Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Evolution of an unorthodox machine

The Thill Family Bicycle started as a stock 1992 Santana Arriva tandem that I found in nearly-new condition for a good price on Craigslist.
I upgraded the wheels with the heavy-duty touring wheels I had originally for my Atlantis (which I sold). I also replaced the unnervingly skinny 700x26 stock tires with some Jack Brown Blue 700x33, which were a bit of a squeeze. Most importantly, I modified the stoker position for a small child (namely, my daughter Elissa, age 4 at the time), using some stock stem and bottom bracket adapters marketed under the Problem Solvers brand (from QBP). My friend Mark at Bikesmith Design provided a crankset with the arms shortened to 90 mm (and threaded for tandem, of course). The subsequent addition of the child-seat (shown above with my son Oliver, age almost 2 at the time) was a short-lived experiment that made the bicycle difficult to control. Anyway, Elissa and I rode the bike maybe 100 miles last Fall before we had some crummy weather in October that compelled me to put the tandem away for the winter. During the Winter, I asked Bikesmith to make me a 1-1/4" quill adapter (diameter of the adapter is 1-1/8" or 28.6 mm). The quill adapter slides into the threaded steerer tube like a normal 1-1/4" quill stem, and is just the right diameter to accept a 1-1/8" threadless-style stem. As you may know, there is not a wide selection (new or used) of 1-1/4" quill stems (the stock stem from Santana was not terribly comfortable), but there are hundreds of options for 1-1/8" threadless stems. The quill adapter gave me much more flexibility to fit the bicycle to my body, and made longer rides more comfortable and fun.

This Spring, as soon as it seemed reasonable to go camping, Elissa (now age 5) and I loaded up and headed to Carver Park Reserve.

Elissa rode about 65 miles over the two days, and had a great time. I couldn't have been prouder. On the down side, I decided (again) that the Jack Brown Blue tires were not for me (tried them on 3 bikes, and hated them every time). I switched to Panaracer Pasela 700x28, which made the bike much more lively and fun to ride on pavement. The problems with this tandem started to become obvious:

1. There was not enough tire clearance for tires that would allow me to comfortably do the kind of multiple surface rides and touring that I most enjoy. When we rode trails or gravel, Elissa complained about the bumpiness, and I felt that the skinny tires didn't provide enough control on loose materials like gravel and sand.

2. Cargo capacity is the same as on a single touring bicycle (front and rear panniers), but must be shared by two riders. It's workable, but sub-optimal for travel with children, who require toys, books, etc.

3. Elissa was a fun companion, but Oliver was getting to the age where he would enjoy bike rides, too. I felt bad leaving him behind when Elissa and I went riding.

One day, in the presence of some bike geek friends, I openly proposed the idea putting an Xtracycle on the tandem. That idea, because it is ridiculous, received some laughs. But I was half-serious. The more I thought about it, the better I liked the idea. I could carry lots of stuff, including an extra passenger, and the Xtracycle with a 26"/559 mm wheel has plenty of tire clearance. One day at the shop, I noticed my Pugsley fork and wheel lying in the corner. Porn music started playing in my head (wah-wah-chicka-wah-wah) and it started to come together: Tandem plus Xtracycle plus Pugsley. The cherry on top was the potential for using disc brakes, even hydraulic! I would be foolish NOT to do this! (yes, a headset adapter is required).

 It turns out the Pugsley wheel and tire produces some pretty scary handling characteristic with a bike of this length. Luckily, this is the symmetrical Pug fork, which will take a normal wheel, too.Off with the Pug wheel, and on with a more conventional wheel with a Schwalbe 26x2.35" Big Apple to match the rear. Mr Rose at Shockspital modified an Avid Juicy brake by adding a hose long enough to cover the span from the handlebar to the rear disc.

The maiden voyage of this contraption was a 65-mile jaunt through the river bluffs and rolling hills between Minneapolis and Wilson, Wisconsin, where we over-nighted on the property of Dave's Brewfarm.
Elissa's previous long day was about 35 miles. On the Brewfarm trip, she did back-to-back days of 65 and 72 miles, respectively. I frequently offer her a chance to get off the bike, to take a break, but she usually declines in favor of more pedaling. After a 137-mile weekend of hills and heat, we were walking in the house and I asked if she was glad to be home. "Yeah," she said, "but I'd rather be out on the open road." Huh.

Last weekend (Independence Day weekend) we stayed closer to home, but still rode the tandem a lot for errands and general transportation. It turned out to be a 70-mile weekend for Elissa and me, highlighted by a trip to the St Paul Farmer's Market:
We also made a side trip to a grocery store on the way home, and our load was impressive!

Once home from the grocery run, my wife mentioned that Oliver (now 2-1/2) is usually very enthusiastic about the bike, and very sad when we leave without him. I immediately found some suitable clothes for him, strapped on his helmet, lowered the saddle a bit, and snugged his feet into the toe straps. We made a tentative trip around the block:

Wow, he didn't jump off or freak out! We kept going. Down the street, turn here, turn there, pretty soon over the bridge and westbound on the Minnehaha Parkway bike trail. Then around Lake Nokomis. Some old lady rode behind us for awhile before making a snide comment about my decision to have a small child on the bike, but Oliver was doing just fine and having the time of his life.
All total, Oliver has 8 miles on the bike. I suspect he'll have 100 more by the end of the year.


chiggins said...

I really can't ask for much more than to greet the day with a fresh hot cup of coffee and a post like this. Well played, sir.

Anonymous said...

You're in inspiration for me and my three kiddos! I have a touring bike being built now that will have tandem spacing in the back to help with the weight and towing of a nice trailer for the two boys. In about two years, when my baby girl is old enough to ride, I may have a bike + trail-a-bike + trailer set up going. Bravo sir! Way to get those kids riding!
Mike M

rigtenzin said...

Very nice. Too bad the pugley setup wasn't right. It looked cool.

Chris said...

I hope you told the snide old lady to kindly get bent. Nicely done. As an aside, have you ever used the Big Dummy / Xtracycle as child carrier? I've seen many try, but never asked anyone their thoughts.

Jim Thill said...

Pre-tandem, Elissa rode the back of the BD many times. She had a little stoker handlebar off my seatpost.

Chris said...

Did you have one of those little seats for her? Or did she simply sit on the deck?

Jim Thill said...

She sat on the deck.

doug peterson said...

Well Jim, now you've done it. When she said she'd rather be on the road, another cycle tourist was born. Pretty impressive mileage as well, at any age. I love the way your bikes evolve over time as they adapt to new needs. Can't wait to see how you deal with the 2 child question. I expect you'll have another creative project, not just a second tandem.

doug peterson

andrew rosenberg said...

alright, so i saw you and a child on the bike over the weekend. and we have been in the shop to examine the build,we're fully invested in the concept.... the wife loves the handlebar conversion, we'll iron out the aesthetics shortly.
i think our clan will be seen on a group ride before fall.....but still one puzzle piece remains to be fit into the big picture, the challenge of how to get jim thill interested in cyclocross racing? hmmm...

Liz Opp said...

This was fun to read--glad Hiawatha Cyclery has a blog for stories and adventures like these!

I'm going to share the link with a friend of mine who recently did a fairly long bike trip with his young son...


Liz with the recumbent trike
The Good Raised Up

Anonymous said...

I came following up Google hits for Salsa Woodchippers but remained to read all about your Santana+Xtracycle and your touring adventures with small daughter. My, that is one long bike but I can see the practicality for load carrying. A great read. I did find the pics of Woodchipper I was looking for too. I've just received one and am debating whether to try it on my LHT or on my Crosscheck.