Upon the Seat of a Bicycle Built for Two

On our way out for a nice Sunday lunch this past weekend, my family and I spotted a pair of tandem bicycles cruising along the side of the road, an exciting event for my littlest, who had never seen one before. His response was something like: “Whoa! Those bikes are HUGE!”

We smiled (because you can’t help but smile at a bicycle built for two) and drove on our way, only to discover that there were two more tandems up the road a bit, travelling in the same direction as the first. Weird. Next came a group of four. Then three. Around this time we started to think something significant might be happening. And sure enough, my fair city hosted the 27th Annual Northwest Tandem Bike Rally this past Sunday and Monday.

The Rally isn’t a race, but rather a series of optional, mapped rides, some with bicycle maintenance support, and some without, through a different Northwest city every year on 4th of July weekend. It’s a family friendly event, a time to share all of your tandem bike-related stories with others who get you.

At least that’s what I gather. I’m not a tandem cyclist myself, but (because I know you’re curious) I learned a thing or two about them. The credit for the invention of the tandem bicycle is usually given to Dan Albone (arguably the father of the modern farm tractor, too, though that hardly seems as important), along with his partner Arthur James Wilson. The two patented their design (there were already others in use, too) in 1886.

You could say that the tandem bicycle was the sports car of the 19th century. Don’t believe me? Here’s what they were invented for:

  1. Courting (the 19th century version of hooking up)
  2. Speed.

The earliest designs, referred to most often as “courting bikes” had 3 or 4 wheels, instead of the two they have today, and the steering came from the back (what could possibly go wrong with that?). The idea was simple. A young fella who couldn’t afford a carriage, but still wished to broaden his horizons beyond just the few marriageable girls next door, could hop on his bike and scour the countryside for the girl of his dreams. When he found her, he could put her on the front seat of his bicycle and show her the sights. If he was clever (and her name happened to be Daisy) he could even sing her a song about the experience.

But more than that, tandem bicycles were just as often designed for sport because with greater pedaling force and not that much more drag tandems could (in the hands of good riders with good partnerships) reach greater speeds than could traditional bicycles. And of course if more riders=more power, then why stop at two? People (and by people here I pretty much mean guys) started designing bikes that could seat 3, 4, or even 5 riders. Then in 1897, the Oriental Bicycle Company took the logical next step when it produced a ten-seat tandem bicycle (probably not as practical as it sounds).

The speed of the more traditional two-seaters landed them a place in the 1906 Olympic Games, in which men competed in the 2000 meter tandem sprint. The event continued through 1972 when it was eliminated due to (probably not a shocker) excessive athlete injury.

Having never ridden on a tandem bike myself, I asked the only person I actually know who has ever ridden on one, about what it might be like. In the years 2010 and 2011, my sister biked a total of 2010 and 2011 miles respectively, mostly on a traditional road bike with a single seat, making her, in my book, a cycling expert (and maybe a tad bit of an over-achiever). I recently discovered that a few of her logged miles occurred on the back of a tandem bicycle and she shared with me her impression of the experience.

What I gathered from her tale is that it’s not really all that enjoyable. It turns out, true to the proverbial dog sled, if you’re not the lead rider, the view never changes. The rider in the front of the modern tandem bike has all of the control and all of the view. The job of the rider in the back is simply to do his or her best to match the pedaling of the rider in the captain’s seat. There’s no pausing to look at scenery and there’s no adjusting of the course. The rider in the back just has to trust that the one in control knows what he or she is doing.

And my sister brought up another important point as well. If you’ve ever done any serious cycling (like I have, but more on the “Tour de Donut” in another post), then you may be familiar with a more delicate problem that plagues cyclists. As comfortable as bicycle seats may appear, it turns out, over long distances, they really can become relatively unpleasant on the rump.

Cyclists deal with this problem by wearing padded shorts and by taking the occasional opportunity to coast as they stretch, giving their sore bottoms a much needed break. Such a stretch is trickier on a tandem bike when the two cyclists have to carefully coordinate their movements. The lesson from this, I think, is that, as romantic as it may sound, a tandem bicycle ride may no longer be an ideal first date, as the topic of butt comfort will most likely come up and once it’s out there, the odds of a second date probably decrease.

And it seems to me that this difficulty would increase exponentially with the number of riders on a single tandem bike, which may explain, in part, why Oriental Bicycle Company’s ten-seater (now housed by the Henry Ford Museum) was the last of its kind. But personally I’m hoping it makes a comeback. Maybe in the 2016 Summer Olympics or at least as part of the 28th Annual Northwest Tandem Bike Rally.

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One thought on “Upon the Seat of a Bicycle Built for Two

  1. Jean

    So glad to see this, Sarah! I bought a bicycle (first one since I was 20-something) a couple of months ago, and am enjoying getting reaquainted with this mode of transportation. I learned some things from your article, and enjoyed your style of writing. I’m looking forward to future articles! —Jean H.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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