Pedal power on a bike built for two

Technology is electrifying the ­normally gentle experience of ­tandem cycling.

In the 21st century, an electric bike motor and battery can transform a regular tandem, a bicycle built for two riders, into a pedalling powerhouse.

I set out on Sydney’s quieter roads and paths with Caroline Overington, my esteemed and brave colleague at The Australian, to enjoy the thrills and hopefully no spills of an electric tandem ­adventure.

I sit up front steering, braking and controlling the gears while we both work to synchronise our ­pedalling. In the golden age of cycling, the late 19th century, the two bike ­positions were known as the captain (front) and stoker.

We have our teething issues. Getting my leg over the top tube and the rear handlebars is like ­getting on to a horse. Understandably, Overington at first feels a sense of helplessness, hanging on and pedalling in synch without a way to control the bike’s direction — and her destiny — as we throttle at speed up and down hills.

I soon learn that braking without telling your co-rider is a no-no.

My co-pilot adapts amazingly well to life without a say.

“I don’t have a lot of control stopping and starting,” she says. “But then over time you just accept that.”

It doesn’t take long before both of us are having a rollicking time motoring around the cycling path at Sydney’s beautiful Centennial Park, passing picnickers, lakes and bird life. Bicycles make little noise, so you can enjoy the peace.

Our transport is the creation of Sydney Electric Bikes, which adapted a regular tandem, built by Australian firm Apollo Bicycles. Motors that fit inside the hubs of electric bikes are the most common, but this bike has a mid-drive electric motor between the rear set of pedals.

It’s more than 120 years since Danish engineer Mikael Pedersen invented tandem bikes. He was a ­serial inventor who reportedly built and patented a corn thresher, a braking system, gear system and transmission system.

Former national cycling coach Charlie Walsh takes it easy while Adelaide Super-Drome manager Mike Turtur does all the work on a tandem bike in 1994.

But he will be remembered for a two-rider version of his Pedersen bicycle, which had a different metal framing design and a hammock-style saddle for more comfort. Up to five-seater versions of the Pedersen were built using this sturdy design.

In the late 1890s, couples would venture out on bicycles and take picnic lunches together.

The song Daisy Bell — the tandem theme — by Harry Dacre says it all: “But you’ll look sweet on the seat of a bicycle built for two.”

Some old tandems were designed to be steered from the back seat. It was an awkward arrangement engineering wise, but it let women of the time enjoy the panorama ahead while their male friend sweated away as the engine room, steering and pedalling from behind.

On this bike, we pedalled in synch but the motor was doing most of the work. It didn’t feel like a two-person bike when riding straight, but sharp turns on a long bike can be hair-raising.

In the end it was amazing fun. It was lovely to share my passion for the ride and everything we saw with someone who’s on board.

Sydney Electric Bikes owner Jake Southall says regular tandems are hard to find in Australia, let alone electrified ones. “It’s very much a niche thing,” he says.

Chris Griffith & Caroline Overington

But he’s an optimist. “I’d like to think that through our promotion and encouraging people to try them, that they will grow as an ­option.”

While his business mainly sells and rents off-the-shelf bikes, Southall says his store also carries out bespoke bicycle conversions. Electric tandem is one, electric cargo bikes that carry children is another.

The power offered by an electric bike makes carrying another person or some cargo viable. He says he has seen electric cargo bikes being used to drop children at school.

“If you look at Europe, and ­places like Denmark and Holland, you’ve got high numbers of people who use cargo bikes and mums using tub-style ones. They’re not two wheels but three or even four.” The trick is to always use them on the quieter streets or on bikeways and bike paths.

He says his shop has done more than 500 electric bike conversions.

These days, there’s less demand for converting standard bikes to electric bikes because off-the-shelf electric bikes are much better in quality — and cheaper.

“But for cargo bikes and tandems, conversions is still a good option,” he says.

His tandems are available for rent too.

Published in The Australian newspaper

Posted in News.

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