The Pedersen Tandem
Reprinted here with the kind permission of Recumbent and Tandem Rider Magazine.
I saw my first issue of Recumbent and Tandem Rider magazine at my local bike shop. Inside, there were reviews of recumbent bikes, tandem bikes, hardware and accessories. For an information-obsessed person such as myself, what could be better than that? I carried a copy home and settled in for some serious perusing. Soon, I had to have more. In no time I had read every word in every RTR magazine published to date and I still wanted more. I had cravings that weren't satisfied. I had looked at every picture, and examined every advertisement in detail. I even read the masthead! But it wasn't enough. Every issue was loaded with information, how could I want more?
And then I realized what was missing. Where were the owners? Who buys these bikes and why? It is all well and good to read a review of a bike, especially a bike that makes a potential purchaser's short list. But where are the reports, the reviews, and the evaluations about an owner's experiences after the purchase of that dream bike, the good, the bad, and the ugly? What have they done to their bikes? What worked, what didn't, and why not? Well, I put my question to the RTR editorial staff and they said it was a great idea and could I have an article ready by the end of the week?
I have to admit a weakness for cycles. From one wheel to four, it doesn't matter. In fact, I don't think I have ever met a human powered vehicle that I didn't like. Maybe it is the effort that has gone into the design of the hardware. An elegant solution to mechanical design constraints is always very attractive. But if a bike has that little something extra, that intangible thing you can't quite put your finger on, then that is when my obsessive-compulsive nature will begin to assert itself. And that is exactly what happened several years ago when I saw a picture of a Pedersen Tandem.
A LITTLE HISTORY, THEN
In the late 1800's, riding a bicycle was a mostly uncomfortable experience even with the recent invention of pneumatic tires by Dunlop. There were few paved roads, and the roads that were paved were of cobblestone. Mikael Pedersen of Denmark was a prolific inventor and tinkerer, and before moving to England he had designed a bicycle saddle that would provide a comfortable ride on the rough roads of the time. His original design for a novel wood-framed bicycle supporting his hammock saddle received a patent in 1893, and by 1896 steel framed Pedersen bikes were being produced in Dursley, England. These bikes soon became the light-weight, record setting machines of the time, and Pedersen's numerous inventions and improvements to bicycles included the first 3-speed hub gear. Tandems, triplets, and quads were produced and raced at the track next to Pedersen's home in Dursley, but by World War 1 the Dursley Pedersen bicycle was no longer in production and what we now know as the Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub had proven itself more reliable. Pedersen's creative accomplishments almost disappeared into history.
Pedersen bicycles have been manufactured in Denmark since 1978 when Jesper Sølling rediscovered Pedersen's unique design and began building frames. The hammock saddle has been retained but is now leather instead of woven silk, and the frame has been updated to support today's conventional wheels, drive-train components, and controls. It was a picture of Jesper's recently built Pedersen Tandem that appeared in a British cycling magazine in 1996 that had caught my eye. There was certainly something very beautiful and yet very intangible about it and I became obsessed. The opportunity to actually see such a bike came in the summer of 1997 when co-workers invited me to cycle in Europe with them for 2 weeks. I extended my holiday by several days so that I could make a side trip, and as I cycled through France, I couldn't stop thinking about the machine.
Well, I found the showroom, and there was the bike. It was the most beautiful machine I have ever seen. It was compelling, and I examined every detail. It had wood fenders! Wood fenders on a bicycle? I was hooked! But could I ride it? The riding position was upright, and surprisingly comfortable. That was all it took and I just had to have it. It was very different, to say the least. The tandems were only sold as frames, the Captain's size was Large and the Stoker was sized as a Medium. What did I know about sizing? What did I care? It was just so beautiful. So, there in my living room sat the most magnificent tandem frame I had ever seen. Melon yellow was the color, and with the nickel-plated Royal handlebars, it was stunning. It was the beginning of a wonderful relationship.
First, the machine would need wheels. My initial purchase for the bike was a pair of Phil Wood hubs laced to a pair of SUN CR16II 700C, 40 spoke rims. I mounted a pair of Continental Top Touring tires.
