The captain (sometimes called “pilot”) of a tandem is the rider in the front. Generally the captain should be an experienced solo bicyclist and, for new teams, requires good upper body physical strength.
The first time captain
There is a first time for everything and being a tandem captain is no different. It is best to ride the tandem solo a bit to familiarize yourself with the controls, shifting characteristics, braking behavior, and turning radius. Realize the bike will feel significantly different once you add a stoker to the bike.
For your first full team ride it is mandatory that you find a neighborhood or bike path free of traffic (cars, bikes, and pedestrians included). Plan on a short trip of 5-10 miles and have fun. Most likely this will be the first trip for your stoker too so do not make any abrupt moves. It is best to act as if you were taking a child for their first bike ride.
Riding a tandem is all about communication. As a captain it is difficult to fully understand the faith your stoker is placing with you. The stoker can not see the road ahead nor can they anticipate shifts, turns, or braking. At first it is best to communicate EVERYTHING (including bumps in the road and approaching intersections). From there you can slowly remove notifications as comfort levels rise.
For more experienced tandem teams the role of captain transitions from “tour leader” to one of speed and effort management. On longer rides it is important to control pace and power to efficiently travel from point A to point B. The captain has a better view of the upcoming terrain and can better anticipate the needs of the team. The captain should carefully use braking and soft pedaling to maintain momentum and minimize the need for heavy power starts.
The captain has the enviable task of steering and braking during the decents. A tandem with the long wheelbase and significant mass is a very stable and fast platform to travel downhill. It is not uncommon to reach and exceed 60 mph on a gentle slope.
The captain must be careful to anticipate obstacles while adjusting speed and approach angles to safely maneuver at speed. The stoker can be coached to aid in turning and direction changes by shifting their weight and leaning on the bike. The dual efforts of the tandem pair creates significant traction and surprisingly nimble handling for the tandem.
The success of a captain is dictated by the happiness of their stoker. By considering the stoker’s feelings at all times and communicating actions the captain takes a big step in making the tandem team successful on the bike.