Racing Wheels… On Tandems That Ain’t Racin’?

Dumb idea…  at least from my perspective.

You know, it’s kind of humorous to look back at the near-term history of tandem wheels. By near term, I’m looking back to the 70’s when what I’d like to think of as the Great-American Tandem Renaissance seemed to begin.  This was a time when serious cyclists had to look to Europe for a ‘real tandem’ from the likes of Jack Taylor, Peugeot, Gitane, or perhaps a Urago imported by Mel Pinto.  Schwinn’s Paramounts were OK, but far from being what most enthusiasts would expect from any frame bearing the “Paramount” name.  However, the one constant with these bikes was the lack of wheel reliability.  Tandems were hard on wheels and at the time these tandems were all running on pretty narrow rear axles and prone to routine spoke breakage.

In 1976 Bill McCready founded Santana Cycles with a goal of creating a new, American benchmark for what world-class tandems  should be and that included building his frames with a tandem-specific 140mm rear spaced drop-out for what would be more durable wheels. In 1992 Santana increased its rear drop-out spacing to 160mm while others also increased their rear drop-out spacing to 145mm, noting that both ‘standards’ appeared to yield an inherently more durable wheel vs. 140mm and narrower tandem wheels.

At the same time the overall quality of bicycle wheel components was improving.  Better and more durable hubs, spokes and rims were becoming the rule instead of the exception as MTB technology “lifted all boats” and gave rise to many components that found their way onto tandems, e.g., better cantilever brakes, wider-range triple cranks, cassettes and derailleurs, beefier headsets, etc.   Finally, having a broken spoke on a tandem usually meant that you just had a wheel that wasn’t built with even tension in the first place or was allowed to go out of tension and true vs. reaching its fatigue limits after just 10k miles.  So, having a set of wheels that could go 25k miles was no longer a miracle, it was becoming the expectation.  After all, of all the things that can ruin a ride, wheel failures remain the ones that are usually the hardest ones to address in the field.

A mere 10-years after new standards were adopted that gave tandem enthusiasts “good wheels” came a solution looking for a problem: low spoke count and paired spoke racing wheels.  Yes, Aerospoke had attempted to offer up some ‘fast wheels’ for tandems with mixed results and folks had played around with HED, Spinergy, Mavic Ksyriums and other go-fast wheels. Almost uniformly, all of these wheels had similar reliability issues when they were used for daily use instead of being held in reserve for special events. Although Santana made all kinds of pre-announcements regarding it’s Sweet 16 go-fast wheels, Bontrager may have beat them to the punch by rolling out the Bontrager Race Lite Tandem wheels for 145mm spaced tandems a little earlier in 2002.  While about as heavy as most 40h tandem wheels, they “looked cool” and gave tandems a similar look to the higher-end single seat counterparts which were all beginning to sport low spoke count, deep section rims with bladed spokes.

Santana released its wheels in 2002 followed by Rolf with the Prima Vigor Tandem wheels and as many of us who follow tandem technology guessed, durability and reliability did become a problem.  The problems weren’t necessarily symptomatic in all cases, mostly sporadic.  Over the years all of these “racing wheels’ have received incremental improvements to solve original design shortfalls that have helped to improve reliability and durability.  However, at the end of the day the real net result is that many enthusiasts have found a way to spend twice as much on wheels that have about 1/2 the reliability and durability with marginal performance improvements.

Bottom Line: If you ain’t racin’, why are you riding wheels that were designed and optimized FOR racing?  If you believe they’ll make you faster, you’re kidding yourselves.  Even if they did, the benefit can only be realized IF the higher performance wheels are only used for an added boost in performance during a key event. After all, if you REALLY wanted to improve your team’s fitness and performance you’d want to ADD resistance to your training rides, not reduce it.

Note: You can find photos and descriptions of the five (5) different wheelsets we evaluated after taking possession of our Calfee tandem back in Dec ’08 HERE. At the end of the day, our White Ind. / Velocity wheels consistently delivered the best all-around performance and handling at about 40% of the cost of the higher-end “performance” wheels.  In the final analysis, if you really do have a bona-fide  need for racing wheels, e.g., for competition in sanctioned racing events, by all means get yourself some real racing wheels: HED, MAVIC, Edge, etc. with 40mm or deeper rims, rear discs, etc…  and hold them in reserve for shake down, pre-race and actual competition events where their benefits can truly be leveraged.


About TG

I've been around a bit and done a few things, have a couple kids and a few grandkids. I tend to be curmudgeonly, matter-of-fact and not predisposed to self-serving chit-chat. Thankfully, my wife's as nice as can be otherwise we'd have no friends. My interests are somewhat eclectic, but whose aren't?
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10 Responses to Racing Wheels… On Tandems That Ain’t Racin’?

