Santana could have named its flagship tandem “Beyond Sublime“
That’s pretty high praise, but it’s truly well deserved. I say that if only because our benchmark is another tandem that offers sublime ride qualities: our ’08 Custom Calfee Tetra Travel Tandem (Below). Moreover, for the past few months we’ve been using our Topolino AX 3.0T wheelset which allowed us to do an apples-to-apples comparison to the ride qualities of the Santana Beyond. The latter was important since the Beyond was fitted with a special, 20-spoke Spinergy XAero Lite wheelset that I’ll also discuss in my review.
Reminder to Self #1: First impressions aren’t always reliable.
I’m going to approach this review like a real review, because this is first time (and perhaps the last time) we’ve been presented with a factory-fresh, top-of-the-line tandem by a manufacturer who wanted us to spend enough time on their pride and joy to gain a full appreciation for the various different qualities and characteristics it offers to tandem enthusiasts. That’s a big deal because, as we’ve found over the years, hopping on a tandem for a short test ride or even just one extended test ride of several miles will not allow us to become familiar enough with the bike to parse first impressions from the more important impressions we get as we truly begin to appreciate the differences in how a tandem handles and feels compared to other tandems we’ve ridden.
For example, think about how long it took you and/or your riding partner to become comfortable with a new saddle, new pedals, new shifters, new wheels or a new riding position on an existing tandem. Again, speaking for ourselves, we get out there for the first ride and it feels weird, but we adapt or adjust things and after a few miles it’s less weird, but still different and once we’re done riding we evaluate if the change made us feel better or worse. The second time we go out, things still feel a bit different, but a little more familiar based on the previous day’s riding experience. However, it’s not until the third try that we’ve finally gotten to a new normal where our mind and body have had enough time to adjust to differences to be able to say… “Hey, this really is better!” Or, in some cases, “Hmmm, this isn’t working for me”.
Interestingly enough, I’ve found that once I have “indexed” a familiar bike’s fit, ride and handling characteristics in my mind, I can hop from bike-to-bike, tandem-to-tandem, or even motorcycle-to-motorcycle and within a mile recall how that bike will behave and feel comfortable knowing what to expect. So, from a test-rider standpoint, our 4-days at Chattanooga and 3-days on the Santana Beyond gave us the time that we needed to “index” the Beyond into our memories such that by the 2nd day we were on the tandem what I found different or disconcerting on the 1st day’s ride was now familiar and something I had started to compensate for. By the 3rd day, all of the differences noticed on the 1st ride had been assimilated such that I could now be more objective in my comparisons to the aforementioned baseline tandem for this comparison: our ’08 Calfee. I should note that we did, in fact, ride our Calfee in between our 1st ride on the Beyond and the 2nd day on the Beyond, and that was actually beneficial to our evaluation of the Santana. As I’d expected, the Calfee felt very familiar after riding the Beyond, but when we hopped back on the Beyond the next day it too felt familiar and differences I’d found disconcerting on our first ride were no longer an issue: everything felt pretty comfortable. More on that a bit further on in the review.
So, I guess one of the points I wanted to drive home with this introduction is, first impressions are not necessarily reliable when it comes to test riding bikes and tandems. Yes, just about any couple should be able to jump on any properly fitted tandem and have a safe and comfortable riding experience. However, when it comes to making objective and subjective opinions about how different bikes ride and handle, that mental “indexing” process that occurs over subsequent riding experiences is critical. Yes, yes… you can fall in love on a ‘first date’, but be mindful what it was that you became smitten with because, if it’s the wrong thing, it may not sustain a long-term relationship.
Reminder to Self #2: Don’t assume too much
I often make the mistake of assuming my audience knows a bit about more tandems and the tandem industry than they do, and that’s not a good thing. In fact, I need to remember that while there are some “geeks” out there, many readers are new to tandems and looking to learn as well as long-time tandem riders who have simply enjoyed riding whatever brand of tandem they started with where neither really know much about the history of different builders. After all, they’re interested in the future… their future as it relates to a future tandem purchase, upgrade, rally, or tour. Or, in this case, how the tandem being reviewed might compare to what they’re currently riding, if only to reaffirm that what they have is just fine.
