Cheap Tandems.... Why pay more?

Why not pay less for a N_ _ _ b _ _ tandem? I certainly AGREE that any tandem is better than none. When cycling enthusiasts ask my opinion about a sub-$1000 tandem, I ask them what they'd say to a next door neighbor who was excited about becoming a cycling enthusiast and was thinking about buyin g a $149 mountain bike at Wal-Mart.

If my neighbor were to tell me he was planning to buy a $149 mountain bike, I would counsel him to budget more even if it meant delaying his purchase for a couple of months. If his budgetary constraint was larger than a couple of extra paychecks, I'd implore him to look for a good used bike. Fin ally though, if I sensed he was either going to buy a Huffy or lose interest in cycling; I'd encourage him to buy the Huffy.

What's wrong with sub-$300 single bikes and sub-$1,500 tandems? Like my old Huffy, neither will survive two years of sustained enthusiastic use.

The biggest problem with cheap tandems (and Wal-Mart single bikes), is those bikes are so aggravating to maintain and ride that most buyers will soon become discouraged and quit. Together, Gitane, Motobecane and Peugeot sold nearly 10,000 tandems in the U.S. between 1970 and 1980--even in the mi dst of that decade you rarely saw more than one or two of these tandems at rallies and century rides (didn't see a lot of Huffys either).

Have things changed? YES. The Yakotas, Fishers, Miyatas and "woven-truss" Burleys that sold for $1200-$1600 during 1988-1992 were better engineered and better equipped than the old Peugeots and Motobecanes, but the target had moved. (Compared to a mid-'70s Volvo, a 1991 Hyundai was a better engi neered and better equipped car--but that didn't make the Hyundai a contender for car of the year).

And today we have Univega, KHS, Roland and Nashbar tandems for under $800. If you buy one and ride it hard for the next two years, you'll end up buying new wheels, headset, bottom brackets, pedals and lots more. More likely? I hate to say it, but most people who buy these bikes will simply quit tandeming to avoid further aggravation. When they sell their tandem they'll discover a mint-condition hardly-used Taiwan tandem will return less than 50 cents on the dollar.

A better answer? Find a used tandem. A few broad categories:

Used junk in nearly unridden condition: While neither is recommended, it's better to spend $400 for a twice-ridden brand-X tandem than $800 for a new one.

Well used tandems with upgraded parts: While I can't possibly recommend a 20-year old Gitane or Motobecane, I can enthusiastically recommend a 4-yr old Fisher or Burley with upgraded wheels and derailleurs. These upgraded tandems sell for $600-$800 and are often more reliable than a new tandem at twice the price.

Another good option is a used custom tandem. Lots of guys will drop $2,000 to $5,000 on a high-zoot tandem from a regional framebuilder and then discover their girlfriend won't ride with them. If you spend a few months looking, you might find a nearly unridden weirdly-spec'd tandem with flashy p aint for as little as 40 cents on the original dollar. Things to watch-out for are too-light wheels and squirrelly single-bike geometries.

Used Treks: Trek didn't start delivering tandems until 1993 and because sales were only a small fraction of what was projected, these tandems hit the factory close-out list a few months later and have remained there ever since. Hundreds of T-200's, originally priced at $2500-$3000, were sold to d ealers for less than half-price--I've seen brand new ones unloaded for as little as $1200. The T-100, originally pegged at $1800, is now commonly discounted to just under $1000. All Trek tandems (even the now-discontinued T-50) share an identical frame. Except for chronic wheel problems--Trek w ill replace the originals with upgraded wheels if they don't make it through the first year--these have been reliable tandems. Because sub-$1000 pricing on new Trek tandems has killed the resale value of used ones, a used Trek tandem can be purchased for as little as $600-$700. It will be intere sting to see if prices for used Treks rebound when Trek finally exhausts the stockpile of tandem frames they produced a few years ago.

Used Cannondales: Introduced in 1988, 700c Cannondale tandems were sold as framesets only through 1992. Like custom tandems, many of these early Dales will have a strange mix of components that could be very good or bad. Since 1993, prices on new 700c Cannondales have remained stable while the value of the included components has dropped. Prices for a 700c Cannondale with a 3-8 years of hard use will range from $1400-$2000.

Used Santana tandems: After two years of testing, the first production Santana tandems were delivered to customers in 1978. At $1200, the original Santana was not only four times more expensive than the $299 Gitane, we lost money on every one. By 1983, the final year we produced the marathon frame design, the price of Santana's only model had doubled. All of these pre-model-name "Classic" Santana tandems were built with seamless double-butted tubing--still exotic by today's standards. These first generation Santanas sell used for $1000-$1500. Mid-'80s fillet-brazed direct lateral "Sovereigns" and "Arrivas" sell used for $1500-$2200. Late '80s Elans and Visas, along with tig-welded Arrivas, now sell used for about what they cost new; $1200-1800. Any '90s vintage Santana will sell used for 60-70% of the current price for the same model. Since prices have gone up an average of just over 20% in the same period, a customer who sells a 4-year old 700c Santana will recover up to 80% of their original investment.

For a wide variety of reasons 26-inch tandems, including those build by Santana, have depreciated a bit faster than 700c tandems.

Still not convinced a used tandem is a better buy? Consider these two scenarios:

The first couple spends less than $2000 on a brand-new "beginner" tandem. If they overcome the difficulties and continue to ride it enthusiastically, over the next 2-3 years they'll spend a few hundred bucks upgrading components. By the end of 3 years they'll have outgrown the performance of their original frame. Cost of 2-3 years of ownership (depreciation and necessary upgrades): $800-$1200.

The second couple spends less than $1500 on a used tandem instead. Any used tandem they buy will retain over 90% of it's current value for the next 2 years. If they find a well-used tandem where the original owner has already upgraded the components, the repair costs are less than half of they'd be with a new or near-new tandem. The cost of ownership for the next 2-3 years (depreciation and remaining necessary upgrades): $0-$500.

If they continue to ride together, either couple will start looking for a better tandem with a good frame within three years. If you are already a confirmed cyclist, have a committed partner and some money in the bank, why not buy a new tandem that won't need to be upgraded or resold? The biggest reason to spend more on a good tandem is to avoid owning a bike that is inefficient and unreliable. Buying a tandem is NOT like buying a house, car, or appliance. Because those items are necessities, you'll continue to use them no matter what. But if your new tandem isn't fun and easy to use, you'll soon quit riding it. Because people are discouraged by cheap tandems, fewer than 50% of these bikes will enjoy continuous use by their original owners.

Isn't it risky to spend big bucks and then discover you don't like tandeming? No, the opposite is true. After selling an average of over 100 new tandems per year at my bike shop for the past 22 years (many brands besides Santana), I not only believe buyers of $3,000 tandems are more than twice as likely as the buyers of $1,500 tandems to continue to use them, I am certain the customers for either bike will experience the same $600-$700 in depreciation if they soon decide to sell.

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