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In Cycling, Is Aero Really Everything? An Interesting Perspective From The Captain’s Chair.

I’ve been kicking this post around for quite some time, but I noticed a neat new wrinkle just Saturday morning.

My wife and I are very good cyclists. We’ve had our cycling legs for years, now and we use them. Up until last season, I spent the bulk of my time on one of two road bikes – a ’99 Trek 5200 and a ’13 Specialized Venge. I’m closing in on 100,000 miles (or I’d get there if my damned career didn’t get in the way!) that’s split something like this; 40,000 on the Trek, 45,000 on the Venge, and 15,000 split between our tandem, my mountain bike and my gravel bike..

Point is, I’ve got extensive miles betwixt the Trek and Specialized. And yes, I can feel the difference in resistance. It’s not huge, maybe a half-mile per hour, but it’s there, plain as day.

So, if you’re one of those who claims aero is all a marketing ploy and there really isn’t much difference between a classic all-carbon Trek race bike and today’s (or especially yesterday’s) race bikes, you’re wrong, but not by much.

When you’re in a pack, riding with six or more friends, aero matters even less because you’re only in the first three bikes half or less of the time you’re riding. However, where this gets fun and exciting is when you’re out on a solo training ride. Solo, you’ll ride faster on an aero bike, but the training will be better on an older round tube bike. You’re not out there for Strava cred, after all. Right? Well, okay, maybe you think that equates to something. Let’s move on.

So here’s the fun part in this post: my wife and I are out on our tandem and we’re pushing 18-20mph into a decent little cross-headwind. It didn’t feel all that difficult. We were just cruising. Now, the bike we ride is anything but aero. The fork is great, but the tubes are all mostly round – none of that fancy hydro-formed aluminum for us. It’s really light, though. Anyway, one of our friends was cold, so he decided to come around and take some time up front to raise his heart rate to warm up… he said it only took seconds once he wasn’t protected anymore.

Now, our tandem isn’t aero, but we are. We’re two people with the wind cross-section of one in a headwind and the power of two. We can ride for miles in a headwind before tapping out while someone on a single might take a mile.

So, if you’re a bike manufacturer making bicycles, yeah, aero is everything because that’s the only thing they’ve got to claim over another brand (which is why bikes look so much alike nowadays). If, however, you’re a cyclist, aero for the bike isn’t as much as would be aero for the cyclist. The bigger the hole I have to punch in the wind, the harder it is to punch the hole!

Oh, and tandems rock!

Switching from Single Bikes to a Tandem for a Married Couple

My wife and I are a tandem couple. We still have single bikes but don’t ride them regularly anymore, unless you count winter riding on the trainers next to each other in the living room.

Our first tandem, a Co-Motion Periscope

Now, if you’re reading this and shaking your head, “No way”, I get it. Hell, if your wife is reading this and shaking her head and saying, “No chance”, I get it. My wife and I weren’t much different. Until we started riding our first tandem seriously during the Covid debacle (and the Governor of Michigan was paying me to be a pro cyclist – and writing that line will never get old). One day, a friend of ours asked on a Sunday Funday ride why we didn’t ride our tandem more. He pointed out that Sundays would be perfect for that bike. So we gave it a go. A new attitude later and we haven’t looked back.

Now we’ve gone so far as to buy matching helmets, glasses, jerseys and even socks

Then we picked up a new tandem:

At the end of last season actually chose a top-end custom tandem as a work-sponsored bonus over new single bikes. So, are we nuts?

Prior to tandem cycling, we couldn’t pilot a canoe together without the adventure devolving into a massive fight.

So, tandems are either marriage makers or marriage breakers, another tandem couple we ride with likes to say. Their tandem is a marriage maker. My wife and I started out rocky, but we really worked at it and we’re in the same boat now.

Here’s how we did it…

From my wife’s saddle, she’s the rear admiral. I’m the captain. She gives the orders and I execute them. She trusts me implicitly to pilot the bike. She does not back seat ride. She provides power and for that, gets to enjoy the scenery, not about the wheel we’re trying to hold. I should ask her to write a post about this, actually so she can put her perspective down, rather than me writing about my understanding of her perspective.

