Is it physically easier (i.e. less effort) to ride a tandem than to ride bikes separately?

I was doing some checking on information I’d previously written about R&E cycles — as I’ll occasionally do — and stumbled across a tandem-cycling related discussion that came up on one of the BMW motorcycle enthusiast discussion boards I’ve frequented over the past couple years.

For those of you who don’t ride motorcycles as well as bicycles and tandem bicycles, you’d be amazed at how many folks do, in fact, ride both big and not so big bikes as a shared hobby.   Moreover, there are also quite a few big bike riders — typically more mature folks who ride touring or sport touring motorcycles — who either own and ride tandem bicycles or who are interested in tandem bicycles.  It was just such a discussion that cropped up last November on the BMWSportTouring.com forums that came to my attention.  While other readers were answering (or at least trying to answer) questions from the original reader who was shopping for a tandem, the thread went in a couple different directions.  One of the directions it took was a pretty basic question that comes up fairly often and that I took a stab at answering.

In coming across that response, I thought I’d fill some bandwidth here on my blog by reposting the original question and my typically long-winded reply, as there may be some useful nuggets in there.

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QUESTION: Is it physically easier (i.e. less effort) to ride a tandem than to ride bikes separately? I would think there is less wind resistance and maybe rolling resistance, but subjectively it just looks like it would require more effort.

ANSWER:

I always like to note that riding a tandem is like ballroom dancing: some folks make it look effortless and graceful while others just can’t or won’t take the time and effort needed to make it all work. Someone has to lead and someone has to follow and both partners need to be working towards a common end result.

So, to your question….

It’s a bit different for different types of teams and subject to how they handle the differences in size, fitness, cycling experience and… most of all, how well they communicate and work out the compromises needed to work together as a team. Just having two strong riders won’t always guarantee strong performance if they end up working against each other. However, if they can, look-out. There’s a great article written by a Tri-Geek, Jim Riccotello, who with zero experience riding on the back of a tandem teamed up with Pro road racer Gord Fraser for the Tour de Tuscon a few years back. They won the thing outright, beating other pro riders. His account of the story is funny as hell, even if you’ve never ridden a tandem.  Now, let me temper his article by noting much of it is satire and represents his view of the world as someone who would not ever normally consider riding on the back of a tandem. According to my beloved and every other seasoned stoker I’ve spoken to, they actually do get to do a lot of sight-seeing and are free to talk (usually to other stokers) as much as they like UNLESS it’s hammer-time. Then all that stuff that Jim talked about.. yeah, it’s hell back there.

Anyway, for mere mortals and all things being equal, a tandem has about 1.5x more aero drag than a single bike (the other types of drag differences are negligible) so a tandem team riding on a dead-flat road would need to be able to generate at least 50% more combined power than a single bike to hold their own.

Most tandem teams can do this and that allows them to ride faster than either of them likely could on the same flat road with less effort and/or for longer distances. Therefore, it’s not all that uncommon to find a tandem team of average fitness & cycling skill pacing or even pulling a line of what would normally be faster riders along flat to rolling terrain on large organized rides with just an average amount of effort. Even on rolling terrain a tandem’s momentum is a very powerful tool that doesn’t work against the team IF they can power over the top of each rise as the momentum begins to decay.

Now, where tandems traditionally struggle and demand a lot more physical effort is on hills and in the mountains where it’s all power-to-weight-ratio + the ability to efficiently deliver that power to the rear wheel. This is where a lot of strong cyclists who are trying to introduce a weaker cyclist or non-cycling partner get into trouble with unrealistic expectations because this is where the combined weight isn’t always matched with the same level of fitness needed to move that weight up a hill. In this typical scenario, the stronger cyclist will discover they are, in fact, doing more work than they would on their single bike if only because they’re looking for the same level of performance for the level of effort being exerted as they’d experience on their single bike. Never let it be said that many a new tandem team took its last ride together when one of the riders asked the other, “Are you pedalling?” or words to that effect whist struggling up a challenging climb.

How the team deals with differences in fitness, technique, etc. is what will determine if they become the ubiquitous “slow tandem on the hills” or if they can work well enough to at least maintain a climbing speed and level of effort that is on par with what they might experience as an average of riding their single bikes remembering, the net power is the average of both riders. For elite teams where both riders are pulling their own weight, climbing is often times as much fun as the flats where the objective becomes dropping stunned single bike riders who are often heard saying, “Dayum, I thought tandems were slow on hills?”.

Finally, there are the downhills… and as you’d expect a two-wheeled bicycle with 300lbs of riders who can get into an aero tuck can hit some pretty scary speeds, i.e., we’ve tickled 65mph several times and hitting the high 40’s is pretty commonplace in our local mountains and even on some local, steep descents.

Lest I digress further, as I said… it depends. We know some really fast teams who are fast everywhere, while others are fast on the flats but become hill-slugs. Looking at them on the bikes you’d never guess which are which at times: appearances are often deceiving. What is always true is that the teams who really communicate well and who have a lot of mutual respect and patience with their partners will always enjoy riding a tandem more than a couple who have a hard time agreeing on anything off the bike, never mind working toward common goals on the bike.

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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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4 Responses to Is it physically easier (i.e. less effort) to ride a tandem than to ride bikes separately?

  1. Dances With Wiener Dogs says:

    After starting that post in November on the BMW forum, we FINALLY bought our tandem. 1997 Co-Motion SkyCapp with S&S couplers and a softride beam for my lovely wife and stoker. I can’t thank you enough for your advice. Cheers!

  2. TG says:

    Outstanding!

    Thanks so much for the follow-up and kind words.

  3. Tim Baynes says:

    That’s a nice write-up, Mark. (as usual). We’ve exchanged a couple messages over on bikeforums.net.

    Two observations: it’s interesting how the love of balancing precariously on a fast-moving conveyance transfers to across modes. You bring up the example of sport-touring motorcycles, a hobby which I also share. (I ride a KTM adventure bike.) My wife, in turn, rides horses. She and I both love riding bikes. There is something about the relative freedom that you experience (as opposed to being in a car, let’s say) that applies to all three of these activities. If done well (and safely), it’s exhilirating.

    Which leads to my second point regarding effort: my wife and I are shopping for our first tandem, and hope to have that tied up by the end of next week. We did get a loaner for a test ride, and absolutely loved it. For me, I it was because it was so much easier to go fast on the flats as well as on moderate hills. (We didn’t get a chance to try larger hills yet.) And of course, the shared experience while cruising along a pretty high rate of speed (for a bike) is not to be missed.

  4. TG says:

    Hey Tim:

    Thanks for the note and kind feedback. Glad to hear the first tandem experience was a positive one and I look forward to following your progress at BF.

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