Well, like it or note, I’m one of those people who still thinks history matters, because it helps to explain the current state of affairs and why things are the way they are. This is true for just about everything, including tandem bicycles. But, I recognize that I need to temper my zest for sharing lots of information by providing just enough for the average reader plus some links to additional information for the reader looking to peel back the onion a bit more regarding the subject of my review: in this case, Santana Cycles. Yes, it’s a review of a tandem, but you really can’t separate the tandems from the firms that build them since these speciality builders are small businesses that truly reflect the background and philosophy of their owners. So, with that…
A Little Background On Santana Cycles:
For readers who may not know, Santana Cycles was founded in Claremont, California by Bill & Jan McCready some 35 years ago in 1976. You can read a pretty good and very detailed account of Santana Cycles early historyoriginally published by LaVerne Magazine in 2002, and now hosted on JD Cycles website. There’s also some additional background on Bill and his interest and research on tandems in Part 2 of Blog entry I wrote back in March 2010 regarding Santana’s frame deflection testing that you can find HERE.
As a summary version of the Santana Cycles History:
- Bill first became interested in tandems at age 15 in the mid-60’s,
- 1st tandem was a short wheelbase T.Parsons racing tandem
- Began working at Buds Bike Shop in Claremont, California at age 16 in 1967,
- Set a course record for the “Grand Tour” double century in June 1967 (10:25) that lasted 9 years.
- Met future wife Jan Jones by offering her a ride on his tandem in 1969, or 1970 depending on which account you read.
- Note: Jan set a personal best for a solo double century of 10:50 at age 16
- Married Jan in 1972 while attending Claremont-McKenna College
- Bought Buds Bike Shop in 1974 three months before receiving his BA in Classical Political Philosophy from Claremont-McKenna College
- Became Associate Editor for Bicycle Magazine in 1975: yes, there’s a story there too.
- Wrote about and did extensive tandem testing while at Bicycling
- Founded Santana Cycles with Jan in 1976
- Has continually pushed the envelope on tandem development ever since
- Began offering tandem tours and rallies in 1986 to promote the tandem lifestyle
- Began publishing Tandems & Tandeming Magazine in early 1990’s, perhaps 1993?
- Acquired several So. Cal bike shops in the 80’s & 90’s; later divested to focus on Santana
- Relocated original factory from historic building in Claremont to current location in LaVerne, California in 1992
- Sold Buds Bike Shop in April 2006
Since its creation back in 1976, Santana has been widely seen as the world’s leading manufacturer of high-end tandems by several different measures and is most likely still the largest based on gross revenue and earnings. Santana’s efforts to address the shortcomings of tandem offerings in the 1970’s from Schwinn, Gitane, and others while improving on the better Jack Taylor tandems he and others were importing from England was timed perfectly with the cycling boom of the late 70’s and established Santana’s reputation for testing and innovation.
Longer stoker compartments, changes in geometry, tandem-specific tubesets, and sourcing tandem-specific components became Santana’s stock in trade. The goal was to eliminate wheel and drive train reliability issues while improving frame efficiency and riding comfort for both the pilot and stoker, which they achieved. The near need to use out-of-phase crank positioning in the 70’s and 80’s to prevent drive train wear and tear slowly disappeared as stronger bottom brackets, chains, and cranksets became available. Through collaboration with other cycling icons like Spence Wolf of Cupertino Bike Shop & Phil Wood, 48h wheels with robust hubs and spokes were offered that helped to bridge the gap until stronger 40h and 36h wheelsets were developed. Stronger forks and hubs were also developed as were other frame-building methods. And, to this day the testing, evaluation and adoption of new materials and components continues.