From my saddle, I changed a lot so we can be happy on our tandem. First, I gave up the “aggressive” cyclist me, as I’ve written about before. The speed did come, eventually, and I’m better for it. Patience is indeed a virtue. That aggressive cyclist guy doesn’t mesh with my wife. I found I didn’t like being that guy anyway. Second, I’ve come to realize I’m happier on the tandem with my wife than I am on single bikes. After taking the time to learn how to really communicate on the bike, we reduced our difficulties on the tandem to afterthoughts.

The communication is really the key to our happiness on a tandem. Without it, we’d be sunk. That’s the key, but that’s not even the biggest part of what makes us a successful tandem couple. That biggest part is desire for it to work. Well, patience would be the third. That’s pretty big, too.

We wanted it enough to make it happen, and it’s fantastic. We never got smiles like that on the single bikes.

Check Your Crankarm Bolts… Especially On A New Bike. And What to Do If Yours Needs To Be Tightened After Every Ride

Jess, my wife, recently pointed out that we’ve had some crankarm issues over the years. Because there were always distinct causes for the issue, and because we’ve always addressed the causes before they became a problem, I never gave it much thought.

After our little mishap on our brand new top-end tandem the other day, where the bike was completely perfect and that crank arm fell off 7-1/2 miles into a ride, and an extended conversation with my wife (and a short one with Matt Assenmacher), I decided to start checking the crankarm bolts a little more regularly. Well, a lot more regularly, especially on the tandem.

Now, I have it on authority that Campagnolo makes the best crank as far as crank bolts go, so I can accept that. A close second would have to be Shimano for my money. Now, that’s just my experience. Yours may differ.

Over the years we’ve had a Shimano 105 crankset come loose on us (but it was on my wife’s bike and I was drafting her when it started to go bad so it was fixed before it was a problem), we’ve had a FSA crank loosen up on us (wife’s gravel bike, but there was a massive quality flaw in that particular crank), then our tandem – a bike with just under 200 miles on it, seemingly out of the blue, and that was utterly catastrophic though we managed to keep the rubber side down.

As it turns out, it’s common for the bolt(s) just loosen up over time and effort so they should be checked regularly to make sure they’re staying snug – especially on a new bike. In fact, I’ve had to check my Specialized S-Works crank fairly often as well, now that I think of it, and it loosens quite easily with hard riding. That’s a long story for another post, though.

In the case of our tandem, the crank bolt is a two piece bolt. The outer screws into the crank arm and the inner pulls the two crank arms together. When I set my crank, I must have set it perfectly because it’s staying tight. I’ve checked after every ride. My wife’s crank was loose too when mine fell apart, though, and that’s loosened up with every ride we did until I decided loosen the outer bolt so the inner would get more “purchase”, thinking there needed to be more threads engaged on the crankset.

And that was exactly the answer. After our 40-miler Monday, the crank was just as snug when we got back as it was when we left.

And so, a lesson learned.

What You Need to Know About Buying, Riding and Fine-Tuning a New Bike; Also, “It’s Tandem Time, Baby”!

If you’ve dropped a good bit of money on a bicycle and you think, because you paid upwards of several Thousand Dollars, the bike will be problem free for the foreseeable future, you’ll have to think again… and likely a lot sooner than you’d think.

When you bring a new bike home from the shop, the chance it’s properly perfectly tuned and ready to roll is somewhere between slim and none. I suppose, before I really dig into this post, I should clarify that I’m exceedingly picky that our bikes (my wife and my bikes) are operating at their peak.

It usually starts out like this; you bring a new bike home, ride it a time or two, and things start creaking or rubbing or the derailleurs don’t shift quite as crisply as the bike settles in. Most shops give a free one month checkup to readjust things after they settle.

