It’s possible the Ellsworth Witness is misnamed. I think Witless would be a better description since you have to have a screw loose to think about climbing on the back of one for your first experience of off-road tandems. Yet that’s precisely what I did on Wednesday night…
For some time now Darren and Amanda have been turning up for rides with their Ellsworth Witness tandem in preference to their usual bikes. They’ve even claimed they enjoy it and certainly we’ve all been amazed that they seem to ride everything we do – and more – on the tandem, twisty singletrack included. I’ve often wondered how that works.
I’m still none the wiser. After weeks of Darren offering to pilot me on the tandem I finally gave in and decided to give it a go. I turned up at the garage as usual to find Darren and Adam there, with Amanda en-route via Brockham, Coldharbour and Wolverns Lane to rendezvous with us. Also there were a long-time-no-see JamesH, D’Andy, Tony and DaveW, all keen to see how I’d get on.
A few test runs up and down the road showed first off that communication is key so the rear rider (the stoker) knows which way the bike is turning, and second you really only need small body movements to help the bike round turns. If you spend all your time leaning round the pilot to see you are just going to steer you both into the scenery. So there’s an element of trust involved.
I found the seat post way too low for me as it’s normally set up for Amanda and just isn’t long enough but at least it would make getting off easy. The front, in comparison was monstrously high with Fox 36 forks on and a standover that gave me no clearance at all. The Witness is also fitted up with wide downhill Easton bars so it felt enormous but obviously suited Darren’s style.
So we headed off up Crabtree and it soon became apparant that riding uphill is bloody hard work! I expected that two riders and one bike would mean rapid progress but no. Things weren’t helped by the low saddle but I was soon puffing as I had to adapt my riding style to Darren’s lower cadence and bigger gears style. And the was nothing I could do!
First off we headed into Wiggly Wood where I concentrated on doing as I was told and getting used to the idea that I had no gears, no brakes and no vision. Where’s the appeal in that?
Well actually, it was fun! Partly you are amazed that the bike is handling the twists and turns at all, partly it’s that you focus on such a narrow range of inputs to help rather than hinder the pilot; at the same time you can’t stop concentrating or let up your effort. It’s kind of like riding to the power of two (no pun intended). There’s no free ride anywhere.
Pretty soon we headed downhill. I’m not sure it helps to know the trail so well as I could tell we were travelling pretty fast over rooty and steppy singletrack. I was thankful the Hope V2 / 203mm rotor combo was working well as the braking seemed immense thankfully, but the acceleration was incredible.
Onto the Polesdon estate we crossed over the Stone Bridge and then down the side to pick up the fast bridleway underneath, all taken at high speed. Great fun and strangely enjoyable for the fact that I didn’t have to make the decisions.
Soon though it was back uphill and then on to Ranmore where I was scarlet at the top from the effort. Left to my own devices I’d have eased off much earlier but not with Darren. It was painful but at least I hung in there.
Next we swapped ends with me taking on the piloting duties along Badger Run and Collarbone. With such a huge cockpit and massive forks it really gives you a workout on your top half as the steering is so much more exaggerated to counteract the bike’s desire to understeer. It’s just slower steering and you soon adapt but I stalled us on the noodly tree group that accounted for my collarbone a few years back. Aside from that you almost forget how long the bike is.
At White Down our normal positions were resumed. D’Andy, DaveW and I think Adam cleared the log on Trouble in Paradise while we rounded the tree and even made it round the fallen log at the oak tree near the end without dabbing, a testament to Darren’s steering skills. As the stoker you have to be ready to spin up the the power quickly to keep the bike balanced.
We then headed toward the Drover’s Road past the reservoir on the North Downs Way, picking up incredible speed over the fast tracks. I have no idea of our exact line as we seemed to plough round and over everything, the rear shock hitting full travel at times. Again, you have to stay seated as there’s no option to lift up so the bike does a lot of the work, and pretty effectively. We were certainly not holding people up and on anything slightly downhill we just disappeared. Amazing.
On the Drover’s Road we picked up a whole lot more speed too, setting a fierce pace. It was hard work but I was enjoying myself but I knew there was tougher stuff still to come. Pretty soon we’d decided – I won’t say agreed – to take on the narrow singletrack down to Honeysuckle Bottom under the narrow flint bridges. It’s a route I would usually treat with respect on my own bike and I was glad Darren was in charge.
It passed in a blur, chasing Tony and Adam. I didn’t even notice Tony’s chain which completely detached from his bike somehow, I was just trying not to block Darren’s efforts. He admitted the scenery was headed our way a couple of times but we got to the bottom in once piece where we had a short break while Adam and Amanda rode back up to discover Tony’s chain still lying in the middle of the trail by one of the bridges!
We headed along to the Impossible Climb and surprised ourselves by cleaning a big chunk of it until we reached the ledge which is the key bit to get over. We were just starting to lose traction in any case when DaveW suffered an extraordinary incident as he wheelie’d back off his Orange as the front wheel stalled on the ledge. With no immediate surface to get his feet onto he was down and on his back while the Five somersaulted back and over him, fortunately with no injury.
After a short push we had another heart-in-mouth descent down the heavy gullies to Sheepleas, once again I just tried to hang on and not hinder things as the big bike bounced down the trail. Another sharp and painful climb got us onto the Sheepleas tops and then we headed down the wide track to the singletrack, nearly understeering off at high speed. Into the trees, I kept thinking to myself this is impossible as we threaded our way down the trail and yet we got through unscathed, with Darren calling out ‘Power’ on the straights and me trying to oblige. Super fun.
By now the technical stuff was done and I felt I could relax a bit as we picked up some big speed to head round the back of Horsley on simple trails to Effingham and Bookham Common via the bumpy – oh how bumpy – field. As I said, you can’t get out of the saddle on the tandem and that rear shock was working bloody hard!
Back in Bookham we stopped for a pint at the Anchor (thanks D’Andy) which rounded out a memorable evening. Tandem MTB riding is a truly unique experience. Thanks to Darren for his competence, patience and skills in making sure this newbie returned in one piece.