S and S Bicycle Torque Couplings™: Did You Know?

For readers who may not know what as S and S Machine Bicycle Torque Coupling is, they allow full-size bicycle and tandem bicycle frames to be broken down into smaller sections that can be packed into what is essentially a large suitcase that can be easily loaded into cars, taxicabs, shuttle buses, trains, boats, cruise ships, small planes and commercial aircraft.  The alternative before BTCs came along was purchasing a small travel bicycle from a firm like Green Gear, aka, a TandemTuesday or BikeFriday, or buying a large travel case for your bike or tandem and then having to deal with moving that massive thing around and freight charges, which could be rather stiff.  Of course, with airlines now charging for just about any luggage, the no-cost checkable bag aspect of the S and S BTC equipped bicycle has been slightly diminished.  However, to this day having an S and S BTC equipped tandem does allow owners to decide if they’d like to take their tandem on a vacation, instead of trying to plan vacation travel around their coffin-size tandem case.

So, with that little bit of background, and for all of the readers who already had heard of or seen an S and S BTC, did you know?

– The first BTC was made by Steve Smilanick at his Roseville, California machine shop back in 1992 as a one-off solution that would allow him to take his Bianchi road bike on a Mediterranean cruise?  You can read Steve’s full account HERE.

– BTCs are a very small part of S and S Machine’s product line, noting that they first produced  a wide variety of custom machined components for things like whirlpool products and adapters for automotive transmissions and engines, commercial salmon fishing gurdies, floppy disk drive tooling and test fixtures, medical equipment, functional test fixtures, aerospace parts and of course the BTCs.

– After deciding his BTC’s might be something other cyclists might appreciate and moving forward with a redesign and fabrication of production model BTC’s, it was Ross Shafer at Salsa Cycles who placed the order for the BTCs and incorporated them into his Viajero “travel bike”.  As Steve Smilanick shared after friend Dave Walker of Paketa Cycles posed the question, “Other builders made display bikes for Interbike before that but Ross saw them at that show and really liked them. He was bringing all kinds of people to our booth to show them to. He said it was the coolest thing he saw at the show that year and he backed up his praise with orders.

– The first fabricator to use them on a tandem and to offer a standard S&S BTC-equipped tandem — the 1996 Tinker Tandem for $3,950 — was Stephen Bilenky of the Bilenky Cycle Works in Philadelphia, PA.

– The first “convertible” tandem to triplet made possible by the S&S BTC’s was a collaboration between Sixties Cycles of Lafayette, Colorado (Dave Walker) and Bilenky Cycleworks (Stephen Bilenky & Andy Dyson). The result of their collaboration was known as the T3 Triplet. In addition to being the first “convertible” tandem, the T3 remains the only full-size convertible tandem that can be packed  into standard S&S 26x26x10 cases. In my correspondence with Dave Walker — who is also the owner of the T3 — he mentioned his surprise that 14 years after building it, no one has copied his design using a coupling in the middle seat tube, noting it’s the one that allows the pieces to separate small enough to fit into the cases. (Photos from S and S Machine by Dave Walker & Bilenky Cycle Works)

I must confess that it was actually an Email from Dave that spawned this focus piece on the S and S couplings, wherein he stumbled across an article entitled “Triplets, Quads & Quints – A Short Novel”  hosted off of my website, TheTandemLink.com, where his T3 tandem was mentioned.  I had stated that Bilenky was the first tandem builder to use S and S couplings, but it wasn’t clear to either of us who had actually been Steve’s first S and S coupling customer.  So, Dave sent a note off to Steve and that’s where we learned it was Ross Shafer at Salsa.  Dave went on to share the following about the T3:

I also filed for, and was granted, a patent on the frame design, but didn’t pay the issue and maintenance fees when it became clear that there was no real market for such a thing. As you suggest, as a class they’re a novelty. A fun and enjoyable novelty, to be sure–we continue to get whoops, hollers, gasps and thumbs-up everywhere we go on the T3–but there’s never going to be a big market for these beasts. We still ride it frequently, and even took it to Sardegna last summer to tour for a couple of weeks. I’d be surprised if there’s ever been a triplet on the entire island prior to that!

Although not all that obvious in the photo above, the following illustration shows the location of the “extra” coupler in the 1st stoker’s seat tube and allows the T3 to be packed into regulation size suitcases.

