Tandem Living

The deal was quick. Cash in hand.

I picked up the second-hand tandem from a carpark on the London ring road in the summer of 2012. It was an oppressively warm afternoon by English standards, the break rubber toasting against the rims as I rolled the machine down to the railway station.

Getting a tandem onto a train is not an easy task. I was scolded when stepping onto the first one; the driver telling me over the tannoy to remove myself and my vehicle with a tone reserved only for beyond-hope incompetents. Yet I got lucky with the second, quickly learning that a tandem must be held parallel to the platform edge so the inbound train driver is not alerted to its preposterously long profile.

Once home, the tandem fitted surprisingly quickly into our lives and rather small flat. We became used to passing frying pans over the handlebars whilst cooking. And sometimes one of us would sit on a saddle, balanced against the wall, nursing a glass of wine and talking wildly about the tandem and the places it would take us. In the cold mornings before work, it would be there. Waiting for its first adventure. The smell of chain grease competing with last night’s dinner.tandembath

We imagined the tandem would be the great leveller we needed in our cycling. We would never be separated. Never be denied the workout we respectively wanted. Sofia would be the “stoker.” Slighter of build and shorter in height, her job was to provide the heat from the backseat. I would be the “captain” using upper body strength from the front saddle to keep the bike upright and communicating with my stoker about any changes in direction.

Getting moving wasn’t the problem. We rode to the shops, to a party, along the canal to a nearby town. “Are you happy” I learnt to ask, was better than “Are you really pedalling.” And flatulence emitted into the rear cockpit, was better apologized for than denied. With each ride we gained confidence. We fitted panniers. Trimming our wants and needs to them. Learning to share the space between the rolling wheels. Autumn came on though, and winter set in. Perhaps there was a fear the tandem would not be everything we hoped for, that kept us from real adventuring until the early spring.


The evenings were still short on the Friday afternoon we took our bike to Wales. Pedalling out of Abergavenny, the press of buildings was soon won out by rocky-crags and budding-oaks. The Black Mountains drew us in as we climbed into the glacial valley of Ewyas. Our rhythms slowly synchronizing again after the distractions of the working week.

Sofia prepared sandwiches that evening from the back-seat and we ate them on the move. As the climb steepened, dusk crept in, drowning out the peripheries. The grassy verge fell away into the night and sheep bleated curiously from the darkness at the four legs driving the illuminated machine up the mountain. From the top of pass we saw the lights of Hay-on-Wye. It was brighter here. A fading smudge of sun visible again on the distant horizon. With the road momentarily lit once more, we followed it speeding down, whooping through the gloaming.

There were more adventures after that. One night, when sleeping out on Salisbury Plane, we woke to the roll of tanks on an exercise outside our tent door. On another, with dusk again impending, our ponderous bicycle caught the attention of a local farmer. He invited us into the long-grass of his hayfield to pass the night, and then breakfast the next morning in the farmhouse. Here we talked chain cassettes and cattle, and drank rounds of piping coffee served with strawberry-jam on buttered toast.

When we travelled back to Chile, there were more lessons in tandem living. Late night before the flight we cut open two cardboard bike-boxes, slid them together and placed our tandem inside. Once we had wrapped the bike and taped carefully over the join, we hoped our fused together parcel could pass for a regular bike. At the check-in counter there was no extra fee.


The final stop of our tandem story was the Atacama Desert. The biggest trip to date. For three days we rode deeper into the landscape of steaming volcanoes, wind and dust. By day we slipstreamed the headwinds; climbing steadily together past inca terraces of sun-blasted grain and shaded figs. We gave rides to local children and were welcomed in for refreshing tea. By night we camped in meteorite holes, staring up at a sea of stars.


On the fourth day, at 14,000 feet above sea level, we could see out over the great salt flats of northern Chile. We no longer had the water nor the strength to keep pushing the bike uphill towards Talabre. Soon we knew we would turn, and head bumpingly downhill the way we came. The journey though we had come on, felt far from a defeat.

It’s a folly having a tandem. A train-confounding, space-eating, flatulence-sharing, balance-defying eccentricity of a transport choice. But standing there together above the desert, it certainly felt like the right one.

Call for comment

  • Ever slipstreamed into flatulence?
  • Does anyone else have to store a bicycle in their kitchen?
  • Care to share your own story of bicycles bringing you closer together?

Virtually ride the dusky journey through the Welsh Ewyas Valley here

And spin your wheels past the same Atacama Inca terraces and volcanoes here

Next Month: The girl I met out riding / 6 ways to attract the opposite sex on a bike tour

Matt Maynard is a British cyclist, writer and environmentalist. He is based in Santiago, Chile. Find more of his adventures on Twitter @MattNMaynard, Facebook and at his website Matt-Maynard.com.


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