On the Proper Training of Tandem Captains by Experienced Stokers

Guideline by the Supreme Council of the United Stokers Union

Lisa C. Antonino, January 2005

DISCLAIMER: This article was written in good fun, and the author apologizes if her readership takes offense for any reason.

Abbreviations and Clarifications

ES – Experienced Stoker

HSB – Hot-shot Biker

SO – Significant Other

CA – Critical Angle

USU – United Stokers Union

“Captain” – the person who sits in the front-most position on the tandem and usually has control of the shifting

“Inexperienced captain” – to be honest, most of them

“Stoker” – the person who sits behind the captain on the tandem and has control of the braking, steering, and generally everything else besides the shifting

“Higher” gear – “Harder” to pedal (not “higher up on the cassette”)

“Lower” gear – “Easier” to pedal (not “lower down on the cassette”)

“Upright Position” – Not tilting to the side - either side - not the left side, not the right side

“Single” – A bicycle that is designed for only one rider – not a requirement or expectation for the Stoker

“Leaning” – Slight tilt of the bike during descents; must not exceed the CA

“Emergency Braking Procedure” – Proprietary technique by Stokers to stop the tandem


Tandem riding, from the Stoker’s prospective, can be exhilarating beyond comprehension or terrifying to the point of cardiac arrest. A thrilling descent at 60 mph can instantly turn into a multi-week stay in the Stanford Trauma Unit if the tandem “captain” is inattentive, inexperienced, careless or otherwise stupid.

Tandem captains fall into many different categories: those who are new and willing to try out tandem riding with a friend, cycling buddy or significant other (SO), Hot Shot Bikers (HSB) who take their non-biker SOs on Sunday social rides to the coffee house, overachievers who constantly quest for more speed and/or distance, and control-freaks. It is of the utmost importance to ensure the quality of the training and “mind conditioning” of such tandem captains who are to ride with the Experienced Stoker (ES).

Orientation and Conditioning

The Experienced Stoker trainer will first orient the trainee to the specific tandem and go over the key operational parameters in excruciating detail. Trainees are encouraged to ask as many questions as necessary to understand the fundamental differences between a “single” and a tandem bicycle. The ES will adjust or terminate the training based on these questions.

Throughout the training, the ES will demonstrate that the tandem is actually controlled from the Stoker position. This process may take weeks or months, but is essential to the “mind conditioning” of the captain. The captain should ride smoothly and be as amenable as possible as to not “irritate” the Stoker to demonstrate exactly how much control s/he really has. Experienced Stokers who are working on remediation of recalcitrant captains may employ additional measures to ensure that bad habits are broken and the captains are suitably “broken.”

Take-off Procedure

No rodeo mounts or dismounts are allowed! The captain is to straddle the bike, carefully as to not to not chip the paint with his/her cleat, and stand firmly with legs spread apart to support the tandem in an upright position. The ES will then climb on the back, clip-in both pedals, and lift the captain’s preferred starting pedal (which should be the same as the preferred starting pedal of the Stoker, if humanly possible).

The next steps are extremely important and must be heeded at all cost.

The captain clips into the preferred starting pedal while firmly holding the bike, **then lunges forward and sits on the saddle as quickly as possible, allowing the Stoker to complete the first full rotation and possibly second rotation while the captain gets ready to clip in the second pedal. Under no circumstances is the captain to try to clip in until the tandem has reached minimum escape velocity. Once moving, the Stoker then signals to coast by cessation of pedaling in a position such that the captain can clip in to the remaining pedal. After this sequence, the captain and ES resume pedaling.

Note to the inexperienced captain: If a 60 lb, 10-year old Stoker can power a tandem from the back, your ES can certainly do this for you, so RELAX and get with the program!

Problems generally occur when nervous captains catch their Lycra shorts or tights on the saddle and are unable to immediately sit down without causing the bike to become highly unstable. It is recommended that the captain approach the saddle from the top, instead of scooting up the nose of the saddle.

Stopping Procedure

Stopping at Traffic Intersections, etc: The captain is to shift to a lower (easier) gear or two, depending on the terrain, then gently stop the vehicle and immediately place one foot firmly on the road, spread out to support the tandem in an upright position. Once ready to go, follow Take-off Procedure, starting with ** and shift back to a higher gear, as appropriate.

Captains who lean the bike past the critical angle (CA) will immediately receive a verbal warning to keep the bike upright. Violations 2-5 result in penalty points and the installation of a Right- or Left-leaning “Tilt-O-Meter”. After the 5th violation, the ES will not want to ride with you.

Stopping and Dismounting: The captain is to gently stop the vehicle and immediately place both feet firmly on the road, spread out to support the tandem in an upright position. Forgetting that you are on a tandem and causing the Stoker to fall off the back because you let the bike tilt too far may result in deafness or other personal physical harm.

Once the ES dismounts, the captain may dismount by either lifting one leg carefully over the top tube as to not chip the paint with his/her cleat or lift the leg over the handlebar.

No rodeo dismounts are allowed!

