Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Change Your Handlebars, Change Your World

When I wrote about our custom tandem bike, I mentioned that we didn't get off to the best start. The bike just felt unsteady to me as the captain and I struggled for months trying to determine whether we'd ever really be able to ride the tandem together.

Before it had even arrived, we had conversations about the possibility of needing to put different handlebars on the bike. We'd asked that it be built with drop bars, but knowing that I sometimes struggle with that type of set up on a bike (sometimes it's worked well and other times it just never quite works for me), we wanted the option to put more upright bars on the bike. The builder was aware of this and told us that the bike could be easily switched to other handlebars, perhaps needing just a change of the length of the stem.
Drop bars on the tandem the day it arrived. It didn't stay this way for long!
Immediately after the first test, I was aware that the drop bars were not going to work for me on the tandem, but we gave them a try for a few rides. Being shorter and having drop bars with bar end shifters, I was struggling both with mounting the bike without shifting the gears accidentally with my thigh and the actual feel of the bike while steering. Already feeling uneasy about piloting the unsteady bike, I didn't need any extra trouble.

My instinctual thought was to put albatross handlebars on the front of the tandem. They are always easy for me to use, and with bar end shifters I figured that would help alleviate the accidental shifting when mounting. We also discussed the possibility of using trekking/butterfly handlebars because they've been a good option on some bikes too.

The easiest switch was to use the spare albatross bars, so we mounted them up with a longer stem and set to testing. This switch definitely helped with the shifting issue, and actually allowed us to ride the bike together; however, it definitely didn't make the bike feel much steadier when riding. For months, we struggled, riding the tandem this way. We were happy that we could actually ride the tandem, but the ride was still not what we'd expected. Honestly, we assumed that this is just how it was going to be and I'd have to come to terms with the reality that the tandem, while now rideable, was never going to feel the way we'd hoped.
Albatross handlebars on the tandem. We tried flipping them both ways to see if one way worked better than the other, but upright seemed to be the best position.
We had several conversations, often as we rode the tandem, that perhaps we just needed to accept that this was a mistake and that we should have just been grateful with the too-large tandem we already had. At least that one felt steady. I myself said more than once that I wished we'd never bothered because we just weren't getting what we'd hoped to out of the custom tandem and we'd invested a lot into it. We were able to ride it, but it just never felt quite like we wanted it to.

One day over the winter, I was riding the trainer (currently set up with the VO Campeur--a strange choice for a trainer bike, I'm aware-- which is built with trekking handlebars) and thinking to myself that we never actually tried putting those bars on the tandem and that maybe we should give it a try. My thinking was that at least it would provide some additional locations to move my hands around. With the albatross bars on the tandem, I always felt too shaky to move my hands, not to mention there aren't as many options for spots to move my hands to, which was causing my already bad hands/wrists to experience even more pain.
Trekking bars on the Velo Orange Campeur
I mentioned casually to Sam that we should try the trekking bars out on the tandem, who agreed it was worth the effort if it would give me more hand positions to use. He had a spare set of 3x9 trigger shifters, so he set off to get the switch done to give my hands a bit of a break.

I wasn't really sure what to expect out of the switch and had said to Sam that it might not work at all which would mean we'd be switching back to the albatross bars; but on the first little test around the neighborhood, it seemed good, great even. Suddenly, the tandem seemed stable and "right," and I wasn't having the unsteady feeling I usually get when riding it. I thought perhaps it was because I was riding it alone, but even when Sam hopped on the back to let me test it as we'd actually ride, I realized that something had dramatically changed.

It seemed insane to me that a simple handlebar could create such a difference in the way the bike felt, but here we were, having only changed those (and the shifter levers) and it felt like a completely different ride. Except for the small amount of testing around our neighborhood, our first test ride was over 50 miles, which was a little concerning having not really gone any distance with this set up.

Fortunately, the gamble paid off and as we rode, we both noticed changes very quickly. Sam commented that he felt as though the tandem was more steady, even in the stoker position, and he noted that my body position seemed to be closer to what it usually is when I ride and not as though I was driving a school bus as it had appeared with the other handlebars.
Current setup with the trekking handlebars... a world of difference!
I was enjoying having somewhere to move my hands when I needed to give them a break, and I was at ease moving my hands without feeling as though the bike would end up on the ground if I shifted positions. Strangely, I even felt as though my legs had more power. It was as though I'd been given a penalty with the other handlebars and now I'd been released to move my legs normally.

