Last month, I completed an adventure that I had never in my wildest dreams (or nightmares!) thought I would: Racing the Tour Divide on a tandem.
Prior to April, I had only ever ridden a tandem around the parking lot of the bike shop where I used to work. But for some reason, my partner Caroline got it in her head in February that she wanted to race the Divide again this year (she was the fastest female finisher in 2011). But she wanted to race it together . . . with me . . . on one bike.
At first I called her crazy. Then I probably called her crazy a few more times. But she kept at it, and after a couple weeks, I made a few calls, sent a few emails, and before long, wheels were in motion. These weren’t actually tandem wheels, but the wheels of progress spinning away, working on getting us all the parts and gear we’d need. By mid-April, a frame, fork, and boxes of parts began arriving.
Thus began our adventure in tandem mountain biking and tandem bikepacking. Neither of these are particularly popular sub-disciplines of cycling, so I’m going to provide just a bit about what we learned through these experiences.
Who you calling crazy?
A question I always asked myself in the past when seeing two people on a tandem, particularly touring on tandem, was “why don’t they just get their own bikes?” It’s the obvious question, no? After quite a bit of riding on this bike with Caroline, I can say that tandems can be a ton of fun....sometimes. I certainly would not want to ride one all of the time, but there is something quite enjoyable about sharing everything in a ride together. There’s also never one person stopping to wait for the other, and the one falling back can never feel bad about not keeping up. Conversing is also much easier and lengthier. On the other hand, if you are reluctant to experience so much togetherness with someone, tandems probably are not for you. Another unexpected aspect of tandems is how challenging they are to navigate through technical singletrack. Easy trails become difficult, and tough trails become next to impossible. I’ve really been enjoying this new sort of challenge in the riding we’ve done, although I think Caroline is a bit less fond of it. I think that just means we need more practice . . .
On cooperation and communication:
We had been warned by many people about how we would need to get really good at communicating to be successful on a tandem. For us, the biggest challenges were simply getting going or stopping. Unexpected stops on more technical terrain were particularly problematic. Standing up together was initially very difficult, but before too long, Caroline would read any upshift of two gears as a signal that I was about to stand, and we’d rarely say anything unless she was the one that wanted to get off the saddle. As discussed below, the Rohloff internally geared hub we used allowed shifts at virtually any time with no communication. I simply would have to exert a bit of backpressure on the pedals to let off just enough to allow the hub to shift. Technical or rough terrain, and rocky singletrack in particular, requires far more communication, but more often than not, it was simply yelling, “Hang on, big bumps!” just before we’d plow through rocks so Caroline would know what was coming. Similarly, if I could see that I was going to let the rear wheel drift a bit through a turn, I’d better let Caroline know or she would be particularly angry with me after thinking we were about to crash. Simply put, since the stoker can neither see what’s coming or read the captain’s mind, the latter needs to let the former know if anything out of the ordinary is coming.
An equally important type of communication, which took us a while to understand, was simply conveying how we were each feeling to one another. On short rides, this isn’t as important, but for all-day rides, it is. When one of us would be feeling particularly tired or weak, it seemed like we were reluctant to let the other one know. Invariably, this meant that as one of us faded, the other would have to work slightly harder and would soon become both exhausted an annoyed. Instead, we should have simply taken a short break, eaten, and then continued on. One person simply cannot make up for the other becoming particularly tired on a tandem!
The Big Blue prototype Salsa tandem discussed on the blog back here
For wheels, we opted for NoTubes Flow rims, a DT Swiss 350 OS front hub, the Rohloff rear hub, and sturdy 2.0 gauge spokes. For most of the race, we used the discontinued Michelin Wild Racer tires with the Dry2 tread, a nice wide (2.2” in real life), fast-rolling tire with which I’ve had great luck. We set these up tubeless with Stan's sealant and ran them at about 40 psi.
For the drivetrain, we went with what we thought would be most reliable since tandems are notoriously hard on drivetrains, and the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is notorious for drivetrain-destroying mud. The Rohloff hub (with a 16-tooth cog) was the obvious choice. With 14 speeds and a rather wide gear range, we decided to use just a single chainring setup. With a 41-tooth chainring, we sacrificed a bit at the high end of things, but we had a suitably low gear for the Divide. We would spin out at just below 30 mph. For singletrack-rich riding, a 39- or 40- tooth chainring would probably be preferable. We used standard GXP bottom brackets from SRAM paired with SRAM 10-speed triple cranks. The timing chainrings were run where the outer chainring normally mounts, and the 41-tooth ring for the drive chain mounted in place of the middle ring (after a bit of grinding of the mounting tabs on the ring). And all chainrings were mounted with steel rather than alloy bolts (we broke even broke one of these prior to the race, probably after smashing the chainring into a rock). Wrapped around all these rings were Wipperman Connex 9-speed chains.
