If you have good bike handling skills and sound judgment, you can become a competent tandem captain. If you are a risk-taker or a dare-devil on the bike, please don’t captain a tandem. Someone else’s life depends on you. Being a captain is great fun, but it is also a great responsibility.
The ideal learning progression for new captains:
- Find an experienced tandem team from which to learn and observe
- Ride as a stoker with the experienced captain and even try a blindfold
- Captain the tandem solo
- Captain the tandem with the experienced, patient, and forgiving stoker
- Captain the tandem with your stoker and ride with the experienced team
Your first responsibility is to be in complete control of the bike. This includes balancing, steering, shifting, and braking. Your second responsibility is to keep your stoker safe.
When riding with a new partner, ride conservatively. Be steady and predictable. Unless you want your new partner to have a heart attack, don’t ride too close to cars, race to catch traffic lights, or attempt track stands. Stokers need time and miles to develop cycling skills and, most importantly, trust in their captains. This only comes by having safe, enjoyable rides together.
Shifting Tell a new stoker before you shift, especially when shifting to a lower gear. If a shift occurs without warning, a new stoker could slip off the pedals and even lose balance. By paying attention to chain tension, experienced teams eventually get past the need to call out most shifts.
When shifting under a load, you both need to ease up on the pedal pressure. If you are both strong and/or heavy, you can easily break a chain by pushing too hard on the pedals during a shift.
Downshift well in advance (especially with the front chain-rings) of climbing hills. Hills have a greater effect on a tandem than they do on a single bike. With tandems, you can’t make quick changes in speed or gear when pedaling uphill. Also, due to their mass, tandems require more gear shifting than singles.
Cornering When approaching fast turns or sudden descents, let your stoker know. If you are changing your body position for a turn, your stoker needs to do the same. Otherwise, the bike will not turn.
Communication The crucial element to successful tandem cycling is communication. In the beginning, you and your stoker will need to talk often so you know what each other is doing. As the shared miles increase, verbal communication may lessen as you learn each other’s styles and habits. It is like dancing.
- Countdown 3-2-1 to announce a start, stop or a sharp turn.
- To tell pedal effort needed, use a scale of 0 – 5. 0 = stop, 1 = gently pushing, 3 = a pace and effort you can maintain for a long time, and a 5 = as hard and fast as possible.
- To describe the distance of a climb or a hill
- Estimate and call out the number of seconds to the top
- Call out the % of the climb left or the % of the climb accomplished
- Call out speed bumps, railroad tracks, road fractures, etc… that may require your stoker to rise off the saddle and un-weight the back wheel. You want your stoker to be comfortable, so help him/her to prepare for jolts and bounces.
- Be honest with your stoker about distances, traffic conditions, length of climbs, etc…
- Ask your stoker what information and detail he/she would like to know about the scenery.
- If your stoker does something that upsets the bike, like steering the bike when grabbing a bottle or being unpredictable in a curve, do not be afraid to discuss it. Treat a stoker with a visual impairment as you would any other cyclist.
Communication errors will be made on both ends of the bike. So, patience and kindness go a long way to preserve the partnership.
Turns and Navigation Call out each turn by its street name to help your stoker learn the cycling routes and develop a mental map of the area. If you announce all right and left turns, the stoker can signal the turns. Right and left turns should be signaled with the right or left arm held straight out. Slowing down is signaled with an open palm placed on the lower back. Stopping is signaled with a closed fist on the lower back. The stoker’s signals alert cars, pedestrians, and other cyclists of your intentions. This is a good safety practice.
Starting & Stopping Straddle the bike with a wide stance to allow clearance of the rotating pedals while your stoker gets on. If your stoker weighs less than you, it’s possible for him/her to get on the saddle and attach both feet to the pedals. You, as the captain, decide which pedal you want down for the start and the stop. For the start, the stoker back-pedals the down pedal into position so you can get your foot on the pedal. Then, with one foot on a pedal and the other foot on the ground, you say, “Ready, go”, or another cue word. The stoker replies, “Ready” and starts pedaling. You push off and the tandem is moving.
If your stoker is heavier than you are, it’s easier if he/she puts only one foot on the pedal, with the other foot on the ground for the start. Then, you both push off from the ground with your right foot and push down on the pedal with your left foot, or vice versa. Once the bike is stable, you both can get your other foot on the pedals. For starting, make sure the tandem is lined up straight with no immediate abrupt turns or obstacles.
When stopping, lighter weight stokers can keep both feet in the pedals while you hold the bike steady. Heavier stokers will need to put one foot on the ground at stops. Make sure you call out the stop before it occurs. Also, it is your responsibility to get the pedals into your chosen stopping position. Before you ride, decide on your start/stop procedure and the verbal cues. Prior to riding in traffic, practice until it’s smooth and you’ll stay friends.
Naturally, experienced teams will develop their own systems and routines for starting and stopping. Some captains may have their stokers stay in the pedals at all times. Other teams may always unclip. Some teams will use cue words while other teams won’t use any verbal communication. There is no right or wrong way, as long as each cyclist is safe and comfortable.
Coasting Before coasting, say “Coasting”, to warn the stoker. Then, go limp with your cadence to transition into not pedaling. Please do not stop pedaling abruptly. This can throw off any rider’s center of gravity. This is important with whichever rider who wants to initiate a coast.
Getting Off Stokers get off the bike first and should stand, holding onto their saddle. They should keep towards the rear of the bike to give you more room to get your leg over the bars. Captains, be careful not to smack your stoker. Some stokers won’t be able to see your swinging body parts and move out of the way. Actually, the cool way for you to mount and dismount the bike is to swing your leg over the handlebars. When next to the bike, place one hand on your saddle for stability, then swing your leg over the front wheel. You may lean the bike over towards you to facilitate clearance. This method actually compliments the stoker, who will swing a leg over the rear wheel.
Standing Up First, upshift a gear or two before standing. This will literally give you both something to stand on. Because more force is exerted on the pedals with you both standing, if you don’t upshift, you’ll be off balance and feel like you are falling through the pedals. Give the standing cue word(s) and wait for your stoker to respond verbally. You both must stand up at the exact same time. This requires practice. Don’t pedal at 100 percent, but rather, more like 70-80 percent for starters. You both want to emphasize form, before exerting full power. Let the bike sway under you naturally and don’t clench the bars. You both must sit at the exact same time, too. So, create a cue word to synchronize putting your rears back in the saddles.
Please read through the Stoker Tutorial. You’ll be a better partner if you are knowledgeable about both tandem positions.