Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tandems Might Be Perfect For You

Despite having a cargobike box to plop our kids into, seeing them rolling away on their own two wheels is the most satisfying part of our family riding. Unfortunately, sometimes in the hurry of the day or the tension of city traffic, daily trips can't always be done with all riders on their own bikes. And the bigger kids sometimes feel cramped in the cargo box, especially with the rain cover. A tandem, a bicycle built for two (or three, or more) is our favorite solution because it allows you to ride close to your kids yet still gives them the chance to pedal a bike.  The kids feel more empowered, the parents don't always have to do all the pedaling, and everybody is safer together in traffic. It's no secret that we love tandems.
1972 Schwinn Deluxe Twinn

If you are carrying one bigger kid (with or without a toddler who fits in a rack seat), tandems are a really affordable option.  Older tandems are relatively cheap in Chicago at the bike co-ops and tend to be easy to find. An old American one- to five-speed tandem like a Schwinn Twinn usually goes for about $200 to $350 at these places, lesser brands even less. That can be a tenth of the price of a fancy cargo bike.  You can nearly always find them at A Nearly New Shop and at Working Bikes. Sometimes these shops have tandems in storage and you just have to ask - tandems take a lot of room on the display floor. Classified ads and internet sites are also good places to look.

Many of these were built for two adults, but you can often put a lower, unsprung seat on the back to let your maybe-about-7-or-8-year-old kid's feet reach the pedals. With these, as with most tandems, your kid's feet move the whole time.

In a higher price class, we just saw a fancier lightweight KHS Tandemania Sport at Working Bikes for $675, which is like a 21 speed mountain bike with city tires and two riders.

Tandems can grow well with you and your child as he or she moves through different stages. With something as simple as a foot long piece of wood and a metal clamp you can make a footrest for a toddler who is still too small to reach the pedals but big enough to hold on well. Swept back handlebars in the back are easy to rig as well.

pedal extenders or pedal blocks
For a slightly bigger kid you can either use an extra crankset that clamps to the frame higher up and attaches to the existing chain with its own little additional loop, or you can often use pedal extenders, which are like slices of 1x4 lumber held to both sides of the regular pedals with a rubber cover.
These are simple and cheap but reduce your cornering clearance a little. Keep in mind that no matter what you do the child is unlikely to be very interested in taking on most of the pedaling - the footrest is not much worse in terms of your need to pedal than the fancy child crankset. You may also be able to put on a shorter set of cranks to make it fit. Using these tricks, tandems can be adapted to allow a pretty young child to ride under (partly) their own power in traffic.

lots of trailer "tandems" in the used heap at Working Bikes
Tandems tend to be easier to control in city traffic than a ridealong trailer-like "tandem" on your regular bike. You have control over the whole bike in shorter turns and in tricky situations. On a real tandem the child is part of a real bike and not dangling on a secondary vehicle clipped on behind you. These trailer things go for $25 to $45 or so used at Working Bikes.

Tandems are easy to rig with a good rack to carry things with panniers, or if you are careful perhaps you can install both panniers and a child's bike seat over them (such as Yepp or similar; our Bobike Maxi works but the Bobike Junior doesn't). 

This blue one in particular is our favorite tandem, the Onderwater, which is a lot different. It carries the grown up and 3 kids (one in the back rack seat) and allows the one in front to pedal, and the grown up is the one who steers and brakes and changes gears. The kids don't have to look at your back but you are still the one watching for traffic. The kid has a ratchet on the crank so he or she doesn't need to turn the pedals all the time. 

Tandemtransporters - orange XL and black regular
This one also allows you to take off all the kid-related stuff when they get bigger and substitute a big cargo box. It's heavy but doesn't bend as you ride it, a problem we've discovered in other brands. Ours still looks like new since everything is stainless and the powder coat is very durable. JC Lind can order them in Chicago and Rolling Orange in New York sometimes has them in stock. They carry the two-kids-pedaling XL version too which can carry 4 kids. We tried one for a day and it went really comfortably, though the one we rented only had attachments for 2 kids total.
Kidztandem is a similar brand, made in Asia with lighter tubing and without a chain cover.

Onderwater Tandemtransporter

Bike Friday tandem

Bike Friday makes an assortment of tandems and multi-person tandems that can be disassembled into normal suitcases for air travel -- you can call them to talk about the options since they build them custom. These are pretty neat but you need to have a use for them.

The secret best thing about riding with your kids so close on a tandem: Really wonderful conversations to be had while pedaling along, looking at the sights as you go by together.