– Bilenky also invented a special mid-section that could be added to existing tandems using S&S couplings dubbed the “Triplicator”. As the name implies, the Triplicator could convert a tandem not originally designed for three riders into a Triplet. (Photos from S and S Machine by Dave Walker & Bilenky Cycle Works)

At right is Bilenky Cycle Works fabricator Andy Dyson holding a Triplicator segment produced for a Co-Motion Speedster that was converted from a rigid tandem into a “convertible” travel tandem that could be ridden as tandem or triplet as well as packed for travel, noting it also incorporated the all-important seat tube coupler based on Dave Walker’s T3 design.  The Co-Motion Speedster with Triplicator installed appears below.  Note that while the tandem still maintains it Co-Motion decals on the down and boom tubes, the Triplicator carries the Bilenky decal on its boom tube: very chic.

– The first Santana convertible tandem, aka Cabrio was made at the request of and for one of our long-time friends from Tandem@Hobbes and the tandem cycling community, Dr. Mark Russell from Arizona. Mark has since sold the big yellow bike and has it not “seemed” a little to big for me we would have snapped it up in a heartbeat.  In hindsight, and having found I was able to ride our 58cm Performance / Bushnell triplet, I probably could have made that bike work for us: dagnabit. Wouldn’t that have been a coup!

– The most outrageous and complex “convertible” tandem ever produced was a full-suspension Ventana El Conquistador de Montanas by Sherwood Gibson of Ventana Mountain Bikes USA in Rancho Cordova, CA, for yet another friend from the tandem cycling community and our Double Forte off-road tandem cycling discussion forum, Jim & Jill Harding from Washington state.  Like the Santana Cabrio made for our friend Dr. Mark, the first Ventana S&S BTC equipped El Conquistador was something that Jim & Jill Harding — who had by then acquired several Ventana tandems — asked Sherwood Gibson if he could produce, noting that it would need to be made out of steel… not the aluminum found on all other Ventana bikes.  Sherwood agreed to give it a shot, and thus was born the first Ventana S&S tandem.

After taking their new Ventana S&S on a trip to Catalina Island, Jim went back to Sherwood to see if he could rework the frame to accept additional rider sections… originally for a third and eventually up to five.  My recollection of just how this thing evolved is a bit rusty, but suffices to say the final result is rather mind-blowing.  And, were all of that not enough, by the time all was said and done the Harding’s Ventana convertible also had an optional hard tail rear section and rigid fork.

– We have owned two different S and S coupling equipped travel tandems. A beautiful ’02 Erickson Custom and our current ’08 Calfee S&S Custom Tetra.  Sadly, we had to sell the Erickson to help fund our Calfee project bike. As with every bicycle and tandem we’ve sold, I always regret having not kept them… but am not sure why.  We have more bikes than we can ride as it is.

– And, finally, we  have a web page dedicated to travel tandems where you can see how our Erickson was packed for travel, find my thoughts on case selection (Pre-airline policy changes on bag handling fees) and travel tandems in general that you can find HERE.


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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2 Responses to S and S Bicycle Torque Couplings™: Did You Know?

  1. Richard James says:

    Have heard the original BTC patent (5586652) will expire at the end of next year. Co-Motion already does quite a lot of their own CNC work (eccentric BBs, dropouts, etc.), so maybe couplers will become a standard feature soon! We have loved our travel tandem (with S&S couplers) and I hope that lower cost will mean more singles and tandems traveling in the future…

    • TG says:

      It’s probably worthwhile to note that S and S didn’t increase the price on their couplers between the time they were introduced and the spring of 2007, mostly because they were never a major line of business for S and S, just a product that they were able to use to fill gaps in other work while serving the cycling community. However, I believe it was in early 2007 that Steve’s number cruncher figured out that the cost of time and labor associated with making the couplers had now exceeded the price they were charging, and that’s when they finally adjusted the cost… which sent shock waves through the builder community as it was a pretty big adjustment. Bear in mind, our couplers added $2,800 to the cost of our Calfee, which was about an extra $1k vs. what the couplers would have added in cost had we commissioned the bike in early 2007 vs. Sept ’07.

      So, I’m not sure how much less expensive it would be for a company like Co-Motion to follow Santana’s lead in developing their own patented frame coupling system, given the non-recurring engineering (NRE), development & testing that would be required. Time will tell. I’d still be interested in knowing if Tom Ritchey’s coupled tandems have had much of a market interest since their re-introduction / exhibition at Interbike ’11 and again at Interbike ’12.

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