General Riding Behavior

The captain is not, under any circumstances, to display reckless, dangerous, harmful or otherwise Stoker-threatening riding behavior. Letting go of the handlebar during a descent and yelling, “Look Ma, no hands” will result in immediate remediation. The properly trained captain is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

Captains Oath

On my honor I will swear, against severe penalties
To do my duty to keep my Stoker safe;
To listen to and obey the Stoker at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and to keep the bike upright.

Captains Motto

Be Prepared


Prospective shifting is the preferred mechanism for changing from higher to lower/lower to higher gears in response to changes in terrain or slowing/stopping at an intersection. As the tandem approaches a hill, the captain should shift smoothly into the appropriate gear, one at a time to avoid sudden jolts or chain jams. When coming to a stop, such as at an intersection, the captain should shift to a lower (easier) gear to prepare for subsequent take-off (i.e., Be Prepared). More details on this subject may be found in the “Stopping Procedure” section of this document.

Shifting problems generally occur when the captain with Campagnolo Ergo shifters on his/her single bike captains a tandem with Shimano shifters (or visa-verse, though less common). This is akin to switching between MacIntosh and PC computers.

General rule: the little, inside lever on Shimano equals the thumb lever on Campy.

It is imperative that the captain adapt quickly to the different shifters. Experienced Stokers will seldom tolerate more than one incident whereby the captain fiddles around and shifts into a higher (harder) gear just as the tandem comes to a near halt at the base of a hill, imperiling the ES and the bike.

Paceline Riding with the Tandem and Singles

A more detailed treatise on Paceline Riding with Tandems may be found on the USU website. Briefly, the tandem(s) must be in front at all times unless there are one or two very strong cooperative “single” riders to help. Single riders are to give the tandem(s) plenty of room and not run them off the road shoulder, particularly when descending. Single riders must immediately get out of the way when the tandem announces it is passing on a downhill. Single riders should be patient when climbing hills with tandems, as most tandems do slow down. In a situation where there is a strong headwind, it is easy for single riders to think the paceline is not going fast enough, because they do not have to do any work. However, the tandem at the front is working very hard and if a single rider were in front, the paceline would be much slower. (The single rider will learn this concept on his/her own when he/she breaks out of the paceline and tries to pass the tandem.)

Single riders that do not obey the tandem paceline protocol will get yelled at by the ES and will be asked to leave the paceline.

Descending with the Tandem

There is no question about the thrill of blowing past all single bikes on a long, banked, descent while riding on a tandem. In fact, the tandem becomes more stable at certain speeds. However, the captain must know the bike’s limitations with respect to braking and handling.

Most direct braking control is from the front handlebar brake levers. The distance between the lever and rear brake is at least twice as long as for a single bike, and may lag in response. Tandems, in general, require more time to slow and stop. For long descents where a lot of braking is required, the rims can heat to very high temperatures and cause the tires to blow off the rims. Many tandems are equipped with a rear drum brake or disk brake, which in some instances may be controlled by the Stoker. This allows for auxiliary braking that does not impact the rims and can also relieve the strain on the captain’s hands during the descent.

Descent speed and degree of “leaning” depend on the experience and skill of the captain and nerve of the Stoker. If the Stoker makes the command to “slow down”, the captain must comply or risk serious consequences. In emergency situations, the Stoker may employ the “Emergency Braking Procedure”.

Sudden Flat Tires

Sudden flat tires on tandems can be extremely serious situations. These are often caused by a “snake bite” pinch after going over a pothole, by riding over a large piece of sharp glass, or due to overheating of the rims. It is imperative that the captain remain calm and steady while attempting to brake, even if it requires riding on the rim. The ES will endeavor to stabilize the bike during the stopping process.

Once the tandem comes to a stop in the upright position, the Stoker, then the captain, will immediately dismount. The captain is to remain calm and not start swearing while the ES assesses the situation. If the bike does not stop in the upright position and the Stoker is thrown off the bike and is lying in the middle of the road, the captain must halt all traffic until the Stoker is safely relocated.

Off the Saddle Riding

Off the saddle riding is important to preserve the morale of the Stoker, as tandem riding generally does not allow for as many “butt breaks” as single bike riding. Either the ES or the captain may call out “butt break”, the captain then shifts to one or two higher (harder) gears, and then both riders simultaneously stand on the pedals while allowing the tandem to coast. Agreement on the number of pedal strokes prior to standing is generally a good idea; generally one full stroke will suffice. After several seconds, the riders may either sit down and resume pedaling, or pedal while standing. Once seated, the captain should remember to shift back to the lower gear, as appropriate.

Off the saddle riding may also be performed during hill climbing. The captain may simply shift to a higher gear, which will signal to the ES that off the saddle riding is to commence. After the agreed-upon full pedal stroke, both riders will stand and continue pedaling.

