Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A New Tandem !

Our first tandem ride was on a borrowed tandem.  After our third ride, we ordered our own custom-made tandem from R&E Cycles in Seattle, which we're now calling "Early Red."  It was a great bike, and we rode over 38,000 miles on it in the US and Canada.

However, Early Red didn't come apart.  That's not an issue when you're commuting to work, as in the photo to the right, but as we approached retirement and looked forward to even more trips with the tandem, we decided to also retire Early Red and to have a second bike custom-made for us at R&E, "Big Red."

Big Red has also been a very good bike, and taken us another 25,000 miles on three continents, but as a travel bike it had two issues.  One was that it took us close to 3 hours to disassemble it, another 2-3 to reassemble.  The second issue was that it fit into two cases that just made the size limits for air or train travel as checked baggage, but not for train travel as carry-on.  That limit is 28"x22"x14", and Big Red packed up in two cases that were 26"x26"x10".

We were discussing these issues at R&E last Fall when owner Dan Towle suggested we be the first to order a new bike they had been thinking of creating, one that would solve both problems.  Hmmmm, a third tandem?  Well, with the money we save by not owning a car, why not?

First things first.  R&E measured us once again, up and down.  Then they dialed in the exact specifications of our current tandem on a bike-fitting device that looks like a bike without wheels, first captain Jeff then stoker Louise, and asked us what we would change, if anything.  Well we're not getting any younger, so higher handlebars would be nice.  OK, raise this, change that, tweak this other thing, how's that feel?  Great.  Next, they did detailed CAD drawings, two sets of them in fact:  one for the geometry, one to get the placement precisely right for the lock, the air pump and each of the six bottle holders.

Now for the fun part for R&E, fabricating the bike.  Once it hit the top of the queu, it went together fairly quickly, in about a week.  First the tubes are cut to the correct sizes and the couplings (more about them later) are silver brazed on, then everything is placed on the assembly jig to get the angles and connection points just right, and spot-welded (i.e. in 2 spots per joint to hold it all in place).  When the frame is completely assembled it can be moved off the jig to where each joint can be fully welded.  Meanwhile chief mechanic John Lehman has been busy lacing up the wheels.

They built "Little Red" so quickly, it was done before the rear hub had arrived from the distributor, so they borrowed a rear wheel from another bike and invited us to take a test ride before it was painted, when it would still be relatively easy to make structural changes.  We did a ten-mile ride around town, including some good-sized hills to check it out ascending and descending, and there was nothing we could suggest.  OK, let's paint this baby up.  What color?  Hmmm, since we don't want to change the name of our blog page or email address, we think, maybe . . . red?

So, what's different?  First off, of course, the wheels.  If the wheels of your travel bike are 26" in diameter, you can't put them in a case any narrower than 26".  So these are 20".  Yes, lots of kids' bikes have 20" wheels, but so, it turns out, do lots of adult bikes.  So much so, that you can get very high quality rims and tires in that size.  The tires they found for us are actually better (higher thread count and pressure rating) than any we ever located for 26" Big Red!  We had tried a Bike Twosday tandem years ago that also had 20" wheels, but found the steering "twitchy."  Because Little Red has much better bike geometry, it actually handles almost the same as its two predecessors.
Next, the rear wheel.  No derailleur!  It has a 14-speed Rohloff internal gear hub.  Each gear is 13% higher than the one before it, with an amazing range.  At a cadence of 80 pedal stokes per minute, our average, we move at 5.1 mph in 1st gear, up to 26.6 mph in 14th.  For the bike techies, that's a range of 21 gear inches to 111.  By comparison, Jeff rode across the US in the '70s with a bike that was considered at the time to have an extreme gear range, 31 to 108 gear inches.  Compared to Big Red, Little Red has the same wide range, but is almost one gear lower.  Oh, those aging bodies again -- we figure we need more help getting up steep hills, and at this age are less and less inclined to go bombing down them at high speed.  Even so, we can pedal up to about 31 mph before it makes more sense to just coast, and that's just fine with us now.

Yes, we used to have a 27-speed, but in fact on any bike with a derailleur there are 2-4 gears that you are not supposed to use (ones that bend the chain too much laterally, such as the biggest chainring with the biggest freewheel ring), and many others that are almost duplicates.  Now each jump is an even step.  Better yet, the Rohloff eliminates the problem we often had of coming to a stop (particularly a last-minute stop for a traffic light that you didn't quite make) and finding ourselves in too high a gear to easily start.  With the Rohloff you can change gears standing still.  Jeff has already figured out that that means gear 7 on flat ground, 6 on a small uphill, 5 on a steep uphill, and so on.  Since there is no derailleur, there are no more dropped chains to worry about, and both chains, the timing chain from Jeff to Louise and the drive chain from Louise to the rear wheel, can be on the same side of the bike.