I had also made sure to bring back a set of the wood fenders, because they made the bike look so elegant, and with the fenders installed the bike became art on display. Though unfinished, I would roll the bike out into the yard to take pictures and otherwise show off to the neighbors. I began to get very anxious to ride it. I mounted a set of Magura hydraulic brakes, with a separate brake bridge, because there were no brake bosses brazed on the frame. It was a surprisingly easy installation and the bike began to take on that ready to ride look. I took more pictures of the bike in the yard.
The next item was the drivetrain. I found some Sugino tandem cranks with a set of 52-42-30 chainrings. I installed a 12-32 8-speed cassette, an XT rear derailleur, and XT shifting pods. I mounted a Suntour front derailleur and chains and after some last minute checks for tightness, Sharry and I were finally able to ride the bike! The anticipation and the excitement that had been building for the last several weeks certainly colored my observations. I thought the bike was the best thing ever, and we went for rides around town, rides at the beach, and rides on the river bike trails. But something about this bike wasn't the same as I remembered from the demonstration ride in Europe.
As we rode the bike there were things that either didn't work, were wrong to begin with, or that needed adjustment. The first thing that didn't work was shifting between chainrings. Because the frame geometry is unconventional and the front derailleur mount is adjustable, I learned that the alignment of the front derailleur mount can become a very tedious exercise. After finally getting a good look at what was happening, it was obvious that the bike required a front derailleur with a longer cage and a slightly different mechanism. The combination of the Suntour derailleur and the cable routing made it impossible to shift accurately with a Shimano index system. As the derailleur mechanism swung during shifting, the cable would be forced to bend around the mount, changing the length of cable pull just enough so that we were left with either a slight undershift or a slight overshift, depending on other adjustments. This was not fun, especially when approaching a hill. Switching to friction shifting on the front was an option but would require changing some hardware, and besides, indexing systems are supposed to make it easier to enjoy the ride. It was also obvious that this bike wouldn't set any speed records and while the 52 tooth chainring I had installed provided a selection of very tall gears, Sharry and I found that we couldn't really use them. This is a bike built for comfort, and a different set of chainrings was called for. I settled on a 46-36-28 combination, for plenty of low and mid-range gear choices, and with the addition of a Sachs 5000 front derailleur the obvious shifting problems were solved. More rides led to more observations, more adjustments and the inevitable tweaking. Shifting into the small chainring had now become inconsistent, because the derailleur would bottom out against the frame tubes. I thought about installing another bottom bracket with a longer spindle to move the crank and chainrings out away from the frame by several millimeters, but I was more interested in the very elegant and very cheap solution provided by my local bike shop, a 1mm bottom bracket spacer!! With the spacer installed on the right side, effectively moving the crank and chainrings out 1mm, the front derailleur was able to complete the shift to the small chainring before bottoming out. It seemed that everything was beginning to work. There were more rides and more adjustments, trying to find that position where the hardware functions in such a way that it disappears into the background and we could enjoy the ride, but we weren't there yet.
The upright driving position that is so much a part of the bike was not really as apparent as it had been on the bike I rode in Europe. After the infatuation wore off, which has taken several years, I realized that this bike had been somewhat uncomfortable right from the start. This was something that I found fascinating! Have you ever wondered what you were thinking when, years later, you begin to question your decision to buy that exercise machine that occupies the spare bedroom? I can protect and defend my own little fantasy world as good as anybody, but once in a while reality has a way of creeping in and rearing its ugly head! And in the case of this bike, the Captain's position is a large, but with the Royal handlebars, the riding position for me was somewhat hunched over, not at all like the upright style I thought I remembered. The Royal handlebars have an attached stem, the short length limits the amount of vertical adjustment, and the grips were placed much too low. The Captain's position would be fine for someone several inches shorter than me, but in this case I quickly used all available adjustment in raising the handlebars, finally realizing that it wasn't enough. To make matters worse, I was reluctant to replace the Royal handlebars because they were so much a part of the bike and the fantasy. Eventually I gave in, accepted reality, and decided a change of handlebars would be a good thing. I searched for a set of handlebars that would go with the bike, and the solution turned out to be very inexpensive and certainly a new twist on conventional hardware. I installed a conventional TTT road stem, and mounted a pair of Rivendell Priest handlebars upside-down. Add the cork handgrips and it was perfect! The grips had been raised 3 inches, I now had a slight bend in my elbow while riding upright, and I rationalized that the bike looked just as good as before, maybe even better.