  1. Timely post for us. We have four children (10, 8, 5, 2) and typically have the eldest two ride independently and the younger two on our Yuba Mundo. Lately I have been wanting all four children on one bike and have given a lot of consideration to an Onderwater triple (I heard a rumor they were not being made anymore?), the Brown Cycle comparable, and the Bike Friday triple. I spoke with BF about adding the jump seat and a rear child seat, but we just didn't think we could do four children and the adult. With your experience, would the Onderwater/Brown Cycle version allow for a four child set up? Could it handle the weight, plus pannier (front and rear)? How does it handle without children on it, as we would ride it home after school drop off, empty. Since you are Chicago, do you get to ride any steep hills on the Onderwater? We are in WV, and have and all up hill (both ways) commute to school. Your time and thoughts are appreciated. Thank you!

  2. HI Stacy-
    Thanks for the great question.
    I think the Onderwater is very much in production. They are very common in HOlland especially on the island in the North Sea.
    You could get the triple underwater and use a seat on the back. We do use panniers on ours under the bobike that is on it though it takes a little work to get them off.
    I don't think the wieight would be too much of an issue on the Onderwater- the Brown cycle floks would know better about the weight on that bike as I have not ridden one that loaded.
    We do not have many steep hills at all here -honestly compared to Wv it's just so flat. That said I have used the Onderwater a lot in Massachusetts. We live on top of a big steep hill there and it can be plenty of work getting up- though having the kids pedal really helped quite a bit.
    My other half will probably weigh in on this too when he find your question! How would you get a Onderwater in Wv? HAve it shipped or try to get to New York? J.

    1. Thank you both! I am going to work through these replies. The rumor about the triple Onderwater was from Rolling Orange in NYC. When I emailed with them in the winter about my husband and daughter visiting and wanting to test ride, they said they may not have them in stock and may not be able to get them, which I took as not being produced, and is more likely just not being imported. We would likely attempt to have our LBS order what they can, but if not, we would inquire in Columbus, then DC, Chicago, then NYC, working our way further out ;) Ideally, we would hunt for one that's used (impossible?).

  3. Sorry for my napping kid in lap typing!!! J.

  4. hi. As far as we know, Onderwater still makes the Tandemtransporter XL but hasn't imported it to the USA yet. Here's the page from the manufacturer: . You can order them from Workcycles dealers like JC Lind since they carry them, but it isn't a Workcycles brand and other people like Rolling Orange in Brooklyn can order them too. Onderwaters are all still made by Azor in Holland.
    The XL model is like our blue one above but with TWO pedaling children in front. You can order the extra seat in front of the adult like we have and of course a seat fits on the back, from baby seat up to grown up size since the back rack is very strong. Not sure if both front pedaling positions have a ratchet or not, so they wouldn't have to pedal if they didn't want to. Based on our experiences with our own and other people's normal Tandemtransporters, I think it would handle the weight just fine. Ours is like a stone wall in terms of stiffness and gives an excellent ride. We haven't heard the same about the Brown Kidztandem, and the two person one we've had a chance to check out was a little squashy to ride, though it's lighter I guess. I think you should try it out before buying it to make sure it appeals to you.
    We like the enclosed chaincase and internal gears of the Onderwater, and the stainless everything. I think given the option I'd choose a dynamo front hub with B&M Cyo and Topline Plus lights, and either a 7 or 8 speed Nexus or possibly a NuVinci hub. These can all be ordered via the manufacturer as far as I know, and you can choose your color too I guess.
    Our bike handles beautifully without any load, cruising easily over bumps with its long wheelbase. It takes a day or two to get used to the steering being so far in front but it's like driving a van after being used to a compact car, and it's really comfortable after awhile. In fact, J uses the long wheelbase cargo bike or tandem in preference to normal bikes whenever she can.
    As for hills, it's too bad they exist, but the Onderwater cruises up as well as anything that will hold this much, and the good bearings and solid construction make it feel responsive even on a steep hill. We rarely (but sometimes!) have to walk it up a hill. I imagine you're in better shape after riding the Yuba around West Virginia. If your kids help, that would make the Tandemtransporter type bikes much more sensible than other 4 (or more)-kid bikes like the ones in our Rolling Orange post, where nobody is helping you.
    It would be tricky but probably not impossible to put front panniers on the tandem; a basket or front bag is pretty easy.
    I guess the Yuba is similar to the Onderwater in the sense that it is solid and heavy compared to some other similar bikes, but that is an advantage more than a disadvantage.
    As for the Bike Friday, I'm not sure what the triple would be like. Certainly more transportable if you take a trip, possibly lighter, but probably not as solid. More money. I'm not sure. We like our one person bike fridays but haven't tried a triple.

