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Jan 24, 2013 03:08PM

Tested by tandem: What you need to know when buying a bike for two

By Laura Anderson Shaw
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Experts say riding a tandem bike is all about being in sync.
There's definitely something romantic about riding a bicycle built for two. Well, if the two of you can figure out how, that is. Tandem bicycles are a wonderful way to ride and spend time with your partner, Radish region cycling enthusiasts say, but they're not for everyone.

If you're kicking around the idea of purchasing a tandem bicycle, you definitely should test ride one first, says Jerry Neff Jr., manager at Jerry & Sparky's bicycle shop in Davenport. "That's probably the most important thing," he says.

Tim Phlypo, owner of the Let's Ride Inc., Bike Shop in Silvis, agreed, and says folks should also consider their athletic ability. While it's alright for one rider to be a bit more skilled of a cyclist than the other, both riders must work to keep the bike going.

If the test ride goes OK, Phlypo and Neff say it's important to be properly fit for a tandem, which is a tad different than being fit for a standard bike.

Like standard bicycles, prices will vary depending on the type of tandem. Serious riders looking for more higher-end road bikes could pay around $6,000, while those looking for a little bit of riding-around-the-neighborhood fun would pay around $1,000.

Experts say riding a tandem bike is all about being in sync. The "captain," who sits in front and is typically the stronger rider of the two, has to communicate with the "stoker," the person who sits in back. When the captain stops pedaling, the stoker must stop pedaling, too, Neff says.

Tandem riding also requires trust. Because the captain is the only person steering, the stoker must "sit back and relax and trust them," Neff says.

Phlypo says that steering takes some getting used to. Figuring out how to turn corners is sort of tricky until the stoker learns not to lean. That's something to "figure out pretty quick," he says.

Navigating hills can be difficult on a tandem, Neff says. On straightaways, tandems offer "the power of two and the wind resistance of one. (But) on the hills, it doesn't work out that way," he says.

But if you can get in the groove of it, "you can cook on a tandem," Phlypo says. "You can cover some distance, and you can maintain a higher speed because it's only one vehicle instead of two."
If you're hesitant on whether a tandem is right for you, it's worth giving it a shot. If it doesn't, odds are you could find someone to sell it to. Unfortunately, that's what happened to Todd Welvaert, of Moline, a photographer at Radish.

Welvaert says he and his wife, Lisa, road bicycles together all the time, "and there was always kind of a complaint that our paces didn't match each other." So, the couple bought a tandem about 10 years ago, and "initially, it was fun." But the more time they spent on it, he says, the more problems they ran into. For them, he says, "it was like wrestling a monkey."

The couple's difference in size worked against them, he says. He's 6 feet 4 inches tall, and his wife is about 5 feet 7 inches tall. Welvaert says he also had a hard time getting the bike around. The two didn't have a tandem bike rack (Neff says they cost about $400 to $600, but you can remove the wheels to fit it onto a standard rack), and it took up too much room in the couple's garage.

He says the fact that he and his wife couldn't ride a tandem together isn't a reflection on their relationship, nor should it be on yours if you can't get the hang of it. "We paddle the heck out of a canoe, but I think tandem bicycles are just out of the realm for us," says Welvaert.

Even though the two were never successful tandem riders, Welvaert says if someone is interested in buying one, he wouldn't hesitate. "For some people, it's a perfect match."

Laura Anderson Shaw is a frequent Radish contributor.

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