  1. WheresWaldo says:

    Wow, I can’t believe you actually wrote this line: “if you REALLY wanted to improve your team’s fitness and performance you’d want to ADD resistance to your training rides, not reduce it.” It is just wrong on every level and I am sure you do not actually believe it either.

    I do agree with what you wrote about the boutique wheels you describe in the post, as well as people using single bike specific performance wheels on a tandem. So in most respects it was an interesting read.

    • TG says:

      I could have probably worded my comment better as it was over-generalized… hey, it happens.

      That said, and for the purpose of clarity, let’s be clear: I’m not talking about elite racers or anyone else who is being coached and/or following a strict training regime where every ride is about achieving a specific, measurable goal. These folks should be managing their performance by measuring watts, physiology, and a myriad of other quantifiable data points where it really doesn’t matter what kind of wheels they use so long as they’re hitting their training zones. Moreover, Lord knows why anyone who was that serious about their training would be spending their time reading my blog or any of the tandem enthusiast forums for performance tips in the first place.

      I’m also not advocating hanging weights on a bike, or going out and finding the heaviest tires and wheels you can get your hands on, i.e., let’s not go down the path of a slippery slope argument.

      What I believe is, there is very little value to be gained by many of the recreational and enthusiast-level tandem consumers who have followed (or who may be inclined to follow) fashion trends that promise reduced aero drag (less resistance, eh?) and rotating mass by using ‘racing wheels’ for their regular ‘training’ rides, noting that I’m using the term “training” in the most general sense. After all, this was the point of this particular blog entry.

      IMHO, if the average recreational tandem teams wants to burn calories or build strength, making it ‘easier’ to go the same speed or a little faster by using performance equipment is not the best use of their time and energies, UNLESS the psychological impact of having that go-fast hardware will provide the motivation a team needs to push themselves harder. Instead, these average teams would do better to stick with conventional 36, 40 or 48h daily use wheels (i.e., wheels with higher aero drag / more resistance) for their ‘daily’ or ‘weekly’ training rides which, again, is the underlying point of this particular blog entry.

      All that said, I do happen to believe that in the broader context of ‘training’ there is definitely a place for adding resistance to improve fitness and personal performance (read strength, stamina and physiology), and many studies and training regimes back that up. Resistance can and should be added to even a non-specific training regime by including simple things like more hill work and/or sprints and some big gear work. Other more general on-bike training should also focus on techniques such as proper bike fit, finding the most efficient riding positions for different conditions, improving pedal stroke, cadence, breathing, cardio, etc. are also better (and much less costly) ways of improving fitness and personal performance vs. looking to boutique quasi-racing wheels as a shortcut to being “faster” than you would with conventional equipment.

      Again, if a team has reached peak levels of fitness and is attempting personal bests or competing in an event where time matters, by all means buy some real racing wheels that will deliver that “extra” performance boost from their equipment when it matters. And, yes, there will need to be some training time devoted to ‘learning’ that race-specific hardware’s nuances so that a team doesn’t wreck when a crosswind nails their HED disc wheels during their State Time Trial Championship, just as they’ll need to learn how to deal with skin suits, aero helmets and aerobars.

  2. Knubby says:

    TG, just want to mention that Santana still built some racing frames in the 1980s with 130mm spacing. In 1987, Santana offered the Sovereign and Arriva in the race and tour models. Our Arriva-S has 130mm spacing, not 140.

    • TG says:

      True… and they also sold a limited number of double-diamond “Solana” tandems back in the early 80’s as well as some Moda mountain bikes and a limited number of single road bikes, including a series of Scandium aluminum road bikes that all diverged from the Santana ‘standards’ as development exercises or market tests.

      I probably need to schedule an appointment and meet with Bill McCready at some point to collect the history of Santana for posterity. It would make a neat chapter in a book that chronicled all of the significant US-based tandem builders, e.g., Mel Pinto & the early importers, Rodriguez & Erickson, Co-Motion, Burley Design Cooperative, Cannondale, Trek, Sterling/Bilenkly, Ibis, etc…

  3. Meurig says:

    Hi There,

    I’m after some advice on potential race wheels from the more wordly wise in the matter of tandems….

    We’re planning on riding the ADK540 this year and RAAM next, so we have much to do in terms of sourcing appropriate bikes gear etc.

    However for the ADK 540 I think we’ll be OK with our ‘Dale T2 with some additional wheels.

    Do you have any advise on what could be the best lightweight and aero combo out that (that will also take disks)?



    • TG says:

      Not sure even Zipp racing wheels would give you a big performance bump on the Cannondale, as the stock fork and large diameter tubeset (downtube in particular) are a big source of aero drag as you get to the speeds where lower-drag wheelsets might afford you a slight advantage. We have the same issue with the big 1.75″ downtube on our Calfee.

