First Ride: How to Ride a Tandem Bicycle

Riding a tandem (2 person bike) isn’t hard, but there are a few things that you need to know in order to have the best chance at quick success. At Tandem Cycle Works, we have been teaching customers how to ride tandem bikes for a long time. While riding a (2 person bike) tandem is not difficult, it is different than riding a single bike. “Tandeming” is probably a new sport to you; we like to compare it to dancing. Dancing together takes a bit of practice, right? While you can very quickly learn the steps, it takes some practice to get good and you probably won’t be ready for “Dancing with the Stars” on your first try!

When learning any new activity, it is important to have good teachers. It is always easier to have someone show you how, rather than muddle through trying to learn a new skill on your own. This is true for most things in life, including tandem riding. We have taught thousands of customers to tandem. Many of our customers have asked for us to put this in writing, so here is the time-tested Tandem Cycle Works way to tandem- ride!

Learn to Ride Together

The first time you ride a tandem, forget about the frame material, components, bike weight and all of that other stuff that cyclists get wrapped up in. Your first tandem ride is about figuring out how to ride together. You could ride a $1,000 bike or a $10,000 bike on the first ride, and it would hardly matter because the focus is on each other, NOT on the bike.

It is best to rent for your first tandem outing. This takes the pressure off your first ride and gives you the chance to have fun AND get some instruction from the shop. At Tandem Cycle Works, we take the time to explain important information with our rental customers before sending them off on a ride. We fit the bike, talk about the nuances of tandem riding, and then show you how to ride. If you are reading this, however, you may not be local, so we have put together this tutorial to help our out-of-towners.

Captain and Stoker

Before we get started, it is important to know that the person on the front is called the “captain” and the rear rider is called the “stoker.” Okay, ready? Here we go:

Step 1: Captain Gets on the Bike

The captain gets on the bike first. While this may sound easy enough, we recommend that the captain get on the tandem DIFFERENTLY than on a single bike.

Here’s how to do this, captains: Stand at the side of the bike, face straight ahead with the bike at your side with the handlebars pointing in the same direction you are facing. Holding the bike by the handlebars, lean the bike toward you. Swing the leg closest to the frame forward and OVER (yes, OVER) the handlebars to straddle the frame. If you try this and find that your hamstrings are squealing a bit, then just think of this as good flexibility training! (Perhaps it is time for some yoga classes?!) You will get better with practice, promise!

Why do we recommend this? This is, in fact, the easiest way for a captain to get on a tandem bike. If you try to get on a tandem as you would your single, by swinging your leg backward, you will quickly find out that the stoker bars make this extremely difficult! New captains often attempt lifting a leg over the top tube of the bike, climbing through the tandem between the front bars and saddle, but this is the easiest way that we know of to SCRATCH a tandem! You will, sooner or later, drag your foot along the bike’s top tube, and ding up that beautiful, shiny, flawless paint job.

Once straddling the bike, the captain holds the bike up for the stoker to get on. The bike should be held steady for the stoker. The captain grabs the brake levers so the bike does not roll forward. At this point, it is very important for the captain to spread the feet far enough apart to CLEAR the front set of pedals. Failure to clear the pedals means that the captain will more than likely get smacked in the shin or calf with the front pedals when the stoker climbs on and places their feet on the pedals. To avoid this, it necessitates that the captain adopt a very WIDE stance with the feet. The captain should then SIT on the top tube to hold the bike steady. This allows the captain to use his/her body weight INSTEAD OF STRAINING THE BACK to stabilize the bike for the stoker.

Step 2: Stoker Gets on the Bike

You are now ready for the stoker to get on the bike. This is the easy part. Stoker climbs aboard just as on any other bike, by kicking their leg to the rear, over the back wheel.

The stoker should get up on the seat and place both feet in the pedals holding onto the handlebars. Note to captains: the stoker is now “airborne” so small movements of the bike will make the stoker VERY uncomfortable. Note to stokers: the captain will move the bike when you are on it and this will make YOU very uncomfortable! Here’s where a little trust in your captain goes a LONG way! Stokers, resist that urge to put your foot down! The captain is likely only moving the bike a few degrees, but it will feel like much more than this.

