Aside from the standard jokes we receive about “she is not pedaling”, “that looks easy”, and “are you kidding” a tandem team really can exceed anything imaginable by a solo-bicyclist. The best example of the advantages a tandem bike has over the solo counterpart is found where pavement meats dirt and dirt meets steep hills. A tandem mountain bike enables most any tandem team to climb grades considered impossible to ride by normal standards. The long wheel base supported, usually, by a heavier rider in front combined with the dual power of the tandem team can enable a tandem mountain bike to scale hillsides reserved for adventurous climbers and downhill traffic only.
Simply throwing a leg over a tandem does not mean that your team will succeed in conquering monster climbs. It takes practice, coordination, and some rules of the road to become kings of the hill:
1. Getting Ready – Climbing extreme grades should not be tackled by the uninitiated. Depending upon the grade and surface a premature exit could result in a nasty tumble. Before tackling your first extreme grade take time to gradually ride steeper and longer grades. The goal is to build both power and endurance to ensure your team can physically conquer a grade.
2. Addressing the Climb – With power and endurance out of the way the next step is to identify your first serious challenge. Depending on the region of the country you hail from an extreme grade could be found on your local trail or a few hundred miles away. The best bet in either direction is to start off with a grade composed of a smooth surface with excellent traction, a great excuse to head to Moab for a weekend. The slick-rock trails of Moab UT provide unparalleled traction and when combined with a semi-slick tire will allow your team to scale “walls”.
3. Line Choice – Having found that first steep grade it is time for tire to meet trail. Line choice both on the approach and during the ascent are vital to a successful climb. The majority of the responsibility falls upon the captain of the tandem team to ensure a good line. On the approach to the climb scan the full length of the hill for an ideal route working top to bottom. With that hypothetical route in mind approach the grade at a perpendicular angle to the grade, shift in to your highest gear range, settle your cadence into a smooth consistent stroke and begin the climb.
4. Push, Pull, and Adjust – Once your tandem team starts the climb focus and concentration become key. For the stoker it is important to keep an even power stroke through the pedals in sync with the captain. The stoker should mentally block out the steepness of the grade and focus only on pedaling through the stroke. The captain should focus their attention on the line immediately in front of the tandem. A steep grade serves as the ultimate test of a captains skills as gravity and torque fight to wrench the tandem side to side and back down the hill. Constant steering inputs and weight shifts will be necessary to keep the tandem on the trail. Depending upon the length of the grade the captain can also stand and pedal to shift their weight further forward and add additional power into the stroke.
5. Go with the Flow – That line you envisioned back on step 3 will almost 100% of the time not be the line you end up riding. As your tandem team ascends the grade shifts in weight, ruts in the trail, and surface materials will force your tandem team to adjust the line to compensate. It is important for the captain to not fight too much with these shifts. Instead allow the tandem mountain bike to establish its own line and work to provide enough power and steering inputs to keep the tandem upright and moving vertical.
6. Cresting the Top – The last few hundred feet are always the most difficult. With the top in sight it is easy to lapse concentration and either drop a tire into a rut or off the trail or to simply forget to pedal. Fight the urge to celebrate prematurely and keep your teams composure over the grade. Once past the apex is the time to celebrate.
For tandem mountain bike teams the successful completion of a once impossible climb will be a long remembered success. Utilizing the tips above prepare, practice, and succeed with your big climb you will find just rewards for your accomplishment.