Ah, the tandem. I will always have fond memories of riding our Rodriguez tandem 17,300 miles down the length of the Americas. I developed a unique relationship with my son, the stoker, as our lives were inseparable for almost three years. Together we faced the trials and tribulations of this wonderful adventure, but this is a topic for another time. I’d like to write about something much more practical: a review of the bike I rode.
The tandem served us well the entire trip save a few problems that developed along the way. Here is a list of the major features of the tandem along with what I chose, why I chose them, and what I would do differently.
Since there weren’t any stock sizes that would fit my son and me, we had no choice but to have a custom one built. I decided to have Rodriguez Cycles based out of Seattle, Washington build our tandem. I chose them mainly based on positive recommendations, their cost, and the short time from order to delivery they advertised, (we needed a fast production time since we had hoped to have a bicycle company sponsor us with a tandem, but at the last minute it fell through).
In retrospect, I wouldn’t have gone with Rodriguez Cycles for two reasons. First they delivered the tandem two weeks after they promised – which actually turned out to be longer than the other company promised. Secondly, for the amount of money I paid for the tandem, I thought the frame should have been much stiffer. I rode a fully-loaded Santana triplet 10,000 miles around the US and Mexico and felt that frame was not only stiffer, but more comfortable and efficient to ride.
If I had it over again, I would go with Santana. The cost would be a couple hundred dollars more, but I think it would be worth it.
Since I went with a drop bar, I had to use brake levers for drop bars. Unfortunately I went with integrated brake/shifter levers which don’t have the range of motion or pull of normal levers. Bar end shifters and dedicated brake levers would have been a much more appropriate choice. I found I had to be constantly adjusting the brakes to take advantage of every millimeter of pull I had. In fact the brakes that came with the bike just weren’t doing the job so I replaced them with others more appropriate for a fully loaded tandem.
On top of that the integrated brake/shifters broke and were expensive and difficult to replace. Trying to get things sent to foreign countries can be an expensive proposition, so Nancy flew to Miami from Honduras to pick up a new brifter when mine broke.
And when the brifters get gunked up, they are very difficult to rebuild. Mine were no longer working by the time we got to Peru so we got a rebuild kit and tried to rebuild them. NOT easy at all – here’s the story of that nightmare!
In short, I would never tour with brifters again. Look for simplicity rather than complicated.
When I ordered the bike, I had the option of having Rodriguez mount a drum brake – I decided not to. After riding the bike down to Albuquerque, I realized I needed it, so had one retrofit on the bike. Rodriguez sent everything needed to a bike store in Albuquerque so it could be added quickly. However, they sent a model of drum brake with no quick release which meant the wheel could not be taken farther away than six inches from the frame. If I disconnected it, I had to start from scratch and completely readjust the brake. It’s worth the extra few dollars for the quick-release version.
This is a biggie. Since I would be spending so much time on the bike, it had to be comfortable and the handlebars play a central role in this. After touring with different types of handlebars, I prefer the drop bar – BUT ONLY IF THEY ARE RAISED TO ABOUT SEAT HEIGHT! I love all the different positions of the drop bar but not being hunched over. I stipulated that Rodriquez not cut the steerer tube so I was easily able to raise the handlebars a whopping 6 or 7 inches! When I used the drop part of the drop bars I was only slightly hunched over.
We also had drop bars for the stoker, but I wasn’t impressed with the extender bar Rodgriguez built for the stoker bars. (I’m not sure exactly what that piece is called – the gizmo that hooks to the captain seat post and holds the stoker handlebar.) It was simply a round tube and the handlebar mounted on that but, with only a moderate amount of pressure, the bars rotated. I was not able to use the stoker bars to help pull or push the tandem or to help pick it up when it fell. No amount of tightening the bolts could get the bars in a fixed position – Rodriguez needs to redesign their mounting system to make it so it doesn’t rotate.
There are three critical things that make a strong wheel: the rim, the spokes, and someone who knows how to build a good wheel. The rim was the single most troublesome part of our tandem. I can’t blame this on Rodriguez. The Velocity rims split and had to be replaced three times between Alaska and New Mexico. Velocity customer service was excellent; they replaced the rims at no charge, overnighted new rims to us, paid bike stores to rebuild the wheels, and even put us up in a hotel when we were laid up. But after three times I had had enough and I replaced them out of my own pocket with Rhino Lites and had no problems with rims the remainder of the trip.
If you go with a 26”/36-hole rim you can replace it just about anywhere. I don’t believe 40-hole rims are much stronger; it’s the spokes that are critical. My wife had cheap spokes on her bike and they didn’t last long before they all had to be replaced.
The bike came with Phil Wood sealed hubs. Simply put: they were great. The only problem I had with them is that the pawls in the ratchet mechanism got so gunked up they didn’t engage (after 17,000 miles). A simple cleaning remedied the problem.
Note: Unless you are going to be riding on relatively smooth pavement, you are going to want wide tires (1.5” or wider). Be sure that both the rims and bike can accommodate them. My wife had to ride skinny tires down atrocious roads because the seat stays were too narrow to fit a wide tire.
As for tires, there is only one word here: Schwalbe. This tire is head and shoulders above any I’ve ever used. More importantly than lasting much, much longer than a conventional tire, they are extremely resistant to flats. It’s not fun to change a flat in freezing cold or when getting eaten alive by mosquitoes.
The Drive Train
I had a very standard drive train: 8-speed with mountain gearing with a 36-tooth granny in the rear. Believe me – go with the lowest gears possible and don’t let people at the bike shop tell you any differently. Eight speed chains are stronger and they are much easier to find in other countries.
Since I had to pedal extra hard on the tandem I couldn’t go with standard shoes; I had to use dedicated hard-soled bicycling shoes with cleats. I learned from my 10,000-mile triple ride that even with cleats and cycling shoes, the balls of my feet got really sore. That’s when I switched over to a cleated platform pedal which made all the difference in the world. The pressure from the pedal was distributed over a much wider area of my foot using this type of pedal.
I love my Brooks saddle. It took about 350 of discomfort to break it in, but when broken in I rode the rest of the trip callous-free.