And the ride was superb. At least for the Captain. And everything was working! The bike feels long, but not long as in overall length. It feels long in the front, with sort of a laid-back steering geometry. Because of the upright riding position, both the Stoker and the Captain are placed further towards the rear than on a more conventional tandem, and the front fork and front wheel seem to be a little more extended. This makes for comfortable handling and a very plush ride. The hammock saddles soak up the bumps much like suspension seatposts, and the upright position means that there isn't much weight placed on the hands or wrists. But the one thing that was most noticeable for me was what I was looking at. I was able to actually look around and enjoy the scenery, that same sort of feeling when riding a recumbent. I could look up without straining! When riding the bike path at the beach, I had never noticed the second and third floor balconies where parties were in progress! No longer forced to look at the road most of the time, we were now riding in style and it was enjoyable! But the bike quickly demonstrated its flexibility as we rolled over bumps while turning. The hammock saddles aren't rigid and that means that both riders can sway from side to side. This feature isn't really noticeable when pedaling on a straight path, but in a turn, when a bump pushes the rear of the bike to one side, there is a noticeable oscillation as the Stoker begins to sway. From the Captain's position it feels much like an uncomfortable Stoker trying to find a comfortable position on the seat, but the motion subsides very quickly and hasn't caused any problems other than how to describe it.
We continued to ride and gradually increased our range. I bought the Schmidt Dynohub and installed a lighting system, so that we could ride whenever we wanted.
But Sharry could not get comfortable in the stoker position, even with the new handlebar arrangement. The Priest handlebars did improve the stoker riding position but Sharry still had complaints about the positioning of the saddle. The medium size stoker compartment meant that she was cramped and forced to sit too far to the rear and she was unable take full advantage of the hammock. Changing the saddle height only made it more uncomfortable. We bought a new saddle when the design had been improved with a slightly different cut and more padding, but it still wasn't the solution. I raised the saddle's front attachment point on the frame to a position just below the rear handlebars with some small stainless steel fittings. Sharry pronounced it an improvement but still not perfect. Based on the changes so far, I thought that moving the seat further to the rear would be the solution. I obtained an old seatpost and began to bend the tubes (something I couldn't bring myself to do on the originals) so that the saddle would move rearward. Sharry declared it a more comfortable position, and after a few rounds of disassembling, bending, reassembling, and riding, we had moved the saddle 3 inches to the rear. Sharry said it was perfect! That is the configuration today, and while we haven't been able to put very many miles on this new arrangement yet, I think that we are very close to a place where the hardware doesn't limit our riding time.
It has been a 5 year affair and it still isn't finished. I am reluctant to paint the seat tubes because we may have to bend the tubes a little more, but Sharry hasn't had any complaints yet.
And next on the list after finalizing the rear saddle configuration is the installation of a rear rack, and maybe a handlebar bag if we can find one that goes with the bike. It remains a most beautiful machine, unlike any other. The unique frame geometry, the upright riding position, the saddles, almost everything about the bike is different. It draws attention whenever we ride it, and there are even some people that will just stare at it when it is parked. I sometimes even pretend to be a spectator! But I have yet to tire of giving the speech, 'Based on an 1893 design...', to anyone who will listen, and Sharry has even been known to explain some of the bike's history. After more than 100 years, Pedersen's design has found a new life, and the Pedersen bicycle has become something of a cult favorite in Europe with Jesper having produced more than 6000 frames. Weekend get-togethers of Pedersen owners occur several times a year in Germany and Holland, and that fantasy Bike and Barge trip through Holland with the Pedersen Tandem may soon be a reality! Maybe we will see you there!!