PBP, Tandems and Randonneuring

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We did it. Together!

Now that Paris-Brest-Paris 2019 is well in the rearview mirror, I’ve had time to reflect on what we would change and what we’d keep the same when we return in 2023.

Put another way, what worked? In the big picture, we had a good ride and just a little drama. We finished well within our chosen time limit, so the goal was met.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. In reviewing, I have the opportunity here to talk about our equipment, logistics and other choices.

Unlike folks who ride single bikes, our PBP experience is complicated/enhanced by our choice of riding tandem. That puts us in the minority of bikes, so much so we get our own start at PBP with other non-single bikes.

And we get further into the weeds because we chose the 84-hour time limit, the smallest starting group at PBP compared to the 80-hour and 90-hour groups. That put us among just a handful of tandem teams, a select few among the more than 6,000 riders who attempted PBP this year.

I wrote this post in part to organize my thoughts for a panel discussion Mary has organized at the Philly Bike Expo at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 2, where we will take questions on tandem randonneuring. Joining us to present is another successful PBP tandem team, Pat and Cecilie Gaffney.

Read more here about the panel — we will have our respective tandems on display. Please stop by and say hello!

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Pat and Cecilie at PBP 2011 (photo courtesy Mary)

So… let’s begin!

Why Tandem?

Mary and I have been riding tandem now for nearly 15 years. Our first ride together was a 100-mile tandem ride in December 2004 on a too-small 1980s Santana Arriva that swerved wildly when we stood up on the pedals.

We loved the experience, nonetheless, though we got rid of that tandem. It helped that we were already randonneurs, and the idea of a December century wasn’t a big deal.

For me, tandeming lets us experience the ride together as a team. I rode PBP three times on a solo bike and now twice with Mary on tandem, and it’s a much more engaging and fun event on tandem.

Headed west to Carhaix. Courtesy Bernard Le Bars
Headed west. Courtesy Bernard Le Bars

In practical terms, we are always together. There is no getting separated like other duos on single bikes, or slowing to wait for the other person. One bike means one timetable.

Beyond that, though, is an intangible shared experience. I feel part of a bigger whole.

Put another way: Mary, the tandem and I become an organic machine, all working together, crossing vast distances.

It helps that we’ve had years to hone our approach, giving us more mental space to enjoy the ride and get through the hard parts together.

Riding together brings many sublime moments at PBP. We get lots of encouraging attention from spectators as a tandem couple, in contrast to the sexist “she’s-not-pedaling” jibes lobbed at us by unfunny old men in the U.S.

The big-vehicle effect on the road is pretty cool, too, with riders slotting in behind us on the flats and downhills. We never lack for company!

Finally, there was the special bikes start at the front of the 84-hour field for tandems, recumbents and velomobiles. We had about an hour of clear sailing before the fast solo riders started plowing past.

In sum: tandems are a “special velo” in the midst of a special event. Double the special!

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Barb and Ron Anderson at PBP 2011

Really? No problems?

One of the big things to master in tandeming is riding safely, and in that regard, PBP is the most challenging 1200K we’ve ridden.

There are constant opportunities for something to go wrong on an eight-foot-long machine in a mass start event with riders suffering from ever-increasing fatigue and sleep deprivation.

Our momentum shifts have us either passing or being passed. We’d love to sit in a group and draft, but that’s not sustainable. Mary can’t see the wheel ahead, and has to feel the pacing though the pedals. That works for awhile but we start overlapping the rider ahead and have to move to the front or fall back.

Hills make drafting even harder. We have to brake on the downhills and push hard on the uphills. We really want to fly down the hills, it feels like that’s our only way to offset our slower uphill pace.

All in all, we’re looking for clear running room. At PBP, we don’t always have that.

The 84-hour start helps, in that we are starting the morning after the rest of the field, but this year there were many more 90-hour riders falling behind the control windows than in the past. We started overtaking them on the 2nd day, before Brest, which was surprising, and made things busier than usual.

The other issue to keep in mind is mechanical complexity. Tandeming is hard on components, especially wheels. I get into this below. This time at PBP we had just one minor issue, a malfunctioning Chris King headset, that help up until the end.

