In keeping with an appropriate theme for Valentine’s Day, I’m publishing an interview with a couple that are model cyclists. Rudy and Kay have not only been married more than 50 years, but they have been a tandem team for over half that time. Rather than my usual interview format, I thought I’d just let Rudy tell us how it got started, and where it’s taken them.
Rudy: We started riding bicycles (singles) in the early 1970’s in Michigan when we were in our mid-30s with our 3 sons. Soon, doing club rides/centuries/charity events / LAW rallies, locally and in adjoining states. However, riding longer events on solo bikes, we sort of got separated due to our different abilities and we’d see each other at food/lunch stops and the end of the ride.
Solution? Tandem! Test rode our first tandem Nov. 23, 1974 – a brand new Follis (French) real 10-speed! So for our 20th wedding anniversary, Rudy surprised Kay with that shiny new tandem. Her reaction: “What are you trying to do, kill us?” Off to a rather shaky start . Not even the bike shop folks knew much about riding a l-o-n-g bike. After 3 months of steadily learning and improving, we really got our act TWOgether and were a tandem team! After about a year with the Follis we felt we could design a better fitting/handling ‘mousetrap!’ Yes, we got that rare disease called TANDEMITIS! We wanted a light/fast/maneuverable machine with the latest technology. Having a height-impaired stoker necessitated a custom design. Pilot a small 5’7″ and stoker a ‘smaller- yet’ 4’10 3/4″!
Enter Matt Assenmacher, a custom frame builder that just got back from an apprenticeship with the Bob Jackson folks in England and he was eager to please. Our design was not what was then, or even now, considered ‘normal.’ We wanted a short wheelbase – 60 1/4 inches. That was achieved by having toe clip overlap (gasp!) and a bent rear seat tube and very tight rear triangle. So tight, that we had to deflate the tire to remove the wheel! We wanted male front and ladyback rear. Reynolds 531 DB single bike racing tubing, twin laterals (with bridging re-inforcements) and a then very novel ovalized boom tube. Chrome dropouts would save the lustrous glossy back paint job during wheel removals. We wanted Prugnat lugs and low-temp silver brazing instead of the usual brass. Utilized components from a new American company called Phil Wood (hubs, bottom brackets, pedals) and unheard of 36 spoke wheels front and rear. An international mix of components included Campagnolo QRs (folks were still using nutted axles on tandems), German spokes, Japanese derailleurs, Italian bars and French Mafac canti brakes and TA triple crankset. We wanted a light/fast/maneuverable tandem, and we got it! ‘Light tandems’ in the mid-70s were still near-50-lbs. machines, ours weighed in at an incredible 34 pounds. Nay Sayers predicted it would not hold up. We sold it after only 64,000 miles on the odometer. By then we tired of the Michigan winters; we used to ride if the roads were dry and 20 degrees. Why put up with that? Why not move to a warmer/drier climate? Our research showed that southern AZ had the most sunshine in the USA. Pack up and go, and change careers while we’re at it. We found that there was much misinformation out about tandems, so we started writing on the subject and holding tandem workshops at rallies. One thing led to another and soon we were doing test rides on new tandems and even riding/evaluating tandem prototypes, including the first aluminum tandem from Cannondale – 2 years before its actual introduction.
Replaced that Assenmacher with a bit longer wheelbase custom machine, built by Colin Laing, a British expatriate then living in Tucson. At stoker’s request stretched out the wheelbase to 63 1/2 inches, got rid of the tight rear triangle and had Colin institute some innovations. Like a fastback arrangement with a reinforcing gusset, a then novel adjustable stoker stem, mixed tubing (again racing bike tubing) but the down tube to be the larger diameter tandem gauge and another oval boom tube. Wanted a lugged frame and Colin asked ‘what if I do something a bit fancy?’ No problem! Wow! This tandem was a rolling work of art! Handmade curly lugs plus the builder’s initials in the head tube – it took Colin 40 hours of hand filing those ornate lugs to fit the mixed sized tubes. Chromed ’em and part of the rear triangle. Then, from the chromed fork crown to half way down the fork blades was more chrome snake-like wending its way down. A lustrous 2-toned lavender fade paint job finished the custom twicer. This machine rode as great as it looked. A real combination of art and craftsmanship! By now we had decided that after 50-some odd thousand miles we’d design another tandem. Why just upgrade components when a whole new bike cost only a bit more?
While on a bike trip in Eugene, OR, we visited three fellows working out of a garage who did some extraordinary work on tandems. Called their outfit Co-Motion. Ordered a custom tandem from them. Switched this time from Reynolds to Tange Prestige tubing and, instead of lugs, we opted for a lugless fillet brazed frameset. Kept the same geometry as the Laing. Again chose chroming of: rear triangle and part of the fork blades. Specified a taller head tube to accommodate pilot’s now more upright riding position. A few minor braze-ons ideas were added, like under-the-boom tube spare spoke carrier and a braze-on for our mini garage door opener on the adjustable stoker stem. The glossy black paint job with lustrous gold hi-lites also featured a very subtle desert mural air brushed on the boom tube. Each tube seemed to melt into the next – perfect!