The list of former Santana employees and collaborators reads like a whose-who of the bicycle industry. And, along the way, the interest Santana developed in tandems and the tandem lifestyle created a rising tide that has, as they say, lifted all boats. While boutique builders like Stephen Bilenky, Glenn Erickson, and Angel Rodriguez were well-established in their local regions as the go-to people for hand-built, one-off tandems Santana stood alone as a tandems-only speciality builder and that caught the attention of a few companies and other entrepreneurs. Cannondale and Burley both started out as apparel and trailer manufacturers and, interestingly enough, in 1986 Cannondale began to offer a tandem frame/fork and in 1987 Burley followed by offering a complete tandem, both at lower price points than Santana’s multiple offerings. In 1988, a couple young men started building tandems in a Eugene, Oregon garage under the name Co-Motion. Trek eventually began to offer tandems in the mid-90s. A few wanna-be Santana builders came and went in the 90’s as well and through it all Santana has held true to its principles. However, smaller volume builders have also emerged such that consumers now have a wide variety of choices from the Angle Tech Harmony to the Zona Phoenix, including high-end exotics from Calfee, Seven, Lynskey , daVinci Designs unique tandems with their Independent Coasting System who came on the scene in 1994, and several very good European frame builders, never mind off-road tandem specialists like Ventana and Fandango. Co-Motion has emerged as another mover and shaker in the premium tandem speciality market by adopting a slightly different philosophy on the design of tandems and that has kept the market place far more interesting than it would have been without Co-Motion. However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it was Santana who was the catalyst for the American tandem cycling renaissance and raising the bar on what defined a great tandem that helped to create the market and multiple choices that consumers enjoy today.
Now, no background piece would be complete without noting that along the way Santana and Bill McCready have ruffled feathers and created angst with a lot of tandem industry and enthusiasts vis-a-vis their marketing and Bill’s unapologetic, dogmatic views on what makes Santana tandems ‘superior’ to tandems offered by others. You can include me in the sometimes ruffled and angst enthusiast column but, through it all, I’ve always known that Bill’s heart was in the right place and that his commitment to his philosophy, research-based innovation, products and Santana brand was something to admire and emulate for anyone looking to remain on top in a business niche they created.
My Relationship with Santana Cycles:
My first exposure to Santana came back when I lived in Redlands, California and commuted to Burbank, California each day. As a cyclist living in Southern California, Buds Cyclery was a well-known shop that featured some really nice high-end bikes like Serotta, had pro-level mechanics and also hosted some of the better club rides in the Inland Empire. I never paid much attention to the tandems until I finally had friends who exposed me to that aspect of cycling on a visit to Seattle, Washington. So, on my next visit to Buds some time around 1989 I stumbled into a “tent sale” day where I saw the most beautiful, fillet-brazed, all-white Santana Team tandem outfitted with a full Dura Ace grouppo: I was smitten. However, it was another 8 years until I finally had a reason to go shopping for a tandem and, as you’d expect, I had to have a Santana. Shortly after becoming a Santana owner I became a member of the Tandem@Hobbes listserver Email list and began to read Bill’s postings as well as those of other builders and long-time, well-respected tandem enthusiasts who held differing views on tandem technology and performance matters as I began to develop my own. Over the years, Bill and I exchanged views on the list, off the list and on the phone and we finally met for the first time at the 1999 Santana Mothers Day Weekend in Asheville, North Carolina. We’ve stayed in touch ever since and with each passing year I’ve mellowed a bit in my views as I’ve learned more about the objective and subjective nature of tandems and what makes one brand or model more or less appealing to different consumers. About 3 years back I thought Bill was going to send us a Santana with an adjustable head tube angle to play with as part of our ongoing steering geometry discussion, but that never came pass; although, Bill did confirm he truly hoped to send us the demo tandem but as noted… it just never came to pass. So, when given the opportunity to visit with Bill & Jan in Chattanooga on May 5-8, 2011 while enjoying one of their rallies on one of their flagship Santana Beyond tandems, well… it was a no-brainer and an eye-opener.
Up next, the actual review…