miler on the Rodriguez tandem, we decided to take a 20-mile, fun tandem ride on the Rivendell, just to have a little time together the following day. We both commented on how much a difference having a lighter tandem made because our bodies could feel the difference in effort needed to move the Rivendell at the same or similar speed.

So, here we are now, several months into having the new tandem in our hands and I would say that the decision to purchase an appropriately sized tandem was a good one. I had my doubts initially because I truly didn't believe another tandem could feel so completely different, but despite the extreme delay in getting the bike moving on the roads, I think we made the right choice. Things that initially felt foreign and "strange" have started to feel normal and in some sense even good.

One thing we never anticipated with the lighter weight of the tandem was how much flex the frame would have. This was one bit that took both of us by surprise in the beginning. It took some time to adjust to, but I don't notice it nearly like I had in the beginning (or perhaps I've simply adapted). Although I initially felt cramped when standing over the bike, that seems to have disappeared too.

We still don't have the mileage on the Rodriguez that we do on the Rivendell at this point, but I think it's fair to say that things are looking up. Despite our very rough start with this new tandem, it has actually turned around and I am happy to say that we can ride the no-longer-new-tandem together without feeling as though everything is wrong. I still don't entirely understand why it threw me off so much initially, but it definitely got in my head and I needed time to accept that it just wasn't going to feel like the Rivendell.

Frankly, I didn't believe that we'd ever get to this point, so I'm grateful and thrilled that we've shed a few pounds (about 15+/-), which has helped ease the workload for our legs (especially when pedaling uphill). I don't think it's made us any faster, but having less weight to roll is certainly a welcomed relief (and a properly sized tandem is certainly beneficial as well). Hopefully, we'll continue to enjoy the "new" tandem and have many more opportunities to ride together (or two-gether, as the tandem couples sometimes say).


  1. Oh boy, when I saw the title I was really worried that this would be a custom disaster story. And for the first bit of the post, it sounded like it would be. Like you, I assume a bike should feel just right from the beginning. It’s hard to accept how long it takes to get a bike just the way you want it to be. I’m very, very glad for you that the new fits-right tandem seems to be working out, or at least getting there. I’m eager to hear more as you settle in with this bike.

  2. It definitely started off on shaky ground, but I think it's all slowly coming together. Customs just seem to be a tricky thing (at least for me). It's difficult to wrap my head around the fact that everything takes some work to get dialed in correctly. As you said, one would just think it would be right from the start.

    Hope you are continuing to enjoy your newer bike addition!

    1. I remember you encouraging me to accept that my Clementine would take some getting used to and you were right. I didn't like it at first but over the past two years each ride and my perception of it is slowly, slowly getting better. And they're some modifications that I'm realizing might dial it on better for me. Sounds lie the very same for your lightweight tandem.

    2. Fun when your own words come back to haunt, huh? hee hee But, yes, I think you are correct, Annie. I just need to accept that it will take some time to get used to the new tandem, but hopefully, like your Clementine, it will all come together in the end. :)


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