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.