In order to slow this beast, we used XT brakes with 203mm rotors. These provided ample stopping power, only heated sufficiently to fade on one descent, and gave me far more confidence than any other brake I’ve used.
Other parts were chosen more with comfort in mind than anything. Caroline went with a Salsa Pro Moto 1 carbon seatpost rather than a suspension post since she disliked the bobbing sensation of the latter. I used a sturdy aluminum Ritchey seatpost that would withstand the stoker stem (90mm, 30-degree rise with an aluminum shim) being clamped around it. Caroline used a Salsa Pro Moto 1 riser bar, and I used a Salsa Pro Moto 1 flat bar. Both of us tacked on Cane Creek Ergo II bar ends (not recommended on Salsa’s carbon bars), and part way through the race, we added a second set of bar ends facing backwards to give Caroline another hand position (really not recommended on ANY bars!).
Aside from these parts, I used some aero bars cobbled together from various parts, both of us rode reliable Shimano XT pedals, and ESI Chunky grips with Salsa Gel Cork tape wrapped on top.
For carrying our gear, we used a large homemade roll-top bag on the handlebars for our sleeping bags/clothes strapped directly to the handlebar and fork stanchions. A Revelate Designs Viscacha seat bag held the rest of our clothes aside from rain gear. Four frame bags from Revelate held virtually everything else, including four 1L bladders, rain gear, spare tubes, repair items, first-aid kit, and most of our food. Everything else fit in three top-tube bags or our jersey pockets. A small backpack lived in the seat bag for the few times when we had too much food or water to carry for our other bags. We definitely maxed out the carrying capacity of the bike without resorting to panniers, so gear stowage will be a challenging consideration for any tandem bikepacking trip, particularly in cooler weather. One other consideration is that the captain can only wear a very small backpack since the stoker sits so close, and the stoker probably doesn’t want to carry much weight in a pack given the rougher ride on the rear of the bike.
The rest of our gear was very similar to what I carried in the Tour Divide last year
So how did all this work? Almost flawlessly! The frame and shock combination was incredibly comfortable. The wheels held up without needing any truing. Brake pads needed replacing once, and we replaced the drive chain once. We replaced the rear tire half way through, and the front finally gave up the ghost only 150 miles from Mexico. We had a total of three punctures, all of which were too large for the Stan's sealant to seal but were easily pluggable. The Rohloff shifter became very difficult to turn after several muddy days early on. Upon investigation, I found the cable box to be holding a considerable amount of silty water, some of which had obviously gotten into the cable housing. Some cleaning and lube in the housing helped. Then halfway through the race, the hub began leaking oil (my fault for not replacing the paper gaskets in the used hub beforehand). Some of this oil got into the cable housing and helped the cables slide more smoothly than ever! Aside from those minor problems, we did not replace or service anything else on the bike.
What would we change? I’m honestly not sure if we’d do anything differently. Potentially we’d use a 40-tooth chainring. The Rohloff hub was fantastic because I could shift without needing to communicate with Caroline, and we didn’t break a single chain, thanks in large part to the straight chainline the hub allowed.
The overall experience:
After completing the Tour Divide in twenty days and change (good enough for 9th place), Caroline and I both strongly felt that riding the route was far easier solo. This was purely from an exertion standpoint – tandems are simply hard work, especially any time the road points skyward. There were certainly more low points in the ride as we struggled against the terrain, but it was also incredibly helpful and rewarding to have someone else there to help you through the tough times. Enjoying the best parts of the ride together was fantastic. And no longer did I have to feel strange for talking to myself so much. Although Caroline was a bit alarmed at how much I talk to and moo at the countless cattle along the way.
After all this, are Caroline and I still together? Of course, and a lot closer because of it!
Will we ever ride the tandem again? Definitely. It’ll probably be a little while yet as we’re both enjoying riding singletrack on our own bikes, but I think some shorter weekend bikepacking trips on the tandem will be quite fun.
Is tandem bikepacking for everyone? Definitely not! But I think those of you who might enjoy it know who you are. Although I did not expect it to be as fun as it is, so perhaps you don’t know who you are? If it piques your interest, definitely consider it!
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After growing up in Minnesota, I’ve been lured away by the rugged charm of the mountainous west. I relish every opportunity I find to spend a day (or days) on the bike, linking together unknown trails and forgotten routes through deserted country, enjoying the simplicity and unpredictability. When driven to race, I am growing ever fonder of pushing the limits of endurance and sanity. www.krefs.blogspot.com