Friday, September 21, 2012

What's in the Stand: It's Tandem-onium!

This bike represents the intersection of two areas of expertise. On the one hand we have tandems, your standard bicycle's bigger, bulkier, and more ungainly cousin. Large and complicated though they may be they at least offer the chance to carry a riding partner along with you. On the other hand we have folding bikes, long the nemesis of many experienced bike mechanics. Complicated, noisy (there are always way too many points of movement and lots of distinct opportunities for squeaking), and, I gotta say it, looking like something that should be ridden in a circus and not on the street, folding bikes of any brand are a source of head shaking no matter what the brand. But let's take this a step further shall we?

All Things Tandem
Tandems are unusual and expensive. The needs of the tandem cyclist, be they stoker or captain, are quite specific and are generally met with tandem-specific equipment. Even something as simple as replacing a cable requires a tandem-length cable which will set you back roughly twice what a normal cable would. Which leads to the second point which is where I reiterate that tandems, and repairs on tandems, can be quite expensive. Extra long cables and housing, the need for multiple chains, a surplus of cranks, a supply of Ibuprofen for your back after you've humped the thing in and out of the repair stand a few times...the list goes on. All this and they're a pain to store because they're so big. I'm sure there are many upsides to the life of a tandem cyclist, but I don't get to experience them because I'm too busy fixing other people's tandems.

Into the Fold
I'll for forthright and say that I don't like folding bikes. I've re-written this sentence a few times and I can't come up with a more diplomatic way to put it so I'll simply call a spade a spade and say that I am not a fan. I know many people who could not live they lives they lead without their folding bikes and because of this I have come to a grudging understanding of their place within the pantheon of bicycles. I've worked on loads of folding bikes, from all the major brands, and I feel that my opinions, though largely negative, have some basis in reality.  I've offended legions of Bike Friday and Brompton owners with the above statement so allow me to expand...
  • They are overly complicated. The key design feature of a folding bike (that they fold) introduces pivots, hinges, locks, latches, and quick release mechanisms into the frame. All of these are points of potential wear, damage, and noise. Since we know that entropy is the state of the universe, we can assume that all of the above features of a folding bike will slowly but surely break/fail/wear out. Bikes are wonderfully simple things but folding bikes are not.
  • The features outweigh performance. Because of their need to fold, folding bicycles make compromises in handling and design in order to incorporate this feature. Small wheels, twitchy steering, and flexy frames are all results of design choices made by engineers in order to facilitate either, a) ease in folding, or b) decreasing the overall size of the bike once folded.
  • They are heavy users of proprietary technology. These companies are developing products that are new and unique. It stands to reason that no one else is making parts for these frames. When something breaks (and it's always something small and really cheap, like a $2 circlip) more often than not it cripples the bike and the part has to be ordered from the manufacturer which means the bike lingers in the back of the store for two or three weeks. Not good for me, not good for the customer, and no fun for anyone involved.

On to the main event!
This bright blue Tandem Two'sday was my main project for the day.  This is a rare and striking beast, incorporating aspects of tandems and folding bikes into one magnificent testament to Bike Friday's engineers refusal to be bound by either conventional design or good taste. I've only seen a couple of these bikes in the flesh and it was kind of a treat to get to tear one down.

We re-cabled the bike which ate up the lion's share of my morning. The design uses Ritchey cable splitters which allows the bike to be broken down into pieces without having to undo cable pinch bolts. The upshot to this if you're touring is that you can disassemble and reassemble the bike and, if you cross your fingers, it should brake and shift without any other adjustments.One of the financial downsides to this system is that it uses two cables, so your cost for parts goes through the roof. To completely re-cable this bike with brand new stainless steel cables and lined derailleur housing costs about $80 in parts alone.

The cable splitters also add a lot of hardware to the bike, which can lead to problems if something gets misplaced. As in most things, proper organization is your friend. Replacing the cables and their associated parts was the most time consuming part of the repair, but also the most gratifying. It sounds odd, but there are generally not a lot of opportunities to completely dismantle and service something in a busy shop. Shocks and suspension forks and the rare internal hub are about it.

The other end of the bike that needed substantial work was the rear wheel, complete with drum brake and SRAM DualDrive components. The derailleur cables were more of the same complications that the same complications that the brakes offered, except for the part where I had to dismantle the shifter to run the new cables. I like the DualDrive setup and I find it very easy to work on. It's also quite reliable, combining the reliability of both an 8-speed drivetrain and a 3-speed internal hub. I've always thought that this setup was a really good solution for bike commuters, and now I've seen it used for a touring application. I have added these parts to a few of the fantasy bikes that I tend to build when I'm by myself on long rides.

The drum brake on the hub is not there to stop the bike in the course of normal use. There are V-brakes on both wheels to handle normal braking duties. The drum brake is actuated by a friction bar end shifter on the left-hand side of the captain's handlebars and it's intended to be used as a drag brake during long descents, or as a parking brake. You don't typically need to do much with drum brakes since they don't break down very often. The drum brake kind of pushed this wheel over the edge for me. It's a small wheel and with a cassette, a 3-speed hub, and a drum brake it looks like it's going to collapse under the weight of its constituent parts.

So how does it ride? Better than I thought it would and far better than it looks like it would ride. I can see the attraction to this bike for a couple who travels a lot. Outside of that very specific use I don't think I could find it a space in my stable. By the time I was wrapping up this project I was enjoying it quite a bit. It's big and weird and complicated, but it's also unique and requires a little bit more energy and thought than a normal repair. This job can be a lot of identical seeming bikes that all work the same. It's a treat to get pushed out of that space and have to wrestle with something new and different.

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