Monday, November 30, 2015

1975: My First Tandem

From my start with my first road bike in January of 1973, things happened very fast.  After just one full season, I had my eyes set on a bike upgrade, and in July of 1974 I went from steel wheels on an unknown tubing to alloy wheels and components on a cromoly, double-butted frame.  And then in June of 1975, I bought a tandem.

Ready to leave for Toledo, my brother Todd and I - 1976

I graduated high school in 1975, with no real plans except working and taking a few community college classes in the fall.  The only thing I was was looking forward too was another DALMAC, and that soon evolved into to riding with a some friends to Lansing for the start, and then riding back from Mackinaw City.  But that all came later.

As was local tradition, my high school graduation included an open house, and I accumulated a pretty large (for the `70’s) amount of cash, almost $200.  For an aspiring cook/dishwasher, that was a couple of weeks pay.  About that same time, at a meeting of my bike club at the time, the Jackson Freewheelers, I heard at about a used tandem.  It was already on its third owner, who had to let it go due to some health issues.  The bikes was being sold for $100, and the week after my open house, I made some calls, and it was mine. I borrowed Dad’s pickup truck to bring it home, and found a spot for it on the wall in my bedroom, resting on my rollers (another bicycle related acquisition).

It was a Gitane Interclub Men’s/Mixte tandem, with a frame built from no-name steel.  It was painted white with red lettering and some black pin-striping.  It had drop bars in front and flat bars for the rear, downtube shifters, and steel Suntour derailleurs.  The back of the tandem was only about 20 inches, and there was only about 21” between the seat tubes, making the fit very difficult for any adult with any height at all, for for anyone who wanted to lean over.  (I would only learn about the significance of the fit issues later).

The wheels had chrome steel rims and the rear wheel had a massive hub brake (I would learn it was actually intended for use on mopeds).  The steel cranks were cottered, meaning a pin through the crank arm wedged against a flat spot on the bottom bracket axle to hold them in place.  The tandem probably weighed at least 60 pounds.

I first had to learn how to keep a tandem running, from finding tandem length cables for the rear derailleurs and brakes, adjusting the timing chain tension with the eccentric on the front bottom bracket and learning how to keep it adjusted for riding.  It was a 10 speed (2x10, back in the dark ages).  And once I had it rolling, stopping it was a challenge to, since the dried out Mafac rubber brake pads (on Mafac cantilever brakes) had almost grab on the steel rims, and the drum brake, at best,  barely slowed the bike.

Next,  I had to figure out was who to ride it with.  I had been fascinated with tandems since encountering one on the 1974 DALMAC.  I was hoping it would be fun riding with other riders (specifically, girls!).  It turned out that finding other riders proved to be very challenging, due in part to the small nearby cycling community and my lack of transportation for the first few years I owned it.

Over the next 3 years, while it was ridden just a handful of times each year, I did have some memorable tandem outings.  One of my younger brothers joined me for a 50-mile ride to Toledo to visit our grandparent’s, with Mom driving us home.  I took a few non-riding friends out for random rides of 10 miles or so.  The longest ride came when a friend from my bike club and I rode it 60 miles on our club’s annual fall ride.

I moved to Lansing in 1978, and by the time I met Linda the following summer,  the tandem had not been ridden in 5 or 6 months, and had been partially disassembled for the move and for some cable replacements.  The end result was our first tandem ride was more memorable for all the things that went wrong, rather than the start of lifelong tandem love affair.

Walt of Walt's Bike Shop, adding a second set of cantilevers - 1981
A year later, Linda and I were both living in Missouri for her last year of college, and we began to ride the tandem in earnest that fall. I had spent the summer fixing up the tandem, and that fall, after I started working full-time at Walt’s Bike Shop, I was able to actually begin improving things.  I added better saddles for both us, and found new brake pads.  We were fortunate in that Linda even fit ok on the back for the short, 10-15 mile rides we were starting to enjoy.

But after what I thought would be some routine maintenance, we uncovered the tandems achilles heel. Overhauling the bottom brackets had required removing the factory cotter pins, and that became a running disaster.  Despite trying new cotter pins from multiple sources, I could not find a replacement cotter that would last for more than 20 miles of riding. Within the very first miles, we would start hearing squeaks, and finally one of the four crank arms, usually the front right,  would begin moving on its spindle. I would have to start soft-pedaling for the rest of the ride. On one longer ride, I had to set another pin to get us back to our apartments.  So after a handful of rides in the fall of 1980, the tandem was put up for the winter.

I did some research and found the only readily available crankset for a tandem and my budget was the French-made Specialites T.A. Tandem crankset. This was not sold as a set, I had to order it piecemeal, specifying all the parts; French threaded bottom bracket cups, 2 different length bottom bracket spindles, and the correct combinations of timing rings, drive rings, crank arms, and bolt sets to create a complete tandem crankset. Putting together that crankset order contributed to my reputation with my new co-workers as a tandem expert.

I put together and placed my order, and soon it all arrived, each set of parts sealed in plastic bags with the blue T.A. globe logo and french descriptions.  I carefully assembled the chainrings and crank arms, and we pulled the steel cranks for the last time.  I carefully packed the loose bearing bottom brackets with Phil Wood grease, and installed the cotterless crank arms. With pedals and chains in place, I adjusted the derailleurs for the triple crankset, which gave us our first “granny” gear, and this opened the door to new riding possibilities on the hills and valley’s around Columbia, Missouri.

So in the spring of 1981 we began our first set of longer rides, no longer limited by an impending crank failure. We packed a small picnic, and rode south from Columbia to Easley on the Missouri River, learning the patience for long granny climbs and the excitement of fast tandem descents.  With each ride, we began to realize that tandeming was our thing.

Yet at the same, we were learning that the Gitane was ill-suited for our tandem future.   The brakes squealed like a wounded animal when applied on any hill, and even with 3 brakes, there remained an uncertainty in my ability to stop the bike. To do away with the near useless hub brake, and to prepare for alloy wheels I was saving for, I worked with with Walt Garrard of Walt’s who brazed an additional set of cantilever brake bosses to the the mixte stays.

With our new confidence in the drivetrain, we could both began to pedal aggressively, and when we did the bike would sway and shimmy, to the point that Linda once asked “Can this bike break up?”.  And while the front sizing put me in a good position, we realized the the stoker compartment would never be comfortable for Linda on any longer rides.

By late spring our schedule was consumed with our impending wedding, along with Linda’s graduation and grad school plans. I already knew a custom builder, who had 14-month waiting list for his tandems, and I was researching brands like Jack Taylor and others.  I was going to a bike rally later in the summer and would look for more tandems then.   So I put the word out that the tandem was for sale, and a week later, I had an offer of $500!  Another rider was looking for a “kid-back” tandem to get his young kids riding, something the Gitane was perfect for.

So with a little bit of hesitation, in the spring of 1981,  we let the Gitane move on to owner number five.  We knew we had the tandem “bug”, but for now we had to focus on the next phase of our lives that was about to begin.  We knew another tandem would come along in a few years, after our lives had settled down.

Or so we thought.

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