Everybody on? Great!

Step 3: Get Ready to Pedal

Let’s review. At this point, the captain is (or should be!) straddling the bike, holding the handlebars with brakes locked and both feet on the ground, feet wide apart. The captain should NOT try to sit on the saddle of the bike. The stoker should be seated on the bike, both feet on the pedals, holding onto the bars.

Just like dancing, someone has to lead. When riding a tandem, the captain leads. So the captain decides which foot to start off with (sorry stokers, you must adapt to this one). Let’s say the captain prefers to place his right foot on the pedal and to keep his left foot on the ground. The next step is for the STOKER (not the captain) to move the pedals into position by backpedaling so that the right pedal is in front of the knee, just above horizontal. The captain is still standing with both feet planted firmly on the ground.

Placing the pedal in this position allows the most power out of the pedal stroke. You have been WARNED: attempting to start with your feet in any other position than just described will result in a very rough start!

Once the stoker has moved the pedals into position, the CAPTAIN should stand up and place the right foot on the pedal. (Stokers, this may make you uncomfortable but you trust your captain, right?!) The captain should NOT attempt to sit on the saddle.

Step 4: The “ON” Command

So now the captain is holding the bike with one foot down, one foot on the pedal, and the stoker is on the bike, both feet on the pedals. You are ready to ride! Keep in mind that your first start will be your worst start, but there is a learning curve. Be patient with yourselves, because with each subsequent start, you will improve DRAMATICALLY!

We use four commands when riding a tandem and they are “On, Off, Bump and Shift”. These are commands that the captain gives to the stoker when tandem riding.

The “ON” Command: With the pedals in the power position when you are ready to go, the captain tells the stoker “ON,” which means START PEDALING. I tell new stokers that it is natural to not want to do anything wrong, so the tendency on the back of the tandem is to do nothing, waiting for the captain to take off! This IS the WRONG thing to do! Because the stoker has both feet on the pedals and is seated on the bike, the stoker can really give the tandem the initial push to get going.

When a stoker is hesitant or not committed to starting, the start will be up to the captain. Now think about this for a second: The captain is balancing the bike, has only one foot on a pedal, is not seated on the saddle, and now that captain is 100% responsible for getting the tandem going, with the weight of TWO people on the bike! Remember that tandeming is a team sport. Here is where it is important to work together.

When the captain says “ON” the stoker pushes the pedals to get the bike moving. At the same time, the captain should push or step downward on the pedal, lift up the bum and sit on the saddle while keeping the bike moving straight ahead. The first time you do this, it will be a new sensation, and perhaps not the smoothest start. But a little practice, and you will have mastered this.

Some things to be aware of on the first few starts:

The steering might feel strange to the captain at first. The weight distribution is very different on a tandem bike, due to the weight of the 2 people on the bike. If you both COMMIT to a GOOD start and do not hesitate, you will be fine.

We often see captains insist upon putting their bums on the saddles BEFORE they start pedaling. This simply does not allow for a strong push off and will make your start much more wobbly!

Captains often hesitate to get going and start pawing the ground like a horse, in a rather comical effort to move the bike forward. Again, if you COMMIT to the start you will do just fine.

Step 5: The “OFF” Command

And there you go — you are riding! But wait, how do you stop this thing?!

We use “OFF” to mean stop pushing the pedals or to coast. Again, this is a command that the captain gives to the stoker. It is used when you are approaching an intersection or when coming to a stop to rest, etc. Since it is not possible for the stoker to know at exactly what point the captain wants to stop pedaling, the captain should say “OFF” to the stoker as they approach a stop. Without this command, the stoker will not know when to stop pedaling and will fight the captain who is trying to stop the bike. “OFF” allows the captain to slow the pedals to a stop and put one foot on the ground to balance the bike.

When you bring the bike to a stop, there is no need for the stoker to put a foot down or to get off the saddle. In fact, for most tandem riders, the stoker stays seated with both feet on the pedals at stops and lights. This allows tandem riders to easily get started again, as the stoker is in the ready position described previously.