I’ve never taken a bike in for its one month. I can’t last that long knowing I’ve got something that needs correcting. I’d guess that the electric groupsets are a little less problematic, but I really wouldn’t know, it’d just be a guess. Mechanical groupsets, however, I do know something about and they require some tinkering. I’ve been working on our tandem, little changes here and there, for the better part of a month.

Today will be our first ride on the tandem where I’m totally pleased with the mechanics of the bike. The front brake was a quarter turn on the left pad too tight, the derailleurs were a half-turn (or so) off on the set screws, the rotors are trued, the calipers are set where I want them… and there are no mysterious “clicks” in the rear derailleur and the front only needs to be trimmed on the last two (smallest) cogs on the back and doesn’t rub in any other gear but the small/small combination (as it should, it doesn’t rub on the derailleur, it rubs the big chainring from being cross-chained).

The real question is, would our tandem have sufficed as it was when we rode it the first time? Well, it was really nice that first ride, but the adjustments needed to happen to really make the bike ride how we wanted it.

It’s been like this for every bike I’ve owned. Every bike my wife has owned except one (her Assenmacher is the lone exception – that bike was perfect right out of the back of my wife’s SUV) but that bike is a 2004 and was kept after quite well)… every other bike we’ve ever brought home has required a little tinkering.

The key is knowing this is coming and enjoying the process of sorting it out!

UPDATE: On a crazy fluke, the front crank fell apart on our ride today. Check the crank bolts are tight. Often.

Tandems and the Dreaded Synchronizing Chain… Enter the Gates Carbon Belt Drive

Our old tandem used a two 8-speed chains (about 1-3/4 actually) as the means of synchronizing the two cranksets.

The 8-speed (x2) synchronizing chain setup works just fine… when you don’t know any better, but it’s heavy and a wee bit noisy. The chain also stretches on a fairly regular basis and for a Co-Motion you need a special Allen key in order to loosen and tighten the retaining bolts on the timing chain side (at lest you do for the eccentric bottom bracket on a Co-Motion tandem – and they’re worth needing the special tool, that bottom bracket is outstanding).

On high-end tandems, however, the upgrade is to a Gates Carbon Timing Belt. The Gates Carbon Timing Belts last multiple times longer than a timing chain (and timing chains last quite a while – ours lasted more than seven years) and there’s a weight savings of between a half of a pound over premium chains and I’d guess as much as a pound when you use standard SRAM 8-speed chains. They’re also shockingly quiet.

Oh, and they never need lube. Never. Just keep ’em clean.

Now, if you’re wondering whether or not you can retrofit or upgrade an old tandem with a Gates Carbon Timing Belt kit, in many cases you can if your tandem isn’t too old and it fits certain perimeters. Check this invaluable FAQ on Co-Motion’s website and click on “The Gates Carbon Drive Timing Belt System” for more information.

In all honesty, it takes a slight bit of getting used to, though. There’s no “play” in the system when it’s properly installed, but it’s not as solid as a properly tensioned chain, either. It simply feels… different. Beyond that, though, thank goodness for the Gates Timing Belt. They’re awesome!

Hands Down, The Best Tandem Saddle I’ve Ever Ridden (My Wife’s New Favorite, Too!)

Our Co-Motion Kalapuya gravel tandem came with a lot of bells and whistles. Everything is top-end on the bike, from the drivetrain to the brakes and wheels, to the… saddles.

Finding the right tandem saddle is crucial because you’ll be spending a lot of time on it. Unlike a single bike, you can’t just stand on the pedals and let the blood flow back into your nether-regions whenever you want. You have to think about your Rear Admiral and they, you. Climbing out of the saddle on a tandem is nothing like on a single bike. It takes impeccable timing and practice.

Anyway, I’ve ridden about five different saddles on tandems over the years. Originally, when we bought our first tandem, I rolled a Selle Italia X2. I could only stand that saddle, no matter how hard I tried to set it perfectly, for twenty miles. It had to go. I briefly, and I mean briefly, tried a carbon fiber saddle that felt good on my Trek but horrible on my Venge and even worse on the tandem, then a Specialized Romin before finally settling on a Specialized Toupe Sport that came on my gravel bike. That saddle really seemed to work and I had every intention of swapping out whatever came on our Co-Motion gravel bike.