Hill Climbing

Experienced tandem teams that have perfected the technique of “surfing the rollers” will leave most single riders behind. However, as previously mentioned, most tandem teams slow down when climbing long, sustained, hills. It is up to the captain to shift smoothly into the appropriate gear for climbing. Brief “Off the Saddle” periods may be employed, as needed; however, most of the climbing will be done sitting. This is the ideal time for the captain and Stoker to relax and engage in conversation.

Conversation while Riding

Experienced Stokers, particularly those who are educated and refined, require stimulating conversation on rides. For tandems riding with a group of singles, conversations are usually communal and generally out of control. However, when the ES and tandem captain are out on a solo ride, it is up to the captain to participate in a decent conversation. Captains who make totally inappropriate statements such as, “Can’t hear you – too much wind noise” or “Shut up – Can’t you see I’m trying to concentrate” require immediate remediation.

Topics may vary depending on the interests of the ES and captain. In general, “safe” topics include bike techno talk, weather, scenery, cultural events (music, art, dance, etc.), and gossip about other riders. Unflattering comments about Stoker’s weight or physical appearance, gory details on previous bike crashes, or expressions of general dissatisfaction require immediate remediation.

It is expected that the captain, who sits at the front-most position on the tandem and can see things ahead, communicate life-threatening events to the ES, e.g., “duck for branch”, “bump”, or “brakes are out – jump ship.” In other emergency situations, such as bee stings, animal bites or dismembered Camelbak bite-valves spewing the contents, the captain is to remain calm and quiet until the tandem is brought to a full and complete stop, the Stoker has dismounted, and the bike is placed in a safe and secure location, before uttering any verbal response.

Captains who feel they need to “call out” every move to the ES should be immediately diverted to other types of communication. There is no need to call out “shifting”, “braking”, “slowing”, or even “standing” to the Experienced Stoker. These maneuvers will be OBVIOUS!

Captain Feeding

Experienced Stokers can usually gauge the blood sugar levels of the tandem captain by asking key questions and observing changes in bike handling. Captains must accept and obey suggestions regarding food or liquid intake and not make statements, such as “Stop nagging about food.” The USU recognizes the importance of captain feeding and has authorized Union Stokers to hand up nutrients upon request by the captain. For details on the types of nutrients that Stokers are allowed to handle, see the most recent approved and ratified version of the Stokers Contract Agreement. Complaints regarding captains’ food demands may be addressed via the USU.

Tandem Parking and Retrieval

It is generally the responsibility of the tandem captain to park the tandem and to retrieve it in a timely manner when riding is to recommence.

Penalty Points

Penalty points may be awarded at any time without warning. More information on violations and penalty points may be obtained by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the United Stokers Union headquarters care of “Penalty Points.”

General Rules (abbreviated list)

  1. Do not crash with the Stoker on the back of the tandem.

  2. Seriously, do not crash with the Stoker on the back.

  3. You’d better not crash with the Stoker on the back !

  4. To put it another way, keep the tandem in an upright position at all times.

  5. No rodeo mounts or dismounts.

  6. Do not try to pedal during the initial steps in the take off procedure.

  7. Do not clip into the second pedal until the tandem has reached minimum escape velocity.

  8. Do not snag your shorts on the saddle.

  9. Slowly and gently stop the tandem and place feet firmly on the ground.

  10. Do not lean the bike past the CA.

  11. Do not allow the Stoker to fall of the back of the bike because you let it tilt past the CA.

  12. Do not chip the paint on the top tube with your cleat.

  13. Do not let go of the handlebar with both hands while riding.

  14. Obey the Stoker at all times.

  15. Be prepared.

  16. Shift before you absolutely need to.

  17. And don’t fiddle around with the shift levers.

  18. Do not shift with the wrong lever.

  19. Slow down promptly if the Stoker gives the command.

  20. Let the Stoker yell at singles who violate tandem paceline protocol – you are to remain quiet and in control of the bike.

  21. Do not swear out-loud if a tire goes flat.

  22. Don’t ever make inappropriate comments to the Stoker. You will immediately be “black listed.”

  23. Remember to allow for “butt breaks” to preserve Stoker morale.

  24. Captains are to call out any low hanging branches; ducking without telling the Stoker is subject to severe penalties and loss of captain’s license.

  25. Do not call out stupid, obvious things, such as “shifting”, “braking”, “slowing”, or “standing.”

  26. Brush up on recent cultural and world events before the ride so you can hold up your end of the conversation.

  27. Eat and drink when the Stoker tells you to. And don’t talk back.

  28. Do not lose the tandem when you park it.

A complete set of rules may be found on the USU website.

Tandem Captain Evaluation Form

Below is an example of the Tandem Captain Evaluation Form that Stokers may complete on-line via the United Stokers Union website.

Submission No.: provided electronically by U.S.U.

Captain’s Name:____________________________

Captain’s License No.:____________________________


Rank the following captain characteristics from 1-5 (1 = abysmal; 5 = acceptable)


Tandem handling skills







Stoker handling skills







Verbal communication







Non-verbal communication














Cleanliness (personal and bike)







Jersey selections







Meal selections







Pocket capacity







Ability to adhere to planned route