This Is Why Cycling Couples Should Go Bike Touring on a Tandem

Most people go bike touring on individual bikes, but is that really the best solution if you are a couple?

Not if you ask Jessilyn and Neil. They are a cycling duo based in Germany and in this interview, they share all about their tandem adventures in Burma, Ireland and Germany.

Read on and learn how you should start your bike tour, what Jessilyn and Neil’s favorite gear are, why you should also consider bike touring on a tandem – and what you need to look out for!

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

We are Jessilyn Yoo and Neil Calderwood, a cycling duo currently based in Berlin, Germany. Jess originally hails from New York and is a project manager at Fjord, a service design consultancy. Neil moved here from London and works at Futurice as a master debater.

At the risk of sounding like one of those obnoxious couples who have everything in common, we do like to do a lot of stuff together. Besides both working in the digital design industry, we also founded Sunday Album Club and did a talk once about how music helped us be together when we couldn’t be together. When we have time, we’re also chipping away at a service, which curates foreigner-approved guesthouses in Burma for cycle tourists. And most importantly, we’re proud parents to a lovable Jack Russell Terrier named Baldrick.

Cyclists Jessilyn and Neil
Taken by friendly farmers in the middle of Burma.

How and why did you get into cycling?

Jess: My love of cycling really only began once I moved to Berlin in 2014. Germany simply has better cycling infrastructure than the US, not to mention a much healthier attitude to work-life balance. I suddenly had leisure time, something I didn’t get much of in New York, so I purchased my first singlespeed, and quickly added on a tourer and road bike.

Neil: Like any other child of the Eighties, I cut my cycling teeth on a BMX, graduating to a mountain bike in about 1990. Even as a kid, the idea of just getting on my bike and riding to wherever was appealing, but my mother was having none of it. Later, life kept getting in the way of any potential adventures, and although I kept riding, it wasn’t until I moved to Berlin that I had the time and cash to go touring. Finally finding the ideal travelling companion was a big factor too.

Our first tour, along the Rhine, came about because we once wondered how many countries it’s possible to ride through in one day. We reckoned it was five – Germany, Netherlands, France, Belgium and Luxembourg – but that looked pretty tough. Then we noticed an easy four – Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Next thing you know we and our bikes are on an overnight bus to Munich to give it a try.

Jess: Neither of us had been on a bike tour before, but we both admired people who gave up their homes, jobs, and lives to ride off over the horizon. So we started to compile a list of places and countries we’d love to travel through via bike one day.

Neil: I had done plenty of long rides before, so I knew I had the legs for a proper tour, but it was all new to Jess. So we did a succession of ever-longer out-and-back rides, then overnight trips. She really took to it like a duck to water, and we knew a proper tour was feasible.

Cyclists Jessilyn and Neil
Riding on the “Tisis Schönblickweg” (literally “Beautiful Path”) in Liechtenstein.

Why is cycling important for you?

Jess: As a child, I spent too much time inside, looking out the window, and now I’m trying to make up for lost time by getting outdoors as much as possible. I do most of the thinking and planning of our tours, and I’m the one who makes sure the crazy ideas become reality.

Neil: I don’t think it’s possible to be truly unhappy on a bike. No matter how tough it gets, no matter how miserable the weather, cycling is a liberation from all that weighs you down and holds you back. It’s as good for the mind as it is for the body.

Jess: You can forget all the normal distractions and focus your attention on the scenery, the people passing by, your breathing. When you get a good cadence going, it can be quite meditative. It is the ultimate freedom.

Cyclists Jessilyn and Neil
A free tour by a local cyclist on our way to Strasbourg, France.
Cyclists Jessilyn and Neil
What makes it all worth it. Gliding into Breisach, Germany at the end of a very hard day.

What have been the best parts of your cycling adventures?

Neil: We’ve seen some unforgettable sights. Piloting our fully-loaded tandem down a twisty, pothole-strewn mountain in the Burmese jungle, as separatist rebels skirmished with government forces around us, isn’t a ride I’ll forget in a hurry. But for me, the best parts nearly always involve some act of human kindness by someone we meet along the way.

Jess: For me, cycling is the best way for us to travel, but we’re quite different riders. Neil’s happiest battering along on the flat, while my small frame is better suited for climbing hills. When we toured on individual bikes, we spent a lot of time looking behind for the other person. This is how we came up with the idea of a tandem, but we had no idea if we would actually enjoy it.

To test it out, we bought a 90s-vintage Dawes tandem from PedalPower, a local shop in Berlin that specializes in unconventional machinery. We enjoyed it so much that we commissioned them to make one just for us. On a tandem, our different strengths complement each other instead of being an annoyance.

Plus, it’s different. You don’t come across too many tandem tourers.

Cyclists Jessilyn and Neil
Samson, the BattleTandem™.

What have been the most difficult parts?

Samson the BattleTandem is a complex beast, and riding through Burma, something or other malfunctioned practically every day. In hindsight, taking such a weird machine for its first tour through a country with no good bike shops probably wasn’t the best idea we ever had.

In Northern Ireland, we lost the use of our lowest three gears on the first day. Cycling there is deceptively hard – there are no big mountains to climb, but you’re constantly grunting up short, steep hills that really sap the legs.

And it’s a given that both of us will get a cold at some point during the trip – so dealing with illness and trying to fit in rest days when you don’t have time to spare is sometimes difficult.

Like anybody, we don’t have an infinite budget, but we usually manage to keep a lid on the spending. Warmshowers has been a life-saver as well as a money-saver, and we always make sure to get our money’s worth out of the “Breakfast” part of bed and breakfast.