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The Co-Motion at rest in Carhaix, Day 2. Bags, front-rear: Sackville (Rivendell), Oveja Negra, Randi Jo Fabrications, another Oveja Negra, Swift Industries

Lastly, there is the fact that as a team you are a heavy vehicle and harder to stop. We had a scary moment late on the second night in a village before Loudeac when a big truck came right toward us, taking up most of the street. I veered onto the sidewalk, braking hard, but we ran out of space and banged into the side of a building.

I managed to unclip and land on my feet, but the abrupt stop threw Mary forward and the bike tipped over. She suffered a bruised pinky finger but was otherwise OK. The bike was undamaged. We rode on, thankful it was a slow impact.

Experience Counts

That leads me to my next observation. Being in sync with each other is the most important thing about tandeming over long distances. I feel like we have a 1200K program that works for us.

It’s comforting to have an unspoken understanding of what to do on the road and at the controls.

We know how much sleep we need and when we need it, when to eat, and how hard to push. We can instinctively tell when the other person is feeling stress and needs a break.

For PBP, we take an all-business approach to getting to Brest, because we know we will get there with only a couple of hours to spare. The 84-hour start gives us about 38 hours to arrive, and we want to get there in less than 36 hours.

Achieving that target with a sleep stop in Loudeac means we have to keep moving on our own schedule. It also means we can’t easily adjust to other riders’ plans, though this year we had some great folks (including our longtime riding pal Jerry Seager) who were willing to ride on our schedule.

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Tandems attract company and we had a good group this PBP (courtesy Rob Hawks)

Once we leave Brest, we have more time to return, and can relax a little. By the fourth and final day, we will take a few more minutes at the controls and stop for a cafe treat.

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Jerry and me, indulging in espresso and pastries on Day 4 with the end in sight

But even then, we know when we have to get moving and we don’t have much of a discussion about it.

Is PBP a good first tandem 1200K?

I recommend PBP for a randonneur’s first 1200K (it was mine), because all the services are provided on the route and the groups pull one along. With discipline at the controls, you’ll finish in time and it’s a blast to ride with so many other randonneurs and enjoy the support of the enthusiastic French along the way.

I would not recommend PBP as the first grand randonnee for a tandem team. I’ve seen more than one team overcook themselves trying to set a fast time and getting caught up in the excitement.

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The bike of Isabelle and Remy Charlot at Tinteniac. We owned a Cannondale similar to this one when we first started riding

They don’t eat enough, or sleep enough. They pull big groups in the early going, and by the latter stages are dispirited and exhausted, with their time goals abandoned.

Consider a low-key 1000K or 1200K event in your home country, in addition to a couple years of brevets. To really get in sync, add some multi-day touring.

We rode our first 1200K in 2006, the Cascade 1200 in Washington state, and it was a tough, hot ride. We barely got any sleep. This was after we rode a full brevet series in 2005 and 2006, plus an eight-day, 800-mile tour ion 2005 to Niagara Falls.

We kept up the brevets through the years and rode the tough Endless Mountains 1000K in 2010 to get ready for PBP 2011. By the time we to France, we’d mastered the art of tough restarts after short sleep and plowing through hours of fatigue, rain or cold weather, and it all paid off with a successful ride that year.

For this PBP, we rode the Coulee Challenge 1200K last year, targeting the 82-hour mark we’d want at PBP. We dialed in our approach at this low-pressure event, which had tremendous support and quiet back roads.

We also did five-day, 500-mile tours between Los Angeles and Arizona in March last year and again this year to get multi-day riding in our legs.

Bottom line: PBP can be hectic and complicated. Arriving with your teamwork established makes a huge difference in terms of enjoying the ride and finishing in your chosen time limit.

Lodging

One thing that helped this year was having a hotel room for two nights in Loudeac, as we did in 2011. It was nice to retreat into our own space at the end of the long first day on the bike and spread out our stuff.

We used a pannier as our drop bag and it was easy to hang it on our rear rack and ride over to the Voyaguers, which had all-night breakfast, saving us time getting fed instead of eating at the control. The hot shower was pretty nice too. The room was way overpriced because of the event, but worth it in the end.

We slept in the dorm at Mortagne on the third night, as planned. It was fine. We were so tired by then a warm space (unlike the cold dorm in Loudeac) on a mat felt like heaven. Back in 2011 we had a room at a local inn and it was a time-killer to find it, and we did not miss it this time.

Equipment: Simpler is better

The bike industry would like us to spend lots of money to cut weight and increase aerodynamics. While those are important, I also want reliability and comfort.

