Who hasn't wondered what it would be like to ride a tandem? Maybe, like me, you were put off finding out by a fear that it requires the riders to have the same sort of co-ordination and effortless synchronisation as, say, ballroom dancers or acrobats. Or maybe you just haven't got round to it yet. Having turned 50 last year, my husband and I decided it was now or never and a September holiday on the bike-friendly Ile de Re presented the idea opportunity to give it a try. But we were almost dissuaded from the idea when we heard that neighbours, having just taken delivery of their first tandem, had had a bad fall on their first proper ride. Husband in the front seat had made an emergency stop when a pedestrian stepped off the pavement, wife on the back hadn't chance to disengage her shoes from her clip-in pedals in time and went down with the bike, breaking her leg in three places.
The Ile de Re is off the western coast of France and is almost totally flat with a network of traffic-free bike paths. It has an abundance of bicycle rental shops, most of which have tandems available. Ever cautious, when we reserved our tandem for a week we checked that we could swap it for a couple of bikes if we didn't get on with it. That presented no problem at all for the hire shop, but we were assured we'd soon get the hang of tandem cycling and would love it.
So, one sunny afternoon in September we turned up at the bike shop in La Flotte, just over the bridge from the mainland, and collected our tandem. We had done our homework beforehand and knew that the secret to riding a tandem is communication. The person on the front, the "pilot", needs to tell the person behind, the "stoker", when to start, stop and generally what is going on. So we wheeled the tandem out into a street full of people and small dogs, feeling somewhat self-conscious, and mounted up. We were laughing so much that the pilot could scarcely say anything let alone give sensible commands, but we wobbled off without mishap. Within a few minutes we were confidently tackling bends and even steering a safe course between bollards, pedestrians and other obstacles.
The key thing to remember, should you ever feel inclined to take up the position of pilot, is that you must not forget that there is another person aboard. It is surprisingly easy to do -- after all, when sat in the driving seat everything in your field of view looks like an ordinary bicycle, and it takes time before you remember, every time you are about to set off, that you need to tell the stoker what is happening. We quickly got into the routine of saying, in unison, "Left foot up, one, two, three, go!" to coordinate raising the pedals for the first downstroke and setting off. A similar countdown ensured smooth halts.
I generally took the stoker position, being content to sit on the back and let my nearest and dearest worry about steering, stopping and everything else. I found the tandem was far more stable than a bike, presumably because the pilot was doing all the necessary balancing for the two of us. It meant I could take both hands off the handlebars and look around me, even taking photos of the pretty Ile de Re villages and coastlines we passed or checking the map, without causing any problems for the pilot. However, sudden movements were not a good idea. The pilot had to remember to tell me if any sharp bends were coming up, as these were definitely best taken with hands on the bars and both of us leaning into the bend.
We did find that even a slight uphill incline required noticeable effort, but fortunately there are few such inclines on this island which has a high point of under 20 metres above sea level. If you want to tackle even moderately steep hills, you will need to be super-fit or else be aboard a lightweight tandem with low gears, not the robustly built, 21-speed machine we had that was carrying two people's luggage. But on the flat, when we put some effort into pedalling we could outpace most solo cyclists who were not of the serious, Tour de France wannabe variety.
Tandems vary somewhat, and if I rode one again I would choose one with a freewheel for the stoker as well as the pilot. On occasion, my legs could not keep up with the pilot's pace and I had to take my feet off the pedals, letting them spin round beneath me, until my shouting produced a reduction in cadence. Brakes are another consideration -- some tandems only have one set of brakes while others have levers on both riders' handlebars. As a stoker it feels unsafe and unnatural at first to have no means of stopping other than shouting, "Stop!", but a pilot must have real faith on a duel-braked tandem that the stoker will not apply them without warning.
One thing that we almost forgot, strange though it seems, is that a tandem only has half the luggage-carrying capacity of two bicycles, since panniers fit over the wheels. We are used to touring for a week or a fortnight on bikes each carrying two rear panniers, but we could only have two rear panniers between us on the tandem. Fortunately, that was not a problem on the Ile de Re as it is so small that we were never more than a ride of an hour or so from our car and a change of clothes.
Riding on quiet bike paths, close behind each other, meant we could chatter away, pointing out interesting sights and making decisions about where to go next without having to stop as we normally would. The whole experience was a great deal of fun and is to be recommended. Just don't make your first tandem ride on a busy road, and it would be best to avoid using clip-in pedals until you know what you are doing.