Fancy exploring the Dales on a cycle tour, but not sure you can face the hills? With tandems enjoying a revival, Nicky Solloway puts them to the test.
Cycling has famously undergone a revolution in the last few years with soaring numbers of cyclists now whizzing around on razor-thin racing tyres every weekend.
Three million people now cycle three times a week or more according to the national cycling charity, CTC and 43 per cent of the population owns, or has access to a bike.
The bike boom can only be good news for public health and well-being, but it isn’t without its downsides.
Along with the growing number of cyclists comes a growing band of disgruntled wives, or indeed husbands, abandoned at weekends while their partner pedals away all his or her free time.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. More and more couples are discovering the joy of riding a tandem together and Yorkshire, it seems, is quickly becoming the go-to county for bicycles made for two.
John and Ruth Hargreaves, who have been riding tandems for 19 years, set up JD Tandems in the Yorkshire Dales three years ago and their store is now the biggest tandem retailer in Europe.
Ruth believes a two-seater bike is a solution for couples where one partner is a cycling fanatic.
“It’s a case of if you can’t beat them join them. To some cyclists riding their bike is almost an addiction and if they can do that with their wife, it’s a win-win situation.”
As a keen cyclist myself, I’ve always been a bit intrigued by tandems. I was interested to find out if sharing a bike would be a more rewarding ride. For a start, there wouldn’t be the need to holler at my husband to wait for me, while he whizzed off down another hill. Also, I wanted to test the theory that riding a tandem was more sociable. We both love cycling, but would we love cycling so close together?
Ruth and John welcomed us to JD Tandems, which is on a small industrial estate in Gargrave. The couple, who started JD Cycles in Ilkley in 1991, now offer eight different brands of tandem, as well as triplet and quad bikes. They manufacture their own tandems under the Orbit brand and ship them all over the world.
Customers are all given the chance to try before they buy, with one couple recently flying in from South Africa to test drive and then buy one of their bikes.
After a quick chat, a shiny new Orbit Lightning was wheeled out of the showroom for us to try.
It soon becomes clear that riding a tandem is very different to riding a single bike. For a start, getting on and off is a step-by-step process and requires a whole demonstration from John.
The front rider, or captain, climbs aboard first by tilting the bike towards them and lifting their leg over. He then stands abreast of the bike and holds the brakes while the stoker, or second rider, climbs aboard and places their feet in the toe clips. It’s then the stoker’s job to get the front pedals in the right place so the captain can put one foot on the right pedal while pushing off with his other foot.
There are no prizes for guessing who would ride up front. This may look like old-fashioned sexism since the captain (and usually the man) is the one with all the control, but Ruth assures me that’s not the case.
“We know quite a lot of couples where it is the other way round but it’s always the most experienced rider that goes on the front and there are physical limitations.
“The taller and heavier rider is better balanced on the front of the tandem than on the back, but a lot of couples do change around.”
After a few wobbly circuits of the car park, we set off towards Airton. At first it feels a little odd to be sharing the same chain, our legs moving in unison. Cycling along the flat is easy and fun and we quickly pick up speed, but the first hill feels all wrong. All cyclists have their own rhythm as they pedal up hill and we seemed all out of sync.
Yet four legs are better than two and puffing up a hill together soon becomes easier and more fun than doing it solo. You reach the summit together and then enjoy the rush down the other side.
Handing over the control of the bike to the front rider, however, takes some getting used to and I find myself squealing “slow down” a few times and instinctively gripping the handlebars, even though I don’t have any brakes.
My husband’s back blocks my view of the road too, but this means I have more time to watch the scenery glide by and the flocks of starlings swoop over the fells. We can also chat without having to shout.
It’s easy to see why so many married couples ride tandems. “It’s great if you want to spend time with your partner,” says Ruth. “For most of our customers it’s about that. It is believed that couples who exercise together have happier marriages and stay together for longer. I don’t think tandem riding can patch up a bad relationship, but it can make a good relationship better. You can chat much more easily on a tandem. I think it creates closeness in a relationship.”
Tandems are also said to be safer.
“You’re more noticeable in the traffic. It’s also very stable because a tandem is long and you can pull your brakes on without losing control,” says John.
The West Yorkshire branch of the Tandem Club organises joint rides all over Yorkshire. It is run by Steve and Cheryl Stanger, from Halifax, keen members for more than 25 years.
“We’re what is left of what was quite a thriving tandem club,” says Steve, 64.
“The West Yorkshire Tandem group had a bit of a reputation at one time. We really did bash about and we had quite a few people. When we were younger we’d easily do 100 miles in a day, but we’ve moderated it a bit now.”
Steve has always enjoyed cycling and before discovering tandems, would spend his weekends with various cycling clubs. “Cheryl doesn’t ride a single bike and I was off all day Sunday and leaving her at home.”
But since investing in a tandem, they’ve never looked back.
“It was great to get out together. You start meeting other couples and it’s quite a social thing.”
The club is currently on the look-out for new riders. “Cycling is massive at the moment so you can only hope we’ll get more members,” says Steve.
Cycling fanatic Trevor Lund, certainly believes bicycles made for two are the way to go. He set up one of the country’s only tandem hire companies in Guiseley a year ago and is seeing a growing interest. His passion for cycling has taken him across the world, including a 16,000 mile solo cycle journey from southern Argentina to north Alaska.
His business, Times Two Tandems, hires out bikes and organises short tours through the Yorkshire Dales and further afield. He also rents his tandems out for charity challenges and corporate fun days and says tandems are ideal for those who are unable to ride a solo bike, such as those with impaired vision or a mobility disability.
“I’ve got an uncle who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He’s still very fit and in his 70s and he wouldn’t be comfortable cycling on his own but he’s fine on the back,” says Trevor.
“It’s a really nice social way to cycle. I get frustrated in my car at cyclists who are cycling two abreast. This is a much safer way to do it and have a conversation, you’re not worried about cycling into the person’s wheel in front and you’re cycling along at exactly the same pace. It definitely puts a smile on people’s faces when they see a tandem going by.”
I’d have to agree with that. There’s something about riding a tandem that makes you smile too.
And despite the common misconception about back seat riders, it isn’t possible to get away without pedalling...
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