We are Rose and Jackson Green, New Zealand’s tandem downhill racers. Racing tandem mountain bikes has been our passion for the last thirteen years. But here in New Zealand we have no other tandems to race against, so instead must pit ourselves against people on normal downhill rigs. We love that competition, but it has long been a dream of ours to ride and race downhill with other tandem teams.
But where could we find other tandems to race? There is no tandem mountain bike world championship and only a handful of downhill tandem teams in the world. Luckily, more than half of the world's tandem downhill teams live in Catalonia, so a trip to Spain and France was on the cards.
The first obstacle was to get our bike on the aeroplane. Within New Zealand, we have flown with the bike inside an extra large cardboard bike box made by gluing two standard bike boxes together. This wouldn’t be suitable for a round-the-world trip though, as we would have nowhere to store the box at our destination. We asked some local bag manufacturers if they could make something for us, but none were keen, so our only option was to make it ourselves. After searching all over the internet we found a fabric supplier who could give us something suitable, and we took the scissors to a standard bike bag to give it the “stretch limo” treatment. Our poor old sewing machine had a tough time with the heavy-duty fabric, but we coaxed it through with only a couple of broken needles, and the end result was a 2m long bag for our 1960mm wheel base.
The next decision was which bike to bring, the enduro or downhill tandem? We wanted to race some downhill races and some enduro races, and do a bunch of trail riding in between. After much deliberation we tried fitting dropper posts and a smaller chainring to our downhill bike, and it turned out great. The smaller chainring made the suspension stiffen up nicely under pedalling, as well as giving us a lower gear. Of course, we still needed a big chainring for downhill racing, so we packed two sets of rear cranks to make switching easy. With the bike transport sorted, we bundled our children off for a 4 week holiday with their amazing grandparents (thank you!) and we were off.
After 40 hours in aeroplanes and airports we arrived in Paris and immediately drove 12 hours to the small Spanish town of Briviesca. We had been invited here by fellow tandem downhillers David and Fabi to participate as an exhibition category in the final round of the Spanish Open downhill series. We were a little nervous as we had traveled from the other side of the world to meet these people we had only previously met on social media. Would we be able to communicate through the language barrier? Would we be able to keep up? Would our competitive instincts create bitter rivalry and antagonism? As it turned out Fabi and David were wonderful and we had a fantastic time comparing setups, discussing lines and riding tandems. Spanish Open DH Briviesca
The race was held on a very short track with many abrupt drops created by old agricultural terraces, topped off with an urban finish in the historic heart of Briviesca. We had a lot of fun practicing the course and posted a respectable qualifying time that would have seen us beat a few riders on normal DH bikes. Frustratingly, our derailleur snapped off as we landed the first jump in our race run, forcing us to stop. In the end it didn't matter as we were only riding as an exhibition and were not allowed to post an official time, but it left us yearning to show what we could do.
We were exhausted after our massive journey immediately followed by a race weekend, so we gratefully accepted our friend's invitation to spend a few days at their home near Barcelona. This gave us the chance to rest, fix the bike, and visit an unusual tourist attraction - the Galfer Brakes factory. Galfer supply the pads and rotors for most of the tandem downhill teams in Catalonia, and we spent a fascinating morning learning how much time and effort goes in to making our brake pads. Brakes are always a problem spot on a downhill tandem, so we were very pleased to recieve some oversize 9" rotors and some prototype rotors made thicker than usual to help us manage heat. We were keen to try them out, so with bags full of disc rotors and brake pads we headed to the trail-riding mecca of Aìnsa. Aìnsa
The area around Aìnsa has an incredible number of enduro trails and was a stop on the EWS in 2016 and 2018. The trails have fantastic variety with everything from ledgy, lumpy limestone to deep loam, and even some desert-like areas similar to French terre noir. The local trail organisation, Zona Zero, has opened up many of the historic trails in the area for bike access, and many local businesses contribute to their funding to bring riders to the area. The downhill bike was hard work going up, so after a couple of days of pedalling in Spanish heat we were grateful for the local shuttle companies who were enthusiastic to help us get the tandem up the hill.
