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Many people dub tandems the “divorce bike,” especially tandem mountain bikes. After all, what would possess two people to want to maneuver the same vehicle through twisty, turny singletrack and through rock gardens? To many, it might sound like a nightmare. But my partner, Evan, and I were intrigued by the idea.

The fascination began when we heard about a couple who rode a Salsa Cycles prototype mountain tandem in the Tour Divide in 2012. While their experience definitely sounded like a challenge, it also seemed like a lot of fun. Evan was hooked. He shared their story with me, and I was equally interested.

This year, Salsa finally rolled out the Powderkeg mountain tandem as part of their lineup. The Powderkeg is a 29er with geometry similar to the El Mariachi. We didn’t waste any time ordering one, and the bike arrived in late June. We immediately stripped it of many of its stock parts, replacing them with ones more preferable to us. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on our bike build, and the challenges we’ve encountered in finding stuff that works.

tandem allegrippis

Riding the flowy stuff at Allegrippis Trails, PA. Photo: Shannon Cotrell.

We’ve ridden our Powderkeg on everything from pavement to rocky, mountainous trails. Wherever we go, we elicit a lot of stares and questions. You too may be wondering how tandem mountain biking works. Riding technical, windy singletrack on a tandem bicycle seems insane. Maybe it is. It certainly is a challenge, but it’s also a ton of fun. Here’s what we’ve discovered so far.

The Challenges:

Trust

Riding a tandem is a team sport, especially on trails. The captain rides in front, and has most of the control–steering, shifting, cadence, and giving commands to the stoker (the back rider) if need be. As the larger of the two of us, Evan is the captain, and I am the stoker. For me, trust is everything. When we’re riding, I can’t see what’s up ahead. I spend most of my time looking down at the ground below the captain’s feet, and I see rocks as we are passing over them. I then have only a split second to react. I have to trust Evan to keep me abreast of larger obstacles to look out for, and to make good judgement calls. When we are bombing down sketchy descents, I am sometimes literally putting my life in his hands. At the same time, he needs to trust me too, and rely on me to pedal hard, shift my weight appropriately, stay loose, and react to whatever is thrown my way.

technical tandemonium

The trust factor—bombing down a loose descent at Jim Thorpe, PA. Photo: Steve Mongold.

Communication

Communication is everything. It’s the captain’s job to let the stoker know what is ahead, and to give appropriate instructions in order to get through tricky sections of trail. Coming up with clear, concise commands is important. It’s also important to keep tabs on the status of one another. If one person tires or isn’t feeling good and isn’t able to perform, it brings the whole team down. If you can’t communicate off the bike, you’ll never make it on the bike.

Practicing the tandem trackstand. Photo: Brent Rader.

Practicing the tandem trackstand. Photo: Brent Rader.

Responsibility

When I asked Evan what he thought the biggest challenges of riding a tandem on trails are, he responded with one I hadn’t even thought of: if we crash, it’s mainly his fault, and it will affect me as well as him. He said he struggled with this notion a bit when we first began riding tandem, and having that responsibility for me as well as himself was tough to wrap his head around. Going back to the trust factor, he is the only person in the world right now with whom I feel comfortable riding technical trails on a tandem with, because I know that he doesn’t take that responsibility lightly.

Mitigating Discomfort

This is an unexpected one. When I first began riding tandem, I didn’t realize how hard it would be on my body. With the exception of my Cane Creek Thudbuster seatpost, the Powderkeg is a fully-rigid bike. This means that I get bounced around like I’m in the back of a bus on a bumpy road, and it’s my body that is absorbing those shocks. I took for granted the fact that while riding my own bike, I can prepare for the bumps. On the tandem, I often don’t know they’re coming, so I get beat up a lot more. I am getting used to staying looser in the stoker seat, and my back has been getting stronger, so this is gradually becoming less and less of an issue. I also tried a softer elastomer in the Thudbuster, which has helped, and I’d like to try some different grips and make a couple other small changes that might erase this issue from the challenges list.

