It’s hard to tell whether tandem bikes would be faster than normal bikes just by looking at them.
While it’s true they provide twice the pedal power, they can also appear ungainly in comparison to a single bike. But they have some significant advantages.
Are tandems faster than normal bikes? Science says yes–a tandem bike ridden by two adults has twice the pedaling power at less weight and equal wind resistance, allowing tandem bikers an advantage while going downhill, through a flat area, or into a headwind.
There are several factors that affect the speed of a tandem bike, and not all of them are related to the bike itself.
Read on to find out why science says tandem bikes are faster, and how to ride one efficiently with a partner.
Tandem Bikes Are Faster According to Science
Tandem bikes have the capability to be significantly faster than single bikes due to their increased power output.
In comparison, they have lighter frames (less weight to power), and with two people pedaling instead of one, they have twice the get up and go.
A pair of cyclists on two bikes cannot match that level of efficiency, even if they draft with each other, and they can’t actually share the work of cycling the same way that tandem cyclists can.
Wind resistance also plays a part.
Along with more power, the wind resistance on a tandem bike stays the same, and in fact, the person on the back of the tandem bike faces less wind resistance because they are effectively drafting behind the person in front of them.
Tandem bikes are also faster when you’re biking with a child, for a few reasons:
- You don’t have to drag a trailer behind your bike for younger children who can’t maneuver a bike alone yet, which greatly increases wind resistance and the effort needed to ride.
- Children on the back of a tandem bike can keep up even if they can’t provide as much power to the pedals, so they aren’t slowing anyone down.
- The forward biker is not constantly having to slow down to let a child catch up.
Twice the Power, Half the Drag
The main advantage tandem riders have is their doubled input power without increased wind resistance, which gives them a real advantage in flat terrain and going downhill.
Experienced tandem riders can hit 30-60 mph in a flat.
When going downhill, the increased power and decreased wind resistance can make for some scarily fast cycling, so it’s important for tandem bikers to maintain stability in a downhill run to avoid losing control at high speeds.
The Science Behind Tandem Speed
A tandem road bike is somewhere between 30% to 60% less aerodynamic than a solo rider on a road bike.
For a tandem bike to maintain a constant speed that is as fast or faster than a solo rider, the tandem team must produce power that is 30% to 50% greater than a solo rider.
Power production on a tandem is not going to be constant. At certain times during the ride, both riders will likely fall prey to poor form or exhaustion, which can affect how in-sync the two riders are while pedaling. Doubled power capacity does not necessarily translate to doubled output.
If two cyclists on a tandem are not able to work well together, their efficiency will fall off significantly, and a lot of the speed advantages of a tandem will be lost.
In a perfect world, two cyclists on one bike would be twice as fast all the time. In reality, two cyclists biking together on a tandem have different ability levels and produce variable levels of pedaling output, which may or may not be as high of an output as when they cycle alone.
Tandem Speed and Pedaling Efficiency
Being strong and fast on a solo bike does not necessarily translate to efficiency on a tandem bike. A lot of a tandem’s speed comes down to terrain and the ability to cooperate.
In fact, cyclists who are slower and weaker riders alone but are used to riding a tandem bike can usually be just as fast (or faster) than stronger cyclists on a tandem who are more used to individual riding and less used to pedaling together.
A team that can produce at least 30% to 50% more power as a team should be able to keep up easily with solo riders, but if they can produce a net power output above that 30% to 50%, they will out-speed solo riders.
Tandem Bikes Can Be Slow in Hilly Terrain
There are a few cases where riding a tandem bike is not more efficient than a single bike, and the terrain is a major factor. The single biggest obstacle to speed efficiency on a tandem bike is uphill climbs.
This is an issue they share with single bikes, but tandems have special problems with it.
On the whole, going uphill on a tandem bike is significantly more difficult than going up a hill on a single bike, so if you’re dealing with rolling hills or other uneven terrains, going by tandem bike can be a struggle, especially if you’re biking together with someone who is not used to tandem.
Here are some of the reasons using a tandem bike in hilly terrain can be hard:
- Shifting and changing position (like standing up on the pedals) shifts the center-of-balance for the entire bike, and without good communication between both cyclists, it is easy to lose your balance and fall.
- If both riders are not pedaling together, they must provide more power than they’d have to alone for the same amount of output. This makes tandem biking more difficult if you’re biking with someone who can’t hold a cycling rhythm.
- If the cyclist on the back of the bike is heavier than the one in the front and is not used to pedaling in tandem, this will increase the amount of power the front cyclist needs to push through the hill climb.
How to Increase Speed on a Tandem Bike
A tandem bike team is composed of two members, the captain (the person on the front of the bike) and the stoker (the person on the back).
Here are some tips for the captain and stoker to work together to increase their efficiency and speed on a tandem bike:
- The captain should communicate proactively the stoker and let the stoker know when to pedal or coast, when to shift, and when to turn. The stoker can’t really see ahead, so let the stoker know if there are any turns or bumps coming up to avoid poor weight shifts.
- For a quick boost of speed, the stoker can stand and pedal while the captain sits. For even greater efficiency, learn to stand together. The captain should shift the bike to a higher gear, and then both cyclists should stand together while they continue to pedal.
- Each rider should try to hit the same downstroke in pedaling as much in sync with each other as possible for maximum power output. It’s the same principle as rowers who stroke their paddles together.
- Learning to stand easily on a tandem bike greatly increases speed and efficiency, especially biking into hills. It reduces fatigue from sitting in one position for too long and allows you to put more pressure on the pedals.
- The stoker must not attempt to steer under any circumstances. That is not their responsibility. Unpredictable weight shifts make the captain’s job more difficult and leads to decreased power output (and in some cases, a crash).
If you follow these suggestions and make strong efforts to communicate and build your strength as a team, you and your partner will be biking at twice the speed of a solo cyclist in no time.