The riding around Aìnsa was fantastic, but as a pair of Kiwi's from a young country we were just as thrilled with the 11th century heritage of the town and the villages the trails pass through. Every day brought a new experience of castles, abandoned villages, or locals who could show you where their grandmother had made the soap for the whole village. Andorra
We lingered a long time in in Aìnsa, but eventually we had to move on. Next stop was Andorra and Vallnord bike park to ride with David and Fabi again. We were disappointed to find the world cup track was closed until after the world cup, but it was fun to ride into all the jump features on the flow trails at full pace and without a second thought, something you can’t do on the less predictable trails we have in New Zealand.
Rose is often asked if she has to do anything on the back of the bike, or if she is just a passenger. To jump smoothly on a tandem, the stoker (rear rider) must respond to the captain’s (front rider’s) body language so that they can pop or pump at the same time. If the captain tries to soak up a bump but the stoker tries to pop it, you can end up with a frighteningly nose-heavy landing. Jackson has heard Rose give this explanation many times, but he had never had first-hand experience of what it was like to be the stoker. With two experienced captains riding together, now was his chance. David and Jackson each took turns to ride stoker on some difficult trails. Reviewing gopro footage that evening, we noticed that Jackson and Rose had taken only three and a half minutes to complete a section of trail that took Jackson and David over eight minutes to descend. You really do need a good stoker! Cerdanya
After the coddled bike park experience of Vallnord we were looking for something more adventurous, and the border town of Puigcerdà looked like it had interesting terrain. We scoped out a route on the topo map that descended from 2550m on Puig de Dòrria to Ribes de Freser, more than 1600m below. The ridge looked like the right gradient and the hiking photos we found on the internet looked promising, but we could find no information on what the trail would be like to ride, even from talking to local riders. Even so, we were looking for adventure and with a full race schedule coming up, this was our only chance to get some big mountain riding before the end of our trip.
The first problem was how to run the shuttle. The route required an 80km road shuttle, and we weren't keen to ride that on our downhill bike. Luckily the local bike shop put us in contact with Paul at Taksi Trigo, a local taxi operator who is willing to carry anything you have to anywhere you want on the taximeter. We were a little sceptical at the idea of taking a taxi to 2000m up a mountain road, but Paul seemed enthusiastic and said he would see us in Ribes in the morning. That night, anxiety circled through our minds - was this a good idea to be getting dropped off by a stranger half way up a mountain, with only a dotted line on an open-source topomap as comfort? We didn't even know whether the track still existed! To make matters worse, the weather forecast was for a major thunderstorm that afternoon.
In the morning we arose before dawn. With hydration packs full of warm and waterproof clothing, baguette, soft cheese and fuet, we rode the taxi into the mountains. Paul Trigo explained the history of the area and pointed out all kinds of interesting features - the taxi ride was worth it as an experience itself. He also told us that our planned route was called el camí dels lladres, "the thieves path", and is a hiking route that was once used as a smuggling route to help maintain Catalan unity after it was divided by Spain and France. On the bike, we crossed back and forth the French-Spanish border as we ascended. We were treated to fantastic views, pretty flowers, and a visit from the guardia civil! Surely they didn't still patrol this border for smuggling? But they were just out for a training exercise and were fascinated by our bike. We reached the top short of breath with the altitude, but excited for the ride. The first third of the descent was fast open single track with the only challenge being to manage the heat in our brakes. It was fun and the views were good, but being so straightforward it a bit of a let down after our hopes for adventure. We didn’t feel let-down for long though, as we soon entered the forest and the adventure really began. The middle third of the descent was indistinct, rough, and sometimes overgrown to the point of it being hard to find a trail. What had we gotten ourselves into? After a couple of hours of bush bashing, and with 600m of descending still to go, we were becoming frustrated and just wanted to be able to ride for more than 50m at once. Fortunately, the trail suddenly transformed into a fabulous steep and technical descent. This lower third of the trail turned out to be probably the best quality riding of our entire holiday, and felt all the better for the frustration that had preceded it. Drinking our café con leche at Ribes and contemplating our fantastic adventure, the sky opened in a dramatic thunderstorm - what perfect timing!