Step 6: The “BUMP” Command

A good tandem captain will call out the bumps in the road to the stoker. When you ride a single bike, you don’t necessarily realize it but, you physically brace yourself when you see a bump in the road. On the back of a tandem, it is not possible to see upcoming bumps, so it is important for the captain to call out “BUMP” as he sees them approaching. This could be in the form of a pothole, a man-hole cover, or railroad tracks — really anything that you’d skirt or brace for on a single bike.

We often see new captains call out “BUMP” AFTER they have hit it! Oops, too late!

Even the very best tandem captain on earth will miss the occasional bump in the road. A suspension seatpost goes a L-O-N-G way in helping the stoker take those bumps the captain has missed.

Step 7: The “SHIFT” Command

We recommend that captains call out shifts to the stoker. Most people know that when shifting a bike you should not push hard against the pedals. On all bikes, tandems or singles, it is good riding technique to soft pedal through the shifts, as NO DERAILLEUR ON EARTH is designed to shift under load.

This is ESPECIALLY important when shifting into the GRANNY gear. You need the granny when the going gets tough and you are heading uphill. It is best to anticipate the terrain and shift BEFORE it gets steep. Ideally, the captain will call out “SHIFT” to the stoker prior to starting a climb. The stoker responds by soft-pedaling until the shift has occurred.

Without the “SHIFT” command, the BEST-case scenario is that the bike has a very rough shift when climbing. The WORST-case scenario is that the chain drops, the chain gets jammed into the frame, scratching your bike — or even WORSE, you bend the chainrings! Unfortunately, we have had customers do all of these things. This is NOT the bike’s fault. It is operator error. So remember, it is very good technique for the captain to say “SHIFT.”

Step 8: More Advanced Techniques (Standing While Climbing)

We live in the Rockies and enjoy riding hills. We often comment on how FEW tandem teams we see standing while climbing hills on their tandems. Standing is an advanced tandem skill that we encourage all teams to learn after they have had their bikes for a while. It allows you to move around on the bike and wards off the fatigue of being stuck in the same position on the bike for too long.

We often have stokers tell us that they are not comfortable standing while riding and so neither the captain nor stoker stands. This will cause early fatigue for the captain who must steer the tandem with the weight of two people. A captain who does not stand while on a long ride will be a very tired captain indeed. To all the stokers out there who are not at ease with their captains standing, we say this: stokers, give your captains a break;, learn to stand! To start, try standing for a few pedal strokes to get used to the feeling. In time, you’ll become more comfortable and it will become second nature.

To practice standing, find a nice flat area where there is a straightaway with little traffic. Once you are cycling at a good pace, the captain gears up, as though the terrain were getting steeper. When we stand together, we typically gear up 2 shifts. When ready, the captain says, “One and two and UP!” Both riders then stand together and KEEP PEDALLING. The key to this is to be SMOOTH. The stoker should watch the captain and stand simultaneously. The first time you do this, you may only get a few pedal strokes before the captain calls “DOWN.” This takes a little practice, but if you want to be the envy of all your tandem friends and you want to be STRONGER and FASTER cyclists, you will learn to stand together.

Words of Wisdom!

If you have actually read this entire page, by this time, you might be a bit overwhelmed. Don’t be! The hardest thing about riding a tandem is those first few starts and stops. With a little practice and patience, you will be pedaling along happily, enjoying cycling in a whole new way. We have taught thousands of customers to ride tandem. We know you can do this!

One final thought on riding together: most tandem riders are couples that really enjoy the time spent together on their bike. While we sometimes hear tandems called “divorce machines,” we have yet to meet a customer who has actually said that their bike caused a divorce!

To all those captains out there, we would like to pass along a few words of stoker wisdom. The captain has the control on a tandem. The captain shifts, steers, brakes and makes decisions for you both. While stokers may be the ultimate back seat drivers, we really allow you, our captains, to set the pace, choose the gear, and decide the cadence. So, if something goes amiss on the bike, who is at fault? Certainly NOT the stoker, who has no control on the back. On behalf of stokers everywhere, we would just like to remind you, dear captains, of one small thing. If you remember these 5 words, you will always have perfect harmony on your tandem adventures: The STOKER is Always Right! 😉