Just for kicks, Jess and I talked it over and decided to give the saddles that came on the Kalapuya a try. I set the bike up and we gave it a roll. Some adjustments later and I knew I was keeping the Selle Italia X3 that came on the bike. It was astonishingly comfortable.

Now, I’m fairly easy. There are saddles that work and saddles that don’t. They’re fairly easy to discern. My wife, however, can like or hate a saddle based on a millimeter here or there. She’s exceedingly fickle. For that reason alone, I hoped, but not too much, that she’d like the feminine model of the saddle.

I set her saddle up a lot like mine but with more tilt for reasons I’ve discussed in previous posts. I’d taken measurements from our previous tandem but, considering the difference in geometry between our old and new rigs, I decided to set the tandem up like I did her newest road bike. From there, over the course of seven or eight rides, we fine-tuned the setup and got her to a point she likes that saddle the most out of all her other saddles. I’m absolutely stoked that she’s as happy with her new saddle as I am with mine.

I never would have guessed we’d have that much good fortune, but there it is.

Our Selle Italia X3 and X3 Boost (the female version) saddles are absolutely outstanding tandem saddles.

The X3 is mine, on the left. The X3 Boost is my wife’s, on the right. The Boost is a short-nosed saddle and obviously has a larger cutout which, I’d assumed, would be a negative in terms of my wife (she’s not a fan of the cutouts). That’s not the case with the X3 Boost, though. That saddle is a homerun as far as my wife is concerned.

Tinkering on Our Tandem

One of the many things I love about new bike day is that I know I’m going to have ample tinker time with the new steed. In the case of a tandem, that tinker time is doubled (if not a little more because setting up a bike for someone else is a lot more… erm… delicate and time consuming). The initial setup took a couple of days. The fine-tuning took the better part of two weeks. Ah, the glory of it all!

After the setup, I had to mess with set screws (front and rear derailleur, not much, a quarter turn here, a quarter there), I set the seat heights and setbacks, got familiar with our Ultegra clutch rear derailleur, the new cable retention system for a front derailleur (which is quite cool), setting the new disc brakes, including installing the rotors and building the road wheels up, I’ve done it all in the last few weeks.

First, after a couple of weeks of riding the bike, the new derailleurs (Ultegra R-8000) are quite sweet and offer impeccable shifting. I know, before we even get started, I should have opted for the Di2 shifting (or the vastly superior, SRAM wi-fly or eTap as it’s known). I know, it’s better. I know. It also would have made an $11,000 bike $13,000… and Co-Motion doesn’t offer a 2x eTap drivetrain, only 1x. For the Di2 setup, I really don’t want something I can’t fix in the middle of a tour. Getting a connection soldered isn’t among those field-ready tasks that can be completed without some gunpowder, a foil gum wrapper and a waterproof match… none of which I carry in our saddlebag. Though, now that I think of it we might need a bigger saddlebag.

Moving along…

After the derailleurs, I got into the brakes a little deeper. Initially, I simply set the wheels up with new rotors, then set the calipers so they wouldn’t rub. From there it was just “ride and repeat” until we caught a rub after taking the front wheel off a couple of times. I got into all of the little intricacies with setting the brakes and feel confident with much of the bike now. Most of it, really.

I’m sure I’ll have a little more tinkering to do and I’ve got the bike stand set to handle it, but for now, we’re getting very close to set it and forget it.

I hope not too close.

Are TRP Spyre MECHANICAL Disc Brakes The Best Thing Since SRAM eTap? Experts Agree… They’re Pretty Freaking Good!

As can happen when removing and reinstalling a front wheel for the first time, say to a brand new tandem that you’re transporting to the start of the ride, sometimes you get a rub after you’ve reinstalled the wheel. This happened the first time we moved our last tandem, too. It was just making sure the clearance was right and even. Once that task was done, the problem never came back.