Copa Catalana DH "Mordoride"
There really is a track here, right?
Our race programme was now dictating the rest of our travel schedule. We headed back into France, but still within Catalonia, to Les Angles where another tandem team had invited us to race the Mordoride downhill. Unfortunately they decided not to race due to a hand injury and the difficulty of the race course. And what a course it was! Nothing in the course was harder than what we would expect of the crux in a New Zealand downhill course, but almost every feature was right at that level. The relentless technical features made Mordoride the most demanding dry-weather downhill race we have competed in. After a track walk on Friday in the rain, we were excited to get out and see what we could do.
After ascending the lift and waiting at the start gate on Saturday morning we were dismayed to find that back protectors were compulsory in Catalonian races. The commissaire told us we would have to catch the lift down and find some back protectors before we could ride the course. We got down but could find no-one with a spare back protector - let alone two. After travelling round the world, how could we be thwarted by something so trivial? In desperation we put our backpacks on under our shirts (CE certified, right?) and went to the start gate to see what would happen. Fortunately, the backpacks were OK and we finally got to ride.
The practice day on Saturday was spent trying out various lines and trying to avoid the ‘chicken lines’, but after only six runs we were both exhausted. It felt like we had found lines that would allow us some reasonable flow, but it seemed like we wouldn't have the endurance to be able to put it all together in a single run. On Sunday we awoke with tired shoulders and time for only one messy practice to warm up. But qualifying went well with a solid run and the adrenalin of the race run really got us going. Rock gardens merged into rock gardens with the odd loamy section thrown in - we finished after 4min 43sec of intense descent with no respite. It was fantastic fun and, given the difficulty of the course for a tandem, we were pleased to finish 144th of 200 finishers. Megavalanche
Our final stop was one we had been looking forward to the whole trip, Alpe d'Huez to race the famous Megavalanche. Our base for the next week was in the Oisains (rhymes with poison) valley below the infamous Alp D’Huez. The area was humming with bikes as the Megavalanche hype grew, but first up was an event on the Wednesday, the Enduro D’Oz.
Practicing the enduro course revealed many sections that had been taped but left raw with no trail built. These raw sections exposed our great weakness when riding the tandem; not the tight corners that you might expect, but bottom-bracket catching rocks. On a built MTB track we can generally carry enough speed to jump over any obstacle, but on the off-camber off-piste in this enduro no-one could carry speed. There were many large, flat rocks where on a single bike you would hop up the front wheel, then hop up the back wheel as the front went off the other side. But on the tandem the front wheel was already off the rock before the back wheel had arrived, and we were left balancing on the bottom brackets. These off-piste sections were so slow and so much work that we thought about pulling out of the race, but eventually we decided to race anyway and just not worry about how slow we would be.
Come race day we felt pretty relaxed as we were going to be walking so much of the course. That feeling lasted about one minute as we realized that most riders on normal bikes were getting off as much as we were, and soon we were racing as hard as ever. On the first stage, we had a crash on a wide open area trying to slow down to cross a drainage ditch. With minimal traction on the grass, the tandem slid over and bent Jackson’s crank. We managed to finish the stage then straightened the crank by bashing it with a big rock. We were hot and frustrated, but our mood was improved by the sweet taste of the wild strawberries that we found while fixing our crank. The second stage was our favourite - steep, rocky, and a proper trail that allowed us to carry enough speed to clear features. The third stage involved a lot of off camber and newly cut track with sections through partially overgrown rock gardens, punctuated by crossing through drainage ditches. We walked a lot, but we obviously weren’t the only ones to find the course tricky, and we were