A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

On a tandem bike, who does more work, the person in front or in back?

October 11, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Oft have I spent sleepness nights on this one and it is now I turn to you for illumination. Which seat on a tandem bicycle is the better to choose? In terms of effort required and total contribution to the foward propulsion of the vehicle who does more work?

SDStaff VegForLife replies:

Well, Paul, it all depends on where you're standing. Or sitting, as the case may be.

In terms of the effort required strictly for forward propulsion, there really isn't a better seat on a tandem.  If both riders have equal ability and put out equal effort, they'll each contribute 50% of the effort required to move the bike forward. But that situation is pretty hard to come by.  Think of the people you'd like to ride with on a tandem, then think of how many of them have the same cycling ability that you do. To further complicate matters, the amount of effort put forth is highly variable as well — you might be twice as strong as your partner, but if you just sit and lazily churn your feet around, your partner will be putting forth a lot more effort than you will be, and will therefore contribute more towards forward movement. The point is that which seat you're in isn't really a part of the equation.

Forward propulsion isn't the only area where effort is required, however. The rider in the front seat — the "captain" — also has the responsibility of braking, steering, and supporting the majority of the weight of the bike and riders when stopped. So in terms of total effort, not just the effort required for forward motion, the captain might come out slightly ahead.

Just as in most things in life, there's a trade-off. If you're on the rear seat — if you're the "stoker" — you may be getting away with putting out a little less overall effort, but the view in front of you is partially blocked. If the thought of looking at your partner's butt and back for long periods of time doesn't excite you, you might want to consider putting out that extra effort and sitting up front.

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