      The wheels that you have now should be pretty light, as far as 40h tandem wheelsets go. I believe C’dale was using White Ind hubs when I last checked and the ME14A rims are even a bit lighter than the fairly light Velocity Fusion rims and quite a bit lighter than the Deep-Vs. So, unless you really have deep pockets, I’m not sure I’d do anything other than making sure you pick a nice, relatively lightweight but still durable tire for use in your events.

      If you really wanted to improve your aero performance you’d want to replace the front fork with a carbon model that uses a caliper brake and at that point you might be able to get some benefit from a deeper-section rim with a well-matched tire and will have a better “feeling” bike given the lighter front end and non-disc wheel at the end of the fork.

      All that said, you could slap on a set of Rolf’s just to get the placebo effect that might come from having what I suspect would be a slightly lighter wheelset that has a lot less turbulence in the spoke network and that will make your tandem feel more lively. We have a set of Rolf’s that we’ll throw on our Calfee now and again and they do make the bike “feel” more peppy on the long straights and such, just not our first choice for technical descents or touring.

      Wish I had a silver bullet for you.

  4. Meurig says:

    Thanks for your input.

    At this point I’m not sure whether aero or weight is the key issue.

    For ADK540 and RAAM there is a lot of climbing so weight is a factor.
    Correspondingly I’m assuming that there is a good bit of descending so discs are good to have….

    We are thinking of trying to source a recumbent for RAAM as:
    – they are more aero on flat ground; and
    – should provide relief from saddle, back & neck strain over the 3000 miles….

    I agree the stock wheels on the Dale seem pretty decent – the DT-Swiss hubs and mavic rims seem to be a smooth running and sturdy combo.

    That said we are in the market for another set of wheels as we will need at least one spare set, so I had been considering:
    – rolfs, Spinergy PBOs from Tandems East, Bontragers or Zipps (not sure funds will run to those…)

    We’re a relatively lightweight team at under 250lb


  5. TG says:

    Assuming you’re NOT running a front disc, Rolf’s would have marginally less aero drag than the Spinery wheels unless you’re tucked in tight and bombing down hill or time trialing, whereas Spinery get the nod for being about 200g lighter and also more comfortable… by a good margin. Add the discs and the aero drag and weight both go up.

    Cost wise, I think most of the tandem speciality dealers will price match and Spinergy’s are selling for just under $1k with Rolf’s showing up “on sale” for under $900, under $1k for the dual-disc wheels.

    Bontragers would not be on my short list. They’re robust and look fast, but performance wise their heavier than what you have with the typical marginal aero advantage.

    Zipps and the like would only be something I’d suggest for time trials, etc., unless you have the aforementioned deep pockets.

    Of the wheels mentioned above, we own a set of Rolfs (which I’d probably sell for about $650 since we don’t use them but they’re not dual-disc, just rear disc compatible), Topolino’s, several sets of conventional 36h White/Ind Velocity Deep-V wheelsets, and we’ve put about 120 miles on a set of Spinergy PBO wheels.

    As for my impressions, the Rolfs feel fast, but that’s a bit of a placebo effect that comes from the high-tension spokes which also is where the sometimes harsh road feel comes from. The Topolino and Spinery wheels have a very similar feel to each other and I think someone would be hard pressed to know which they were riding in a blind road test. They have the stability of 36h conventional wheels, but seem to spin up faster and really made our steel tandem feel much more comfortable vs. our conventional 36h wheels, and way more comfortable vs. the Rolfs. Again, not much aero advantage; perhaps on par with 36h wheels.

  6. Meurig says:

    Thanks for the info – comfort is definitely a major factor given the prospect of riding 3000 miles in under 12 days…..

    Would you advise to forego a front disk?
    I like the power of having duel disks but I’m assuming the rear + front rim brakes should be adequate (We will need to decend in the Rockies)

    the Cannondale fork has bosses so retrofitting v-brakes should be no problem. Though I guess fitting dual pivots would require a fork change.


    • TG says:

      Front discs work fine; just a bit specialized when it comes to SAG support and front wheel interchangability. Of course, the same is true of rear wheels when it comes to tandems.

      I’d just go without the back-up wheelset for the ADK540 and use that experience to decide if you really want to invest more in the C’dale for the RAAM.

      If you find the C’dale performs well “as is” and simply want a back-up wheelset, stick with what you have.

      If you think the C’dale needs a better fork, wheels, etc., figure out how much you want to spend and see where that takes you. Composite forks are $400-$600, high-end wheelsets are $900-$1500 and a new front brake will set you back a $150 (caliper, cable, housing, bar tape) and the fork change will also alter how your tandem handles (a bit more lively) as most composite forks use less rake / more trail than the C’Dale OEM spec, unless you can find a new old stock Reynolds Ouzo Pro Tandem with 1.125″ steerer or a Bongrager Satellite Tandem fork, which are both pretty close to C’dale’s spec.

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