There’s nothing worse than losing time sorting out a mechanical. It means fewer precious minutes of sleep and mental energy lost.

Tandems are in a special category in this regard. There are more moving parts, long cable runs, two chains (we don’t use a timing belt) and immense stress on the wheels. PBP is tough on tandems – in my view – because the rolling hills prompt frequent shifts and standing on the pedals.

For reliability and hand comfort, bar end shifters have long been my choice for randonneuring. I can shift regardless of how cold my hands get, and they prompt me to move my hands frequently. I can also change a shifter cable roadside if needed.

Our current drivetrain is smooth and functional, tuned for climbing: 10-speed SRAM bar end rear shifters with a SRAM GX long cage rear derailleur and 11-36 SRAM rear cassette.

A 10-speed Campagnolo triple front derailleur moves the chain over 50-40-26 chainrings on a TA Zephyr tandem crankset with Phil Wood square taper bottom brackets.

Brakes are Paul Components Klamper mechanical disk brakes and 203mm Shimano Ice-tech rotors. These are great, if expensive, brakes that are easy to change pads and allow for easy packing with cable disconnects. We went to the Klampers mostly for touring in the West where they shed heat on long descents better than Avid BB7’s.

Wheels are Velocity Atlas 650b rims with a 40-hole White Industries rear disk hub and 36-hole front Schmidt SON disk generator hub, hand built by our mechanic at College Park Bicycles in College Park, Md.

Tires were Panaracer GravelKing 42mm smooth tires, tubed. These tires are on the thin side for the roads of the U.S., being flat-prone in the rain, but rode like a dream on the relatively clean PBP course.

Why 650b?

One question I’ve gotten is about our choice of 650b wheels. We had a new Co-Motion steel frameset built up for us this year, with S&S couplers for travel in airline-checkable suitcases.

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Bigger tires, but wheels remain a reasonable size. Plus, some nice French cows (courtesy Hassan Chouraki)

Over the last few years I noticed the availability of fast-rolling 650b tires in 42mm sizes. I decided to adopt them for a couple of reasons. They provide greater comfort on rough roads, and don’t make the overall wheel size really big. Friends of ours had a 650b tandem and raved about it.

We’ve ridden 700c wheels for years on other tandems, mostly with 32mm Panaracer Pasela or Continental Gatorskin Hardshell tires. They roll fast and corner nicely, but on rough roads they can feel hard. That matters on the later days of a 1200K.

The 6560b GravelKing tires at 60 p.s.i. were a treat over the chipseal roads in France, and I like to think they were easier on my hands and seat. A nice bonus is the wheels pack into standard S&S travel cases without having to take the tires off.

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650b wheels fit nicely in an S&S case with tires still installed

I rode 650b wheels at PBP in 2007 on a coupled Rivendell Bleriot, The 32mm Grand Bois Cypres tires then were so much nicer on chipseal than the 23mm tires I rode in 1999 and 2003, and I didn’t feel any slower. I’m glad the 650b size came back in a big way.

Would I recommend 650b for all randonneur tandems? They really shine if one wants bigger tires, 38mm or wider. For more narrow tires 700c makes sense to me.

Why Couplers?

I won’t readily fly again with a full-size tandem. The required travel box is difficult to take around, which we found out at the Cascade 1200K in 2006 when we took a Cannondale tandem with us in a Crateworks tandem box.

The two S&S suitcases we use these days aren’t small, but at least they can go in a standard vehicle to and from the airport and there are no oversize fees.

One tip: if you are taking a third suitcase anyway (we do), consider putting handlebars, saddles and seat posts, pedals, racks and bags in that case and spreading clothes over the three. That makes the bike cases less of a jigsaw puzzle and critical things can’t fall out of them if TSA opens them for inspection.

Our third case is a Samsonite F’lite that we got with a Bike Friday. The front triangle of the tandem frame, with fork, drops right in, so we spread the frame over three cases and risk less travel damage.

Lights and electronics

I’m a convert to generator hubs, having used battery lights at past PBP’s. Even though we’ve had two Schmidt SON generator hubs fail over the past six years because of internal wiring issues (both repaired under warranty), they are otherwise very reliable.

At PBP we used a Schmidt Edelux II headlight that is not quite as bright but has a better beam than the Busch & Muller IQ-X that we have on another tandem.