The Benefits:

While the challenges of riding a tandem can sometimes be frustrating, it makes the high points that much sweeter.

tandem switchback tr 2

Photo: Steve Mongold.

Cooperation

Communication may be difficult and frustrating sometimes, but there’s nothing better than working together to clean a rock garden, get through a gnarly obstacle, or totally crush a hard climb. Learning to work together to achieve a common, immediate goal can do wonders to help your teamwork and relationship skills. And you get to share that feeling of success when you meet that goal. Contrary to the “divorce bike” moniker, riding a tandem has actually brought Evan and I closer, and improved our communication and cooperation skills off the bike.

Togetherness

While some people might consider this a bad thing, it’s been the two of us have really enjoyed it. We both love riding bikes, but normally when we ride, we don’t talk a whole lot. I think it’s great that we can just share the experience of riding together and not feel the need to speak, but sometimes, it’s nice to be able to “hang out” on the bike with my best friend and chat away. We laugh at the fact that as we are navigating a sketchy descent, I’m usually back there just gabbing my face off while Evan is focusing on keeping control of the bike. On the other hand, when we are climbing, Evan is usually the chatty one while I am cranking away and struggling just to breathe. We get to experience riding together in a way that we never could on two bikes.

Photo: Steve Mongold.

Photo: Steve Mongold.

Faster, Farther

When it comes to riding on gravel and non-technical trails, we find that on the tandem, we ride at a speed that seems to be the average of what each of us would ride separately. He’s considerably faster than I am, so we ride slower than what he would ride alone, but faster than I would. Because normally he’d have to either stop and wait for me or just ride slower, we end up going faster and farther than we would on separate bikes. This is perfect for long overnight rides and touring trips. We have a few multi-day rides in the works for this fall.

Improved Riding Skills

I have no doubt that captaining the Powderkeg is making Evan an exponentially better rider. He is learning how to control double the bike through all kinds of gnarly terrain, and his balance has improved immensely. I didn’t expect to become a better rider as well, since I’m the stoker, but the last few times I’ve ridden solo, I’ve noticed a tangible difference. I’m better at staying loose through the bumpy stuff, using body English to control the bike, and my balance has improved as well. Those hours of cranking away on the back of the tandem have kept my legs in great shape. Just because I ride in the back doesn’t mean I don’t do any work!

Photo: Steve Mongold.

You can barely see me back there! Photo: Steve Mongold.

It takes a certain kind of couple to want to ride a tandem. I’m not sure I originally thought I was cut out for it. I am pretty independent and even a control freak sometimes, so being utterly out of control isn’t something I thought I would enjoy. But I do. I wouldn’t want to ride a tandem all the time–I still need to get out on my own bike and go for solo rides a few times a week, but the tandem adventure has thus far been overwhelmingly positive. Evan and I agree it’s been way more fun than we first thought it would be, and we’re very excited for all the adventures to come!

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# Comments

  • Marten Hoffmann

    We love this article mainly because Helena’s experience is so recognizable. We started riding MTB tandems in 1994 and still love it. It’s so rewarding to master difficult sections of track with roots or rocks together! We started out on a rigid Cannondale MT3000 but nowadays, a full-sus MSC Zion tandem is ours. It’s amazingly comfortable ánd grippy.

  • Cjdunn

    My wife and I are thinking about getting a Powderkeg and are wondering if you wrote that follow up article mentioned above? Also, what size do you have and how tall are you both? I’m 6’3.5″ and I’m worried about the 20″ size for the captain. I usually ride XL. My wife rides medium in most bikes so we aren’t worried about her fit.

  • Marten Hoffmann

    For what it’s worth: I have a 36″ inseam and ride a 20″ MSC Zion tandem. It took a loooooong seatpost (Thomson 410 mm) and a steeply angled stem to do this but it works fine. The front top tube is something like 61 or 62 cm long.

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