Tandem Mountain Biking - An Avid Road Tandem Team's First Impressions

by Edward Tasch

 

Edward Tasch & Anne Crawford of Austin, TX, taking on the Chihuahuan Desert Challenge

 

On Valentines Day Anne and I raced in the 10th annual Chihuahuan Desert Challenge Mountain Bike Race held at Lajitas Texas. The venue for this race is a very small town on the Rio Grande River west of the Big Bend National Park. The towns historical significance is that of a US military outpost created at the turn of the century to secure the border with Mexico and to deal with bandits, namely the infamous Poncho Villa. For those not familiar with the topography of the Big Bend area - beautiful, extremely rugged and dry. Although scenic from the seat of a car, both the topography and flora can be quite hostile. The mountainous desert consists of sharp igneous rocks and hurtful plants such as cacti. Not to mention the temperatures of over 100 F associated with spring, summer and fall. The winter weather however is delightful (highs in the 70's F) and it is for this reason that over 750 cyclists arrive at Lajitas each February to race.

The race is a stage race and consists of both a time trial and a cross-country race. To the race director's credit, a division for tandems is also offered. Both the tandem cross-country and time trial courses consist of single and double track. We competed in each of the races and placed third out of five tandem teams overall. While Anne and I have much experience on the road tandem, we have now learned even more from racing mountain tandems. We have developed a greater appreciation of a tandem's wheelbase and mass when riding "off-road". Furthermore, we also have learned of the tremendous trust in our relationship as a team both on and off the tandem.

What is different when riding a tandem off-road one might ask and why would anyone do it? Riding a tandem off-road involves the same skills and teamwork as does riding a tandem on-road; further development of these skills is required when riding off-road however. Riding off-road has helped our performance on the road tandem by refining our pedal stroke, balance and trust.

Some notable observations when riding a tandem "off road":

Rocky trails: We have discovered that when riding without front suspension, the tandem plows through rocks rather than "floating" over them. This makes choosing a line up (or down) a rocky trail quite important. To the advantage of the tandem, because of the weight (team 310 lb. / bike 36 lb.) and stability (i.e. long wheelbase), the tandem will displace any rock in its' path. In other words, if the rock can be moved it will. Recently we have equipped our tandem with a suspension fork (Hanebrink Zyzzx) and a new suspension seatpost (PowerPost Moab). Without a doubt, the suspension fork permitted us to clear some technical sections much faster and ride rough double-track more quickly. The suspension fork also provided us much more confidence when encountering steep "drop offs" and comfort/control when hammering down rough double-track.

Riding through gravel: Another place where the weight of the tandem is noticed is in sand and gravel. A disadvantage is that the front tire "plows" rather than "floats" when traversing loose gravel regardless of tire size. An advantage however, is that due to the tandem's weight, the rear tire is able to "bite" into the lower and usually firmer layer beneath the surface. If there is no "bottom" in a bed of gravel however, brute force is required of the team; there is simply no floating a tandem across deep gravel or sand. On these occasions the stoker simply powers the team through the gravel while the captain hangs on and pilots!

Descents: Because of the tandem's long wheelbase, steep descents are "safer", although they remain just as scary. No chance of going over the handle bars. Interestingly enough, the long wheelbase combined with the tandem's weight also makes climbing frequently easier, albeit a little slower at times. When climbing on loose surfaces, we have noticed it difficult to climb out of the saddle - the rear tire will frequently "spin out"; instead we remain seated during climbs on loose surfaces for maximum traction. Climbing also has made us very aware of any uneven pedal strokes when applying power; if our pedal stroke is not smooth, the tandem's rear tire "spins out" when riding off-road.

Maneuvering: The front tire's contact patch is frequently the factor that determines a tandem's limit on the trail and off the road. Sharing roughly the same contact patch of a single mountain bike, a tandem's front tire is sometimes woefully inadequate in changing the course of the long and heavy bike. Change of direction in sand can be quite "challenging" when riding a tandem off-road. In fact, the only accidents we have had while riding off-road have occurred while riding through gravel or sand. The other significant factor contributing to maneuvering a bike is the issue of weight distribution. Subtle shifting of weight is a major factor when changing a bike's direction. Coordination of a tandem team with regard to weight distribution is made especially apparent when riding off-road.

Why race tandems and why race them off-road: I have raced both USCF and NORBA events on singles and racing tandems is a very different experience (at least at the Chihuahuan Desert Challenge). Note: we have never raced at the Burley Classic (at least not yet) and our USCF racing on the road tandem has been limited to time trial events so far. What is different about racing tandems in Lajitas is that the competitive element is there if one chooses, however the camaraderie among the tandem racers is always present. Regardless of legs, morphology, equipment or jersey the tandem teams are incredibly friendly with each other. Perhaps the camaraderie is only to mask the nerves at the start, but I do believe that the friendliness is a result of teams preparing to endure a mountain bike race on a tandem bicycle. Argument can be made as to whether the teams are either brave enough or foolish enough to attempt such a race. Another observation we have made: mountain tandem racers are highly revered by other racers. In the food chain of mountain bike racing at Lajitas, mountain tandems are clearly at the top. Perhaps not in the fastest course time but in skill, guts and exercise of questionable judgment. Or as we like to think, a demonstration of courage, strength and teamwork.