    1. I am so incredibly unfamiliar with the technical components in the bicycle. This response is going to require some more research. The Onderwater link you provided suggests the child sized seats are best for 4-6yos, so perhaps the seats won't 'grow' with our children? Our 10yo is already 100lbs, she's dense :). All these options seem like they are ideal for the school or play group commute, but not for our utilitarian needs (grocery!). Good thing we have the Yuba.

  5. Oh- send us a picture of whatever you get, and tell us about how you made the decision and how you like it!

  6. Another thought about Bike Fridays - they used to have pictures all over their catalogs and website of 5-person family tandems, and now they don't anymore. In fact, the triples and higher aren't even in the website, I think. I'd want to know why they don't push those models anymore, and whether there was a problem with them, before I ordered one. If they will stand behind it though, their customer service is very good, so you can probably believe what they tell you.

    1. Something I don't like about the BF triple is the rear seating, not keen on it on the Yuba either (love my front mount seat). When I talked to BF they and I were focused on the triple, but if we go that route, I will inquire about the quads, etc. BF was able to track down a triple in western Ohio for us to test ride this summer. We have been in touch with the owner and hope to meet up the first week in June. I am in touch with a woman in DC who has access to a double BrownCycle, we also hope to ride in July. Our opportunity to find an Onderwater might happen in NYC in June, or it may have passed when we were there in February! I am staying in touch with as many bloggers and cargo/family cyclist as I can to hope facilitate my family cycling world to be a closer, warmer body of people. If we make it to Chicago, we will look you up!

  7. Yet another thought - for big hills you may be better with disk or V brakes on the front at least than with the roller brakes that are standard. You might even consider hydraulic disks since cable runs can get too long to work well but hydraulics aren't as affected, though they are higher maintenance. The latest biggest roller brakes (for the back only) are better than the old ones but they'll still overheat on a hill. Alfine hubs take a disk, Nexus take a roller brake. Generally most of the braking on a bike is in the front, and I think it's much much more true with long wheelbase bikes. You could also consider traditional tandem brake combinations with two rear brakes if the hills are really steep and if you can figure it out with the internal hubs.

  8. Your tandem looks so awesome. I'll never forget that I saw you on that tandem, before I knew you, at the Bike the Drive. :) Seems like it would be hard to handle, but I guess it's one of those things you get used to, same as with a bakfiets.

  9. Hi Dottie-
    I love that you saw us out so long ago too! I should bring the tandem out to the Ladies Who Bike Brunch ( hosted by Dottie here in Chicago and Trish in Nashville- just click Dottie) so everyone can try it out. I've never thought of it. Hope to see you guys out at this year's Bike The Drive this Sunday!

    If you don't have a Ladies who Bike monthly brunch in your town please give organizing one a try, It's just so nice to have a little breakfast with other ladies who like to bike that once a month!

    1. Two great things about LGRAB: We coincidentally and thankfully first read about the Yuba Mundo on LGRAB and then when we were researching bikes I went to Columbus to check out a Madsen, saw the Yuba, which I had forgotten about as LGRAB review was not based on riding with children, in another shop who had a electric Kona Ute...and well, we ordered one a month later.

      Second, because of her women who bike brunch, I started a Cycle Social line of rides that began with women only and has branched out to all sorts of rides, b/c we have a small town and needed to tap all different abilities, ages, distances, etc.

      I do not read a lot of blogs that are not focused on riding with children, but Trish and Dottie will always be in my reader. I keep trying to send my Chicago friends out into the bike lane, but most of them still say they are scared. I think I need to bring my bike to Chicago and see what all the fuss is about :)

  10. Also, while the Onderwater we've been taking about is definitely great, I think everybody should keep in mind that a simple Schwinn Twinn or a similar old tandem is also great. It's cheap, it's versatile, it's durable, and it can get you safely out into the city with your kid, maybe two, and your stuff. Really - it might be all you need. Have a look at them.

  11. Greetings. I am looking for an appropriate forum in which to sell my Nihola cargobike. Any suggestions?

    1. You could put it on the chainlink in Chicago ( or similar sites. You could try Ebay or similar. Maybe a bike store will sell it on commission. Take it to the farmers' market or the playground with a For Sale sign on it. Is there a Kidical Mass near you? Go, with the For Sale sign and ask the other parents to pass the word along. Put contact information on your Google Plus profile and people can click your name above and ask you about it. Any other ideas, anyone?
      Good luck


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