We’re back from blog holiday! And yet still buzzing with holiday spirit and creativity and plans. So, you might have seen Bike Auckland secretary Greg Nikoloff around and about on his amazing electric bike, the ‘Orange Smoothy’. But Greg and cool bikes go way back, as he explains in this shaggy-dog story of two lads and some epic tinkering… 

It all started some 36 years ago – and as these things always seemed to back then, it started with something my younger brother Simon did. Something that sparked: a mishap, an idea, an epic adventure.

Simon worked in a garage after school, which meant he had access to cool stuff like welding, spray-painting… and the money he earned from serving petrol. Even with all that pocket money, he was always wheeling and dealing with the customers, scrounging for free stuff. Petrol-powered lawn mowers. Solex motor scooters. And once: two old bicycles.

He brought them home welded together into a tandem bicycle. It was pretty basic: it had old-school 3 speed “Sturmey-Archer” hub gears, and shonky brakes and steering… as we soon found out.

My friend Neale & I borrowed it one Sunday for a jaunt around the Port Hills of Christchurch, to see what tandem riding was like. This was a trip we’d done many times before on our own bikes, and usually it took us about 3 hours. Riding it tandem-style was something new & adventurous. And, we also hoped: quicker. Twice the pedalling = twice the speed?

Alas, no. Halfway through, the trip ended ignominiously. Neale was “driving” – a little too casually, with both hands off the handlebars, and thanks to the shonky steering and brakes he ended up losing control. He ran us at about 50kph into the rock wall on the right. Ouch!

This caused the front forks to bend & twist badly. The front wheel came off, as did quite a bit of paint, and some skin. Luckily we’d missed hitting a car going the other way. And even luckier: we didn’t veer off the road to the left, where a steep downhill slope awaited.

Simon wasn’t impressed, and banned us from riding it any more. I’d already banned Neale from driving any tandem I was ever on, during the long trudge back home with a busted tandem. But it had been fun while it lasted.

So could we build our own? A better made one? That couldn’t be too hard, could it? Neale said, “Suppose we mash together the front & back halves of two bike frames, weld in a bottom bar to hold it all together, and voila – a tandem.”

Something like this was what we had in mind…

tandem-bicikl2

It sounded so simple. But first problem: where to get decent (and free) bike frames from? Simon’s bike deal had been a one-off, a never-to-be-repeated miracle.

OK. So what about our own bikes?

Mine was a Raleigh 20, and Neale’s was a 28-inch, 30 year old… thing. No dice. For one thing, the result would be an unholy marriage, a mongrel “Franken-tandem ” with mis-sized frames and wheels.

And secondly, we still needed our own bikes to get around. Another solution was needed.

Fortunately, Christchurch Council had recently started inorganic rubbish collections. They’d place some rubbish skips at specified sites for a weekend, and local scouts & volunteer groups would monitor the arrival of rubbish to ensure the skips were filled efficiently, one at a time.

We realised that if you volunteered to monitor the skips, people would essentially brought their junk to you, for you to fossick through before it went into the bins. Fantastic! And so it proved.

A fountain of free stuff arrived by the car load, continuously, for the whole weekend, and we harvested about a dozen bikes. The irreparably munted ones (yep, that word existed back then) we stripped for parts, then sold the frames & other useless metal off to the scrap metal guys. The funds went back to the scouts/ volunteer groups manning the skips (scout’s honour!) and any remaining unrecyclable bits went into the skip.

Right. Now we had the raw materials, how to proceed?

We picked the two strongest & best matched frames, and stripped them of everything: wheels, pedals, brakes, mudguards, pedal cranks, forks, right back to bare frames. Out came the hacksaw. One careful cut, vertically through the steering tube on the bike frame that was to be the the back half; later, it fitted neatly to the seat post area on the front frame.

For the front half, we removed the rear wheel fork and rear wheel fork supports from the seat post tube, leaving enough of the rear forks to provide good welding anchors for the bottom support tube we’d have to create.

To link the two bottom crank housings together, we needed a strong bit of tubing. None of the pieces of bike we had were long enough, or would withstand the welding process. So out came 2 foot long piece of 1 inch galvanised water pipe. With lots (and I mean lots) of careful hacksawing & filing, it was a perfect fit.

That pipe added a lot of weight – way more than we’d trimmed off the frames. But it would make the frame very rigid and strong. The key thing for two strapping lads who were to ride it.

The basic parts looked a bit like this before mounting for welding (the silver part represents the water-pipe bottom support bar):

tandem-before welding

(Note: this image is from AtomicZombie.com, who have plans for how to make something similar from two MTB frames, if you want to have a go yourself)

To ensure alignment of the two halves, we made a welding jig using wooden 4x2s. Large washers & bolts firmly secured the bike frames to the jig. We figured that during welding the frames would stay aligned, and they’d come through the welding process without twisting, cracking or bending. We hoped we were right.

Neale’s father arranged the welding for us. A few days later the “patient” went off to the welders. It was a tense wait, as with any operation, to see if the patient would hold up and if the surgery had been successful. Post-surgery measurements showed all was good. Utter relief!

I spent many days stripping back & removing the burnt & loose paint and rust from the frame so it could be acid etched & primed. The top coat was to be hand-painted enamel house paint. Neale bought the paint so he chose the colour: a bright purple called “Victorian”. [Ed: how perfectly Christchurch!] 

With wheels, brakes, cranks, gears, chains and pedals installed, a 27-speed tandem was born.

27! It had 3 front sprockets, 3 gears on the rear wheel, & 3 internal hub gears, making for 27 gears. When we took it for a test ride over the Port Hills, we found we needed every one of those 27 gears. But on the flat we could easily lollop along at about 45 kph. And it had good brakes and steering. A total success!

Here’s the finished product in all its purple glory…

GregN1979_BikeTrip2

Tandem built. Job done? Not quite. Creating the tandem was just the first act of a much larger drama, one that culminated with an epic 1000km, 15-day bike trip around the Upper South Island in the summer of 1979/80. That’s Neale and me at the top of Spooners Range south of Nelson, a real bugger of a climb I can tell you; photo taken about January 2nd 1980.

But this story is long enough already – so I’ll save that one for another day.

— Greg Nikoloff

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2 responses to “School holiday inspiration: Greg & Neale build a tandem

  1. A pretty good summary of the facts! The Tandem was called “The Grid”, the trailer was known as “Son of Grid.” Top speed with trailer was about 50kmph then we got speed wobbles! The next inastallment will be enjoyable! Memories from a longtime ago.

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