As we mentioned, the two things we wanted our new bike to do were to pack smaller and pack faster.  Smaller is accomplished with couplings -- LOTS of them.  In fact, 14 of them!  When you undo them all you end up with 6 tubes, 3 vertical sections (front fork and steerer tube, captain's seat tube and stoker's seat tube) and the so-called "rear triangle."  However, since the rear triangle has couplings plus a bolt that comes out, it  pivots at a second bolt and becomes a relatively flat piece as well.  Bike racks are big and cumbersome, but this rear rack comes apart into three pieces, and the front rack when taken off the bike pivots in the center to become relatively flat.  Here, in fact, are ALL the pieces of the bike when fully disassembled, with the five tools that accomplished that, and close-ups of how the couplings work.  To help us quickly match up the tubes, R&E stamped one end of each one and of its matching spot on a vertical piece.

And how compactly does it all pack up?  Our entire tandem (plus our bike shoes and rainjackets) is in these two suitcases!  The larger one is 27"x20.5"x10" and the smaller 24"x18"x10" and both rolled quite easily with the bike inside.  When we reach Boston next week and unpack the bike, we will put the smaller one into the larger (it expands to 13" in depth) and only have to ship one case by Fedex to our final destination of Washington DC.
R&E came up with a number of ways to make it faster to take apart and reassemble.  Not having a derailleur helps, plus a simpler front handlebar stem.  But some even bigger time (and hassle) savings came from quick release bottle cages (in the photo above you can see that the cages stay on the bottles) that slide off sideways with the pressing of a small tab.  We used to spend 20-30 minutes undoing two screws for each one, then reinserting them into the tubes to keep them from being lost.  The pedals are also quick release, by pulling the red tab out.  No more messing with the greasy pedal bolts, not to mention times when the pedals have gotten so tight from riding that you can scarcely get them off.  Finally, Big Red had packing material custom cut for each piece that came off the bike.  That meant you had to match up each of 20+ parts with its packing.  With a little fleece and some nylon reinforcement at the bottom, Louise sewed up four identical bags for four of the straight tubes.  Though each of the four tubes is a different length, you just fold the pouch over the top and cinch the excess length with a rubber band.  For the two larger tubes (one the fat boom tube, the other the tube that the pump stays attached to) she used different-colored fleece.  That left the short and therefore distinctive bag for the (folded) rear triangle and three taller/wider bags for the three vertical pieces, each now labelled.  One issue remained, how to protect the ends of the couplings from damage to themselves or damage to things nearby.  We cut some pieces of old inner tube into squares and put one at each end, then held it in place with a plastic glove, the kind you buy cheaply at drugstores.

So, how fast is the process now?  We don't yet know.  We spent 3 hours disassembling and packing it for the first time last week, but much of that time was spent writing out detailed notes on the exact sequence -- what comes off first, second, etc. -- and packing order, including which of the two suitcases each piece goes into.  Not to mention a lot of head-scratching time, figuring those things out.

We think we can do it next time in about an hour.  And that next time is rapidly approaching.  On June 12 we fly to Boston to start our next adventure, in which we spend spend 9 weeks in Maine, each one in a different week-long rental cabin.  Seven of the cabins are on tidewater, two on lakes, and every one comes with a canoe or kayaks.  Each one is also 32 to 44 miles from the next one, a very do-able distance for each "moving day."  After Labor Day we then turn southwards and bike down the coast to Bridgeport CT, take a ferry to Long Island, ride into NYC right down to Wall Street, where we hop another ferry that takes us to the North Shore of New Jersey.  We'll take our time down the Jersey Shore to the southern tip, Cape May, where one last ferry brings us to the DelMarVa peninsula.  Friends Louise and Masaharu have volunteered to pick us up at the east end of the bridge from Annapolis to the peninsula (since bikes are not allowed on the bridge) and on to Washington DC, where we hope to have about two weeks left for visiting and sightseeing with them before heading home at last.

Look for our first entry in mid-June, as soon as we can hit the pause button on having fun -- and find a library to be able to post a blog.  Happy Trails to you 'til then!

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