Back in March I wrote a piece on tandems and composite forks after I’d been asked a question about forks by a reader. The question was prompted by the reader’s impressions after seeing an article about carbon forks and tandem written by Dan Towle, owner of R&E Cycles and the Rodriquez, Bushnell, Trillium and Erickson brands under which R&E builds tandems.
Back in April Dan and I shared a few Emails about tandems and forks where he shared some addition observations about the various brands of composite forks he’s had experience with. He also pointed me towards a follow-up / side-bar article he wrote where he recounted how issues with a pretty well-respected brand of composite fork specified by a customer over the objections of R&E soured a customer’s impressions of their brand new, custom Rodriguez tandem.
To Dan’s credit, R&E truly stands behind the bikes it builds and sells and will buy-back bicycles sold to customers who truly were disappointed with the final product. That business approach is golden from a consumer standpoint when dealing with a well-established business since buying back bikes would quickly bring a business to its knees both financially and by word on the street if it became a frequent occurance. Instead, that type of business model drives a passionate pursuit of excellence, careful attention to customer needs, adherence to sound design standards and the use of proven components. Speaking of which, and back to the subject of tandems and forks….
I wasn’t surprised to hear that one of the fork brands that we’re very familiar with was one R&E found to be acceptable, but also “not infallible.” In addition to being a less than rock solid fork that trades off a bit of stability for lighter weight there have purportedly been a number of these forks that developed cracks and required replacement even in light of a robust quality process at the factory. True Temper got out of the composite fork business several years ago so it’s almost a moot point from a new tandem perspective. However, for anyone who has a tandem with an Alpha Q X2 I still recommend regular inspection and immediate attention to any new creaks, squeaks or changes in handling. R&E, on the other hand and as a manufacturer, is far more conservative and recommends that any carbon fork be replaced once the warranty period has expired: a pretty expensive proposition for the consumer to be sure. The latter certainly makes a strong argument to follow R&E’s recommendation for fitting lightweight steel forks instead of composite forks to its tandem customers.
When it comes to tandem-rated forks, that’s also a mixed-bag. As already discussed, tandem-rated is more or less a marketed phrase that’s not supported by any industry standards for durability, performance or safety. That’s not to say that the companies who design and market them discard consumer safety and don’t apply their own internal design standards and test to ensure their forks can support the load limits they attach to those tandem ratings; I’m confident they do. However, as we’ve seen with the tandem rated Alpha Q forks, the handling qualities are a bit harder to build a standard around since the riding habits, handling expectations and physical dimensions of tandem teams play such a huge part in defining how a tandem handles and/or is perceived to handle.
I was a bit surprised to hear the Wound Up forks didn’t perform as well as I’d expected, at least based on R&E’s customer feedback. Early on the Wound Up forks didn’t seem like a great option as they weren’t all that much lighter than a really good, lightweight steel fork. However, the one tandem we rode with one and feedback from folks who rode tandems with the Wound Up forks handled more predictably than similar tandems with Alpha Q’s: Alpha Q’s are definitely an acquired taste.
The Reynolds Ouzo Pro was a fork that did pass muster and I have to concur. At first, they weren’t all that light compared to the Alpha Q’s, but against all other offerings they were both lighter and far more robust. In fact, our triplet is fitted with a 1.5″ steerer-size Ouzo Pro and while it’s probably not something I’d want to have on the triplet with three full-size adults, it handles our sub 400lb team weight quite well. We also have a 1.25″ steerer Ouzo Pro tandem fork I’ve used on our Calfee and Erickson tandems as well and setting aside the very conservative fork geometry, it tracked quite well in the corners and did not deflect side to side the way our Alpha Q’s do when we’re up and out of the saddle on climbs. Sadly, Reynolds also exited the composite bicycle component market which left a huge gap for anyone looking to acquire a robust composite fork with conservative rake.
In closing, I think Dan and I are actually on the same page when it comes to the need to closely inspect composite forks on a regular basis. Although somewhat in summary form, I addressed my annual check-up for forks in a multi-part article on tandem maintenance I published on the TCA’s website back in February:
Fork Checklist & Tips:
As you might expect, everything mentioned for the frame also applies to the fork with just a couple of added considerations:
- For tandems that see a lot of use I recommend removing the fork at least once a year for deep cleaning and inspection, in conjunction with headset bearing maintenance. For lightly used tandems, consider every two to three years. For rarely ridden tandems, at least every five years.
- You’ll want to pay particular attention to the steerer tube, fork crown and junction where they meet, especially for composite forks. Other areas to pay attention to include the drop-outs which, on composite forks, are typically bonded into the ends of the composite fork tubes. If your fork has bosses for cantilever / linear-pull / V-brakes, those also warrant a close inspection.
- If you think you see what appears to be a crack developing take some well lit, detailed photos and send them to your builder or the component’s manufacturer for a preliminary assessment.If you happen to have a tandem that is fitted with a suspension fork that will need some specific attention. For air or air/oil/gas shocks, be sure to inspect the seals for leaks and to make sure any Schrader pump valves are fully seated. If you have an oil dampened fork, when’s the last time you changed the fork oil? Also, be sure to check all the bolts, fittings, clamps and steerer for any signs of fatigue. Those older Cannondale FR4Ts and many other older suspension forks from the late 90?s and early ’00?s bear close monitoring. A fork failure on a tandem ridden on technical single track could easily land both the captain and stoker in a hospital with serious injuries!
- Again, and as noted for the frame, most builders, their fork suppliers and after market fork manufacturers have pretty comprehensive replacement policies where original owners can typically buy a replacement component at dealer cost or less if a part has prematurely failed from fatigue during normal use.
As a business R&E is clearly more conservative with respect to when a fork should be replaced (e.g., once it’s outside the warranty period) than I am as an enthusiast. However, that said, I’m often taken aback by the abysmal condition I see tandems in at tandem rallies and can see why as tandems fitted with composite forks continue to age and pass from owner to owner the risk of undetected cracks or dis-bonds that could lead to serious failures could increase. So, perhaps R&E’s benchmark may be the better one to use: when in doubt and out of warranty pass on that used tandem with the composite fork or consider a fork update if you have one and aren’t confident in your abilities to routinely inspect it for signs that might indicate it’s integrity has been compromised.
Bottom Line: Tandems are amazing machines that deal with incredible stress and loads using equally amazing, lightweight materials. So long as the components made with those materials maintain their original design strength and integrity they will continue to deliver predictable, safe performance. However, at the first sign that something’s amiss immediate attention is required. Remember, there are at least two people who’s safety and well-being could quickly be put at serious risk if any critical part of a tandem were to fail and there are quite a few critical parts on a tandem: frame, fork, wheels, ties, handlebars, seat posts and brakes come immediately to mind.