Give your relationship the tandem test

JOSH BURROWS

For cyclists looking for an alternative holiday, two days aboard a bicycle made for two will teach you plenty about your other half

Of all the sayings in cycling, there is one that rings truer than most: “Wherever your relationship is going, you’ll get there faster on a tandem.”

Admittedly couples who like to tell you this tend to have passed the tandem test. Those who have endured less successful excursions on a bicycle made for two prefer to explain that riding a tandem is like going on a walking holiday...with your feet tied together.

There is, of course, only one way to find out which of these two camps your relationship belongs in. Willing to give it a try - and having spent the winter restoring a steel-framed machine dating to the mid 1990s - my fiancee and I booked our trains to the Hampshire side of the South Downs National Park.

The base for our two-day stay was a cosy self-catering maisonette at Inadown Farm - a riding stables just south of Alton. The accommodation seemed appropriate given that there are times when riding a tandem feels like taming a recalcitrant horse. The turning circle would make an oil tanker blush and bullying the bike up a hill is a practical lesson in GCSE physics. In layman’s terms this is because the advantage of having the power of two riders but the aerodynamics of one is far outweighed - literally - by the effort of dragging twice the mass.

Fortunately we had agreed on Hampshire because of the relatively flat terrain on offer. According to Peter Bird, a tandem builder who runs specialist tandem training courses, this was a wise decision. “It’s very nice riding in flat areas but the hills make it really interesting,” he explains. “But hills are not to be worried about. If it’s tough, you get off and walk - it’s not a killer. There’s no hill you can’t get up because the lowest gear is your feet.”

As luck would have it, our first proper stop-off, Hinton Ampner House and Gardens, was at the top of a particularly sharp incline. The Georgian-style manor was rebuilt in the 1960s to best drink in the views of the rolling Hampshire countryside as the land falls away down to the Solent. By the time we arrived, however, the only stuff we were drinking in was isotonic. Indeed, as we cycled through the carpark, we attracted at least as much attention as the house itself.

But curiosity like this is usually a pleasant byproduct of riding a tandem. Barely a coffee-stop or a map-check passed without strangers stopping to smile and quiz us. Can you take it easy on the back? (No, or at least if you do, you’ll have the rider on the front to answer to). Do you go super-quick down hills? (Yes, but only if the rider on the back trusts the pilot implicitly, unwaveringly and absolutely). Who is in control? (The ‘captain’ at the front, rendering the ‘stoker’ at the rear totally helpless - or totally carefree, depending on how you look at it).

The good times roll when the road is flat. With a gentle ribbon of tarmac stretching out in front of us (or in front of the pilot at least; the stoker having her view almost entirely obscured by my backside) 30mph was well within our capabilities. On a decent stretch of downhill, we were closer to 40mph and would have gone quicker still were it not for our farcically un-aerodynamic riding position and lack of trust in the tandem’s cornering.

Bird says: “I ask members of cycling clubs why they haven’t thought about riding tandems because they’re quicker than normal bikes. Nearly always the answer is because they can’t get their other half to come out and join in.”

He’s right, of course. But those refuseniks are missing out on the unique benefits of holidaying on a tandem. For most of the weekend we chose not to worry about speed or miles munched, and instead enjoyed taking the time to chat as starlings and swallows swooped alongside, occasionally racing us for a few dozen metres.

Conversation on solo bikes is only really possible when riding side-by-side - a formation that enrages many drivers despite being endorsed in the Highway Code. A sad way to look at things perhaps, but on a tandem, you are close enough to keep talking while narrow enough not to take up much road space.

Our longest day in the saddle (a very gentle 70km) was pleasantly interrupted by a trip to Hambledon Cricket Club, one of the oldest sporting institutions anywhere in the world, founded circa 1750, approximately 150 years before the modern bicycle was invented. These days Hambledon are a village outfit with a ground perched in the sunshine a few miles north of Waterlooville and a perfectly acceptable bar. There can be few more agreeable places to spend a Saturday afternoon, even if the spring chill gave us good reason to get our legs pumping when we set out for home.

If riding a tandem is a relationship test, the good news is that we’re planning our next trip already.

Two days of tandem touring, Hampshire
Day 1 - Alton to Inadown Farm, via East and West Meon (approx 50km)
Lunch - Cuppacheeno, West Meon. A well-hidden cafe behind the village stores, well-populated by cyclists and well-stocked with cake
Dinner - River Kwai, Alton. Cheap and cheerful Thai restaurant, popular with locals. 
Stay - Inadown Farm Holiday Homes. Cosy, compact and immaculately presented one-bed maisonettes, based at a riding stable a short taxi-ride from Alton.  (02392 468886)

Day 2 - Round-trip from Inadown Farm, via Hinton Ampner and Hambledon Cricket Club (approx 60km)
Lunch - Hinton Ampner Country House. Beautifully situated country house with an excellent cafe and gardens
Dinner - Madhuban Tandoori, Liss. Best curry house in the area - and after escorting a tandem over the South Downs, the extra naans are guilt-free.
Stay - Inadown Farm Holiday Homes.

Three tips for successful tandem cycling
Peter Bird runs Tandem Experience from Coalport in Shropshire. Every year he takes about 150 couples on training rides, a third of whom go on to buy a tandem. Here are three of his tips.

Maximise your advantage
“When the roads are in your favour, you need to make the most of them. If you learn to do that, you ride faster than you would on a solo bike. Hills are never easy on a tandem but you should learn to ride slower and gear down. Overall, you’ll find that you’re about 20 per cent faster than a normal bike.

Share the work
“Riding together is an art. Tandems are most efficient when both riders are outputting the same, but that takes some time to learn. The temptation is for the person on the front to work harder, but he - and it is usually a he - won’t be able to sustain that.”

Take some training
“It’s not for everyone, but the largest sector of the tandem market is people who just like riding bikes - not necessarily tandem enthusiasts. Getting into it can be a nightmare. But there is training available to help people get the most out of their day out.”

Josh Burrows is a sports journalist at The Times. He also rides single-seat bikes, but they have to be of a certain age.