Neil: My biggest dangers on the road would be my own stupidity. The only time I’ve fallen on tour was when I did a big fake yawn and stretch to mock Jess for lagging behind. When I opened my eyes I had veered off course and was heading for a canal, and had to quickly ditch the bike before I ended up in the drink.

Jess: Yep.

When everything is a mess, you can get a pretty good sing-song going on a tandem.

Cyclists Jessilyn and Neil
Taking a pitstop up Binevenagh Hill in Northern Ireland.

How do you eat and sleep on the road?

Eating like pigs is at least half the point of going on tour for us. Having said that, we haven’t always been very clever about it. Riding through Switzerland over Easter weekend when everything was shut and it was nearly impossible to find a snack was hard going. And our first two days in Burma were fueled solely by bananas.

We don’t usually carry much of any food, and rely on eating along the road. By stopping and eating whatever’s on offer, you get a more complete experience of a place and its people, and it’s worth spending a bit of money on.

We’ve never taken a tent on a longer tour, but not because we don’t like the idea – camping is illegal in Burma, and our other tours have been in unreliable weather, and we wanted somewhere warm to stay at the end of the day. So it’s mostly guesthouses or Warmshowers hosts.

People are usually really good about finding a safe, dry spot for Samson. In Northern Ireland, he spent the night in garages, conservatories, dining rooms, a pub cellar.

Cyclists Jessilyn and Neil
On top of the world in Yenangyaung, Burma.

What is your best advice for new cyclists out there?

Remember it’s supposed to be fun. Enjoy it first, worry about speed and distance later. Pretty soon you’ll surprise yourself with what you’re capable of. And for goodness’ sake raise your saddles a bit! If you can put your foot on the ground while you’re sitting in the saddle, it’s too low.

Neil: Get yourself a riding partner like Jess.

Jess: Don’t ever let anyone tell you that cycling through [insert-country-here] is a bad idea. It can and will be done.

Neil: Get yourself a riding partner like Jess.

Jess: Don’t ever let anyone tell you that cycling through [insert-country-here] is a bad idea. It can and will be done.

Cyclists Jessilyn and Neil
The end of Burma – in Bagan.

How do you prepare for your cycling adventures?

Long, dark winter nights spent studying maps, elevation profiles, scenery etc. After a while, we will have drawn up a pretty meticulously researched day-by-day plan. Then when we get there, we’ll end up ignoring half of that and making it up as we go along.

Our tour through Burma was in January and February, and we needed to be reasonably fit for it. But it was the dead of winter in Berlin, and the weather’s not exactly conducive to training. We may be the only people ever to put a tandem on a turbo trainer.

For Northern Ireland, we should have just sat in the shower in full cycling kit to acclimatize.

When purchasing gear, try to stick to popular stuff that every bike mechanic is familiar with, in case it breaks. We use nothing but Ortlieb bags. There are cheaper options, but with their gear you know exactly what you’re getting and it’s not going to let you down.

Cyclists Jessilyn and Neil
Scaring old ladies while training in the Berlin winter.

How do you finance your cycling?

All by ourselves.

We’d never take money off others to fund our hobby. Having said that, if anybody wants to give us kit to test (dhb, we’re looking at you!), we’re wide open to it.

We both have normal jobs, but we get a pretty generous six weeks of holiday a year, so that allows for some decent touring.

A touring tandem that you can split into two and take on a plane ain’t cheap, but we won’t need to buy another one any time soon.

If we are going to spend money on between gear and travel, we’d say gear, although now that we’ve got pretty much everything we need, travel’s going to be the majority of our expenditure in the future.

Cyclists Jessilyn and Neil
Signs of good times.

How do you balance normal life with cycling?

We try to do two tours each year – one in the winter and one in the late summer/fall. Training is easy in the summer – it’s just a matter of going out for long rides – but in the winter, we have to be a bit more deliberate about it, and that usually means sweating away on the turbo trainer. Before Northern Ireland, life got in the way and we didn’t get in enough training at all, but it all worked out OK. A few days on the road and you get fit pretty fast.

One big challenge now is that we have a dog. There’s a lovely dog hotel out of town where he can spend his time while we’re away, and he seems to be happy there, but we still feel bad about leaving him, so that puts a limit on how long we’re prepared to be on the road.

What has been your best cycling purchase below $100?

Our Ortlieb Ultimate 6 Classic handlebar bag, affectionately known as the “Sandwich bag”, is the bee’s knees. All the things you need often, like passports, smartphones, snacks and tools, are close at hand without having to dig through your panniers. Best of all, it locks up and comes with a shoulder strap so you can carry your essentials with you everywhere.

Cyclists Jessilyn and Neil

What other favorite cycling gear do you have?

Neil: I have a lovely Vulpine Harrington jacket, which keeps me dry on the road, but also looks good enough to wear day-to-day. I hear the company got in a bit of financial trouble lately, so I don’t know if they’re still available.

Jess: Mine is my dhb Thermal Padded Bib Tights. Never have I ever wanted to keep wearing something after a day’s ride because it kept me warmer than a fireplace.

What will the future bring?

We’re getting married in August and then plan to take an extended cycling honeymoon next year through South Korea. Cuba is another place that’s hot on our list right now. We’d love to tour Iran, but as one of us is a US citizen and the other British, it’s just not feasible until we acquire other nationalities – but we’re working on that. We’ve heard so many wonderful things about the country and its people.

Our dream is to continue riding off the beaten track and experience everyday life in the only way we know how – by being respectful to the land and people who live there, and by hopefully leaving it in a better place than when we first arrived. It’s the only way cycle tourism can continue to thrive.

Cyclists Jessilyn and Neil

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