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.
 (photo by Lanny Hoff)

In Wilson, 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.


todd said...

wonderful. thanks for telling.

MN Kickbiker said...

I agree completely. That was a great account of how your kids have come to appreciate and enjoy being able to ride with dad. I envy you and especially because I have seen your kids I am very proud of them and happy for them. They are getting something many kids never get and getting it in a customized, custom-built form. Great that you can modify the bike so perfectly to accommodate.

midway cyclist said...

Good story, and a perfectly natural evolution when you put it that way. Oliver looks like a badass in that last picture, he looks ready for more. Would you have one of the kids ride on the deck, or would that be too much weight in the back?

Jim Thill said...

Yep, the plan is to have one kid on the snapdeck. I think the weight will be ok.

Apertome said...

Amazing, I love it!

reuben said...

love it.

Anonymous said...

Jim, nice story about the family's wheels. As for too much weight on snap deck. Do people not put over 100lbs in panniers on three seaters?


Grace R. Freedman said...

This is awesome! Thanks for sharing a great story, We live in Brooklyn and ride with our three kids: 2 on their own bikes and one in a Bobike that's on an Xtracycle. I have definitely seen people haul 2 and 3 kids on an Xtarcycle deck, though it is probably a hard balance for the adult rider. I do my family grocery shop on an Xtracycle and can easily haul 100lbs of food! Keep on biking!

Fonk said...

Nice!! It must be nice for your kids to have a dad who can make the bike that'll work best for the family. Great to see you getting them interested so young.

We were back in Mpls last week, and took the kids for some rides around Nokomis and Harriet in the Burley trailers we have. They had a blast, and made me realize I need to get them out on rides with me more at home, instead of always going off for my solo road/MTB rides. I also need to either get a trail-a-bike or kid tandem setup for my eldest daughter, as she's fast outgrowing the trailer, and I think would have run pedaling along w/ Dad.

Jim Thill said...

A kid-back tandem would be a great investment for anybody who has young children. If you are handy with bike stuff and find a deal on a used tandem, you can have a pretty nice one for $1000 or less, depending on the local market for used tandems, of course.

mike c said...

Elissa ... 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."

Dude. I literally got misty as I read that. Thank Sheldon you're blogging again.

patrick said...

Cool beans. Thanks for taking up your pen once more. This is truly inspiring.

Kris B said...

I saw the tandem + out in full force this weekend. We were working in the yard, I pointed to my wife and said... that's the tandem I was telling you about. Looks like a blast, and both kids seem to be having a great time. Well Done.