Now, for the new tandem, we’ve got the upgraded TRP Spyre brakes so it took a second to figure out the setup. The pad in and pad out holes (there’s one on each side of the caliperhow cool is that?) are a little tricky to get a handle on at first. They’re marked on the outside with a 3mm, the size of the Allen key required to adjust the pad in or out. The trick is, the actual part that accepts the Allen key is behind a face plate. It took me a second to figure this out but once I did, adjusting the brake pads was a snap.

Paired with Shimano ICE MT-800 centerlock rotors, the combo is fantastic. The pull from our Ultegra shifters is almost as good as the hydraulic brakes on my mountain bike. I’m not exaggerating, either. The TRP calipers are surprisingly responsive, modulate well and stop excellently.

For years, I’d seen our friends on their high-end tandems and wondered how good the TRP Spyre brake calipers were (Co-Motion tandems on the high-end have come with Spyre brakes for some time). I especially wondered why none of them had hydraulic brakes on their high-end road tandems. Now I know: They’re amazing and I don’t know as hydraulic brakes are even necessary as good as the mechanical set is. They’re that good. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Now, as a side note, I wouldn’t look into who exactly owns TRP. Let’s just say my jaw hit the floor.

Cycling and How to Know If You Should Cut Your Fork So You Don’t Have a Tall Spacer Stack Above the Stem

My road bikes are treated differently from our tandem. With the tandem, at 52 and with plans to get at least thirty years out of that bike, we’re going to be riding that bike long enough that I’ll eventually want to raise the stem to keep the bike comfortable as I age so I’m keeping a 20mm stack above the stem. I won’t cut the fork.

With my road bikes, I went for pretty:

I was also ten years younger when I bought each.

Cutting the fork to avoid a tall stack of spacers above the stem is an important decision. There are two ways to raise your bar higher to make the ride more comfortable; raise the stem or buy a stem that has some rise to it (or flip your current stem upside down if you’ve got the stem parallel to the ground [or close to it]). If you cut your fork once you find where you like your handlebar, that will eliminate one of those remedies (though your bike will look proper.

The image on the right is from the first days of owning our new tandem. The photo on the left is where the stem sits now that we’ve put some miles in on the bike. I lowered it to stop my hands going numb after just ten or fifteen miles.

Now, normally I’d cut the fork and eliminate all but 5mm of a spacer above the stem to keep the cockpit pretty. After a lot of thought on the matter, I’m not going to do that with the new Co-Motion. I’m going to want the option of stacking a bunch of spacers under the stem when I’m (a lot) older.

Ten or twenty years ago this would have been a much different post.

No Cycling in a Week?! It’s Time to Return Our Seats to the Upright Position…

If we follow each other on Strava and you’re like, “hey, where are Jim and Jessica?” fear not. We’re here. Cycling has been a little sparse this week even though we’ve had some decent weather. Well, “decent weather” is subjective in itself. It’s been mostly crap with a nice day or two sprinkled in. It’s been cold and rainy for the most part – and the forecast is about the same, though a touch warmer, over the next two weeks. Lots of rain and cool temperatures.

It’s not all on the weather, though. I’m working late one night a week, now. The we have six on our team and each of us takes a day in rotation. This week that evening happened to fall on the one warm day, so no riding.

It’s not all horrible news, of course. I spend most of my day on my feet, walking the building, so I’m not wildly out of shape. Just mildly out of shape.

We’ll find out this morning just how out of shape “mildly” out of shape is, though. We’ve got a 30+ miler heading out to my wife’s favorite town so we can turn around at some point and let the wind blow us home. It won’t be a barn burner, I can tell you that much.

My wife and I talked about the little lull in the pedalicious delight, yesterday. She mentioned that she was surprised I wasn’t a lot more antsy about not riding. To tell the truth, I hadn’t really thought about it much…

Life has simply gotten in the way of late. It’ll ease soon and hopefully we can pedal right through it. On the new tandem. Of course.