The Tandem: Divorce bike or the ultimate bonding experience?

They say that you can’t know the strength of a relationship until you work together, live together and travel together. But I’d like to add a byline to the ‘travel section’ in the line above, because there is no test of a friendship quite like a tandem bike.

Ok, you’re joined together so there’s no potential for one of you to drop away at the back of the field. But the very nature of being so reliant on each other is at the heart of the tandem’s forboding nickname, the ‘divorce’ bike.

One rider is in control and the other can only pedal, ’stoking’ the engine. And in return the non-pilot tends to become the butt of jokes, they’re the ‘lazy’ ones who can avoid the hard work if they want to.

If only it were that simple.

I’ve travelled over 2400 miles on tandem bikes over two journeys. One with a male friend between Vancouver and Vegas on a common upright tandem, and the other with my partner in crime, Em, on a Hase Pino hybrid tandem.

One benefit of the Pino is that the pilot rides at the back in an upright position, and you have the perfect view of the ‘passenger’ in front and, more specifically, whether they’re pedalling or not.

On a more common tandem the pilot is up front, controlling the gears, brakes and steering, and contrary to popular folklore the rear rider (or ‘stoker’) on a common tandem simply can’t get away without pedalling because both pedals are hooked into the same system. The only way to avoid pedalling is to lift your legs clear off the pedals and out of the way of their revolution.

But on both tandems you don’t need eyes to see if your partner is slacking off, you can feel it.

Tandems are heavy. They’re bigger bikes and naturally, if you’re on a journey, you’re carrying baggage for two. Hills are a killer and while pace is much better on the flat, you’d need two strong riders to get close to the speed of a single road bike.

Communication is at the heart of tandem riding. The stoker is usually responsible for navigation, keeping an eye on incoming traffic and other hazards, while starting and stopping require a well-oiled understanding to avoid toppling over. 

On both journeys we’d talk to each other at those crucial times, like stopping and starting at traffic lights, navigating across junctions and around blind bends. “Ped ped!” became the instruction to get moving, a “three, two, one…” countdown would give notice of slowing to a stop and a more drastic “feet down!” was barked when a less planned halt occurred. 

Like any kind of pillion riding, keeping weight central is so important to balance. It just takes one rider to lean out of turn - especially at speed - and you’re both in trouble.

And while the pilot has the pressure of keeping both riders safe, the stoker has to trust that they’re in good hands. A heavy tandem with two bodies and a good few panniers can create a beautiful, fluid bullet through the air, but a fall can be crushing.

There are common dangers that all bike riders face but these gather more importance on a tandem purely because of the trust factor. Railway tracks running diagonally across a road are like gaping slots ready to gobble up tyres, and the pilot has to ensure to cross them at near to 90 degrees - even on a busy road - to avoid getting caught in the groove.

They say once you learn to ride a bike you never forget, but this isn’t the case with a tandem because the challenge changes with each new and different companion.

What is for sure, a tandem ride can make or break a relationship, but with the right partner it can be a joyful reminder of why you're friends - or more. It can also be a fascinating insight into the control freakishness, patience and communication of a couple.

The Hase Pino especially adds an extra dimension to the relationship, because the stoker also acts as the carer. With their hands free they're available to navigate on a map or phone, and also are in charge of feeding. 

Is it wise to exchange a preference for solo travel with travelling together alongside a partner on a tandem bike? It was a question many asked me when approaching a first long journey with Em, but doubts never crossed my mind.

At some point on the trip, with tongue firmly lashed into cheek, Em wondered if this was a test. “Is this your way of getting rid of me?” she asked, grinning.

And what I discovered was that travelling with the right partner makes a journey - or any experience - so much richer. You share duties and rely on each other at those critical moments (often over 30mph!) and of course, if they're the right person they're going to add value to your time. 

Tandems are famous for being the ultimate test to a friendship but they’re also a tool for bringing people together. What’s for sure is that if you love being with someone, a tandem ride will be way more fun than a solo bike trip. 

And perhaps, in some kind of way, this latest journey was a test, and it was one that she passed with flying colours (and, I guess, so did I).

And I'm delighted to say that while Em started our 1000 mile trip as my girlfriend, just a few miles before our finish in Budapest she became my fiancè. 

Divorce bike? It’s quite the opposite!

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