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My wife and I recently rented a tandem for a day. I found that, because everything needs to be communicated -- starting, stopping, changes in cadence, shifting (which might cause changes in cadence), etc. -- we were talking continuously. This was good.

What I would like to have is a simple, efficient vocabulary for communicating the essential information. Does this already exist in the same way that riders communicate on group rides?

While I realize that we could just make up our own shorthand, if someone has already figured it out, that would be better.

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I posted a link to this question to the Bike Friday Yak list - tandem riding is popular there - and got back a few responses, this one in particular. I'm posting this here simply because nobody else seems to have an answer; If this isn't typical, please feel free to edit this answer.

A standard signalling vocabulary seems to not exist. Teams need to ride together a lot until signals evolve in time, and every team seems to develop their own shorthand organically. This may not be the most efficient way to do this, as the loss of one rider in a team essentially means that the rider left will need to form new signals from scratch.

From poster John S. Allen:

In my experience, it's either "slow down, I'm scared" or "wow, this is fun!"

But seriously, see this by Bill McCready:

http://www.gtgtandems.com/tech/propmethod.html

This article spends a lot of time on how the team needs to function as a unit, getting a rhythm going. McCready uses the example of mounting the bike and starting, but it's easy to see how this applies to shifting, leaning into turns, etc.

Also these pages by Sheldon Brown:

http://sheldonbrown.com/tandem.html

In particular, this quote is relevant to this question:

The team becomes more than the sum of its parts. An experienced tandem team develops a very special level of non-verbal communication, via subtle weight shifts, variations in pedal force, and general empathy.

After a few hundred miles together, you will find yourself coasting at the same time, shifting without the need for discussion, and and maneuvering smoothly even at slow speeds.

This is not just a matter of each rider's acquiring captaining/stoking skills; when two equally experienced teams switch stokers, something is lost, and this special communication doesn't happen...it really is unique to each couple.

While I can imagine that things might be different in competition, it seems there are no standardized communication cues. A tandem team needs to suffer through the initial stages of learning to read both the situation and each other.

(Again, I stress that this answer is only the results of my research. If the information here is incorrect, please downvote and leave a comment.)

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I started tandeming with my wife as stoker, and it was suffering. She is a bit anxious on traffic, and made me too aware of low-level actions about controlling the bike. Eventually, she gave up worrying and we started to talk not about riding or about the bike, but about anything else. Then the things started to really work and we had fun.

With my stepson, now 9 years old, it is much different. He has his own bike skills, and is not afraid. I needed two rides to explain what he can and cannot do, and now we just RIDE.

I have a theory that, if you, experienced rider and captain, explain some minimal unbreakable rules to an accepting stoker, you never have to mention anything about shifting gears or turning or anything else. Of course not any stoker is accepting of this.

But as a minimal, I would say that you must communicate EXCEPTIONAL circumstances to the stoker, because he/she could be distracted. These would be (self explanatory):

  • Gear! (specifically on hard climbs)
  • Branch!
  • Brake! (for stronger-than-usual braking)
  • Hole!
  • Pedal! (to ask for bringing the pedals to some pre-arranged position)
  • Ready?

I guess I could say there is no need to much more than this, but of course, what fits me could not fit you.

And, as a matter of fact, the more you ride, the less you worry about communication, because the team learns from each other each time more.

  • 3
    Also 'Bump!' - the effect of the stoker is different from 'Hole' – nick3216 Jan 18 '12 at 10:30
  • @nick3216 well said +1 – heltonbiker Jan 18 '12 at 15:31
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One important simple communication from stoker to captain: Stop. I tell my stoker that if she says "stop" I will follow that command immediately. Explanations can follow later. This is especially important at intersections.

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Remember the stoker is the boss. Being in the rear, its easier for the front rider to hear the back rider because of the way your mouths are facing. Likewise, the stoker can see the front rider clearly all the time, so non-verbal replies come back easier.

For signals starting at the front going backward, the steerer should turn their head around 45 degrees and then try and speak "behind" while keeping eyes on the road.

Speaking loudly and clearly helps, as does some kind of "attention word" like starting the statement with "Hey-bump!" rather than just "Bump!"

You can also try having the stoker in quite a vertical position to see over the steerer, for social rides.

There are modern radios that may help too - motorcycles can have clip-on ear pieces under their helmets which are good for up to a hundred metres range. You can also use a pair of walkie talkies with earpieces, and "VOX mode" turned on so they transmit as soon as you speak.

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