Supplemental light is supplied by a rechargeable Exposure Lights Diablo mounted to my helmet at night. I turned it on for fast downhills and twisty sections. I like being able to shine light into a turn from my helmet and it was a big help on the night ride from Carhaix to Loudeac. This light is powerful enough and has sufficient run time to serve as our backup main light, a nice bonus.

Navigation was provided by a Garmin Edge 1030 up front for me and an Edge 830 for Mary.

I loaded all 15 segments as individual routes into both units, using the Openrunner GPX files supplied by PBP and importing them into Garmin Connect, then syncing them to the units. Maps were free Openstreetmap files.

Why individual routes? If a unit had a problem calculating the turn-by-turn on a segment, it wouldn’t affect the rest of our PBP route files. That was the idea, but we didn’t have any of them fail to calculate.

My 1030 shut down once on the first day. I restarted it and it resumed the route and the track without any loss of data. That was our only glitch over the four days.

We saved our data at the end of each day. I know some folks are intent on recording a single track for the entire event, but that didn’t seem necessary. I could join the tracks later into one file if I wanted.

We had nearly flawless turn-by-turn instruction from the Garmins. This was a huge help in making time through all the villages and the roundabouts. I’d still visually confirm a turn via the posted arrows, but the Garmin would tell me where to look. Mary would also help in calling out turns if it appeared I was missing something.

Run time was great at more than 20 hours each. We recharged at the hotel both nights and from a portable battery on the third night.

My only change here would be to buy Garmin maps for Europe, at $20 each. The OSM maps were a little too dense at times, and I understand Garmin’s are easier to read on the Edge units.

Final thoughts

If you’ve made it through this long post, congratulations! Seriously, though, tandem randonneuring is immensely fun, and gets only better as your teamwork develops.

We sometimes get asked if tandeming will entice someone to take up randonneuring with a partner who already rides. My best advice is that if a person isn’t interested in long rides already, a tandem probably won’t change that.

But if they are, a tandem can be the ultimate way to go. It is for us.

Questions? Please leave them in the comments section.

8 thoughts on “PBP, Tandems and Randonneuring

  1. Hello,
    congrats again on your PBP. You guys are an inspiration for us!

    After about a decade of tandeming, I must agree with your choice of wider tires for comfort. But while I can maintain a high cadence on a solo bike with 2″ tires, on a tandem we start to bounce. Your choice of width seems to go towards the maximum of what you can do on a tandem while still allowing higher cadences.

    We started off with a Cannondale 26″, and then moved on to a Santana Sovereign 700c which realistically accepts max 32mm. We are thinking about 650B for a tandem as well. Couple of questions if I may:
    – Did you consider a tandem with two bottom brackets that could accept both wider 650b and taller 700c ? I’m thinking about this…
    – I asked you in a previous post if the green apple was more resembling the geometry of a Mocha or a Kalapuya, and you answered the latter… which confused me because I understood you had one of those. Of course, I would not be the one to judge anybody who is irrational in the matter of bike acquisition (my dear stoker would choke on this one), but assuming there was some rationality: was it perhaps the steel (CroMoly?) you were after for the green apple? Some people claim that aluminium or steel doesn’t matter if you have the right tires, but on a tandem you can never really go low pressure, so perhaps it continues to matter there. I ask because all my bikes are either alu alloy or carbon.

    Btw. I find Co_Motion’s offer somewhat confusing with the many geometry choices: you never fully understand where they excel, where they are good and what they suck at (although they would probably call the last a bit different).

    I hope your presentation went well…. would have loved to be there!!!

    1. Hello Jurgen, apologies for the delayed response.

      Question 1: not sure what you mean. Our 650b tandems can take 700c wheels but I haven’t experimented with sizes yet.

      Question 2: You are correct in that we have two 650b tandems, they are identical except the red one is aluminum and the green one is steel. We liked the aluminum version so much we bought a copy for travel, with couplers, which meant getting steel (at least, from Co-Motion).

      We feel the road more with the aluminum model but it is lighter and stiffer. The green one is more forgiving but heavier.

      I think the more road-oriented you get with Co-Motion, the faster the steering. We have not purchased a pre-made model from them, all have been custom, and they have done a good job with our requests in terms of sizing and steering response. I would suggest you reach out to them directly or through your dealer with your preferences and see if you need a custom.

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