After 57,000 happy miles on this custom beauty, it was time for another update!
Our friend, Bob Davis, of Peoria, AZ had been building some great custom single bikes, utilizing carbon fiber. He is a retired aerospace engineer and this more than qualifies him to work with this non-metal material! He asked us to test/evaluate his prototype carbon fiber tandem. Whoa! Impressive! Back to the drawing board for us! Had several new ideas for Bob. The custom frameset would have a radically sloping top tube to accommodate our aging limbs; also was to have c/f lugs, with window cut-outs. Spec’d a c/f adjustable stoker stem. Bob’s reply: “nobody’s ever done that” was changed to, “sure, quite do-able.” Now, stoker Kay prefers round stoker hand rest on her bars. Yes, Bob agreed to make those too. Now about the rear rack we wanted. He reluctantly agreed to build us a one-of c/f custom rack. Proper fit, light weight, comfort and great handling is what we expected and that’s exactly what we got! In 2003 we took possession of our Zona tandem, weighing in at a svelte 26 1/2 lbs.
Currently have 13,000+ trouble free miles on this non-metal marvel. Do we need such a nice machine? ‘Need’ is not the correct word . However, we’ve got it and love it. Besides, what are we going to do, wait ’til we get older?
Have logged 100+ centuries, dozens of tandems-only rallies, including the very first Midwest Tandem Rally in 1976 in Kokomo, IN and the first Tandem Canada in 1987 in Guelph, Ontario. We’ve enjoyed an alphabet soup of events, charity rides, cross state rides and tours, supported and non-supported. We’ve done TOSRV, GLEEP, HHH, MTR, SWTR, STR, NWTR, PSTR, and even a posh B&B post-rally tour in Indiana. Heck, we’ve even ridden track in Kenosha, WI and the Major Taylor Velodrome in Indianapolis. Have ridden about 15 El Tour de Tucson events as a duo and were honored to have the 1995 Tour of the Tucson Mountains dedicated to us. Helped organize the first cross state tour of Arizona in the early 80’s from the Grand Canyon to Mexico, a 500+ mile ride with over 22,000 feet of elevation gain. We were told at that time ‘you can’t do that on a tandem!’ Did it four times. Yes, we’ve got all those gears for a good reason! Our highest mileage year was in 1986 when we pedalled 13,113 miles. After that we decided that, as grandparents, maybe there’s a few other things we should be doing! So we cut back to a more conservative 10,000 a year. Both of us survived the dreaded big “C” (breast cancer for Kay, prostate cancer for Rudy) and we credit our recovery, and continued good health, to being physically active. Now in our senior years we have nothing left to prove. No more ‘keep the nose to the front wheel’ and’ ‘no braking on the downhills’ and ‘let’s see how fast we can climb this mountain’. In the spring of 2004 we celebrated 200,000 miles of riding TWOgether . And yes, we are still happily married! We now pedal about 100 miles a week and at a slower pace and stop for coffee and a big cinnamon bun when we feel like it!
So what’s holding you two back from trying a tandem bicycle? L-o-n-g bikes are not quite as rare anymore, although not many bike shop handle them. With a bit of effort you can Google and likely find a tandem specialty dealer within a day’s driving distance. Key to tandem riding is proper fit, and *communication*! Trust us, without proper communication it’ll be hectic attempting to ride as a duo The person up front, the captain, has to communicate all he’ll be doing to the rear rider. The stoker can’t see what’s coming/happening. Stoker is not a mind reader. So tell that nice person on the back what you are doing: braking, shifting, coasting, stopping, slowing, bumps, turning etc. Set a compromise pace, suitable to the slower rider; as you progress and become more experienced, you’ll truly become a ‘tandem team’! Prices on tandems have increased just like prices on homes, cars and coffee! A nickel cup of coffee? Our first Follis tandem cost us just under $350 . Now prices for an introductory 2-seater start from ‘just under a thousand’ to $13,000 for a hi-zoot custom machine! Somewhere in between those price extremes is a tandem that’ll fit you and your budget! Heck, a new tandem is a lot cheaper than open heart surgery!
Tandeming became an integral part of our lives. We’ve written on the subject and taught the intricacies of the sport to others. It has brought the two of us even closer as a couple; it taught us to rely on each other and to work as a team. And, as a bonus, has kept us in pretty good shape!
TWOgetherness and tandeming go hand-in-hand, but beware:” Tandemitis is contagious!”.
Pedal on TWOgether!
Rudy and Kay