Tandem Bike Peddlers Report Steady Sales Climb : Retail: The big rigs of the bicycle biz are particularly popular among couples. More manufacturers are venturing into the market.
In the Co-Motion Cycles shop, Dan Vrijmoet runs his hand lightly over the brushed titanium frame of one of the 200 tandem bicycles he and his two partners will craft by hand this year.
Across town at Burley Design Cooperative, scores of newly welded and powder-coated steel tandem frames hang from racks, waiting to be joined with shifters, brakes and wheels for shipment to thousands of customers.
The high-performance ‘90s version of the bicycle built for two immortalized by Harry Dacre’s 1893 song “Daisy Bell” makes up a tiny fraction of the millions of cycles sold in the United States each year.
But the big rigs of the bike biz, produced by manufacturers large and small, are on a steady climb, particularly among couples.
“The first time we got on a tandem we loved it,” said Scott Campbell, a lawyer from Oskaloosa, Iowa, who races tandems with his wife, Kym Life, a physician.
“Usually, it’s hard to find a stoker (the rider in back) unless you’re married,” Life said. “The best part is we can go really fast on it.”
Tandems, which can go 35 m.p.h. on a flat stretch, overcome the problem many couples face on separate bikes when one rider is faster than the other.
Nobody knows how many tandems are produced each year. Privately held manufacturers jealously guard their sales figures.
Jack Goertz, editor of Doubletalk, the Tandem Club of American newsletter, estimates sales of quality tandems at 7,000 to 10,000 a year, compared to 13 million single bikes sold in 1993. That’s up from 5,000 tandems sold in 1990, as estimated by Bicycling magazine.
“I’ve got a gut feeling there are 170,000 to 250,000 tandems actually owned in the United States,” Goertz said.
They include tandem road bikes, tandem mountain bikes, tandem recumbent bikes and tandem cross bikes. There’s even a folding tandem made by Montague that fits in the trunk of a car.
Tandems first appeared in the 1860s and were popular at the turn of the century. Goertz pegs the start of the tandem renaissance at 1976. That’s the year bike shop owner Bill McCready decided if he wanted a good tandem, he would have to build it himself and started Santana Cycles of La Verne, Calif.
“Tandems for bicycle manufacturers were kind of like unicycles,” McCready said. “They said, ‘We can build them in our factory, but they’re kind of silly.’ We looked at it, and said, ‘There is a market here for serious tandems.’ ”
By 1986, Cannondale, one of the big bike makers, had jumped in. Burley broke in a year later, branching out from its bike trailer and rain gear business. In 1988, Co-Motion started, concentrating on the high end custom-built side. Trek, another of the big U.S. bike companies, followed in 1991.
As the numbers increased, prices dropped.
“It used to be $2,500 to $3,000 is what you had to spend to get a bike you could have faith in,” said Geoff Drake, editor of Bicycling. “Now we are seeing excellent bikes around $1,000.”
Outfits that specialize in tandems, such as Burley and Santana, are still the big fish in this small pond, though how big is a popular guessing game.
McCready figures Santana has the biggest sales by dollars, with 12 models ranging in price from $2,400 to $7,000. But Rob Templin of Burley figures they are the top producers in numbers, with six models ranging in price from $900 to a little more than $2,000.
“It’s definitely increasing, but it’s not an explosive type of thing,” Templin said.
There’s also room for an outfit like Co-Motion, which expects to double production this year to 200 tandems, ranging in price from $2,500 to more than $8,000 for the titanium frame.
“One thing that’s happened in the last few years is more manufacturers have come into the business,” said Butch Boucher, a partner in Co-Motion. “It’s become very competitive.”
The market isn’t as easy as it may look to large producers, said McCready.
“When they find out the numbers aren’t what they hoped, their brand name won’t buy them credibility, and dealers don’t care for tandems, they drop out,” McCready said.
Burley has concentrated on dealers who will display their tandems on the floor and give people a chance to ride them. Burley also sponsors an annual tandem rally that attracts hundreds of teams.
“A lot of dealers say, ‘Tandems take up so much floor space,’ ” Templin said. “They talk about bigger margins on single bikes. The way I approach it is a tandem customer is going to be one of the best customers you have. A tandem customer is generally serious about cycling.”
Together Tandems in Fort Collins, Colo., is one of the few shops in the nation to deal exclusively in tandems, and expects to sell 100 this year.