I'd thought perhaps I was imagining that I had more power until the end of the ride when we saw that we'd averaged a significantly higher speed than we had been on this bike on prior rides of the same distance/route.  It was as though the change in handlebars completely changed everything about the bike. It now behaved like a road bike and allowed me to be in a better position to use the larger muscles to push as I would naturally on a single road bike. I wasn't afraid to remove a hand or to adjust the mirror while riding because it felt steady and as though it would track forward even with one hand on the bars.

Toward the end of the ride, without even being aware of what I was doing, I intuitively stood up to pedal through a rough spot and then suddenly realized what had just happened. I had never stood up to pedal on the tandem before the handlebar change because it felt like I would lose control of the bike (honestly, even coasting and standing always gave me a bit of fright); but this was something that just happened naturally, as it would on my single bike when it was necessary and without any forethought.

I feel like a whole new world has opened up with this set up, and even Sam said he feels the change in the rear position on the bike. I would never have guessed that a simple handlebar switch would have created such a dramatic change in the way this bike rides! I keep thinking that I am disappointed that we didn't try the change months ago rather than waiting, but I am also excited that this has given us a tandem that is more in line with what we hoped to get out of the custom experience. Not only are my hands doing better being able to move around, but it has given us both more confidence and power while riding.

Over the years, we've switched out handlebars on many of my single bikes, and it's made a difference in some instances, but never have I experienced any type of change that was so dramatic as this. It's definitely been a positive difference - and something that I hadn't expected. Have you ever made a simple change to a bike that made a huge difference in the way it handled or felt?


  1. I'm sooo happy for you and Sam!

    Absolutely, the easiest and best change I've made has been to ditch toeclips and only ride on wider platform pedals. I feel liberated to pedal in all kinds of footwear and shift foot positions when I need to, nt to mention, quickly stop and put my feet down.

    1. Thank you, Annie! It has been wonderful to actually enjoy this bike. :)

      I really enjoy riding with platform pedals and being able to shift my foot positions as needed too! This is a great example of a seemingly small change that can make a huge difference. It's so nice to also be able to ride in whatever shoes I have on.

  2. Handlebars on a tandem are a huge game changer. We have the Riv tandem, and even though it's designed for swept back bars, after a few weeks, we went for our go to flat bars, "Postino" well below saddle height for me in front, which are the equivalent of riding on the flats on drops, and flipped Alba bars for Ms Stoker. Immediately more power and speed. Ideally would like to try the VO crazy bar, or a trekking bar like you did.

    1. I can't believe the difference the handlebars have made... it just doesn't seem possible. Glad that you're finding a good place with your Rivendell tandem too!

  3. Changing my handlebars made a huge difference too! I bought a new Koga touring bike in 2017 and it came with trekking bars; I gave them a good trial but unlike you on your tandem I hated them! I did not feel they gave me enough control of the bike, so I changed them to Thorn Comfort bars, the same as I had on my older bike, and they made a huge difference.

    And like Annie I changed the pedals, on the same bike. I didn't like the original ones as they seemed too narrow. First I bought some cheap replacements, thinking the size was better, but it wasn't, so I put the originals back on. but then one wet day my feet were slipping about so much that I struggled to ride to where I was going, only about 7 miles away, and back. Again like Annie I changed to wide platform pedals, with grippy bits, and have again that made a massive diffference.

    My husband hasn't changed anything on his current bike and thinks I'm being fussy when I change things!

    I changed to a Brooks saddle too, on the Koga, but that was really because I'd always wanted to try a leather one, not so much because I didn't like the old one.

    1. Lizzie,

      I've put the trekking bars on some bikes that they just didn't work well at all, so I completely understand when those are not necessarily the answer for a particular bike. I'm pleased that you found a handlebar that does work for you on your bike though!

      I'm a fan of platform pedals, but have had some that didn't have the grippy/spikey bits and when it's wet it is definitely easy for my foot to slip right off (which can be quite startling!).

      Personally, I don't think it's fussy to get your bike set up the way you like it, particularly for those of us who use our bikes regularly. It's important to enjoy and be comfortable, so I'm glad you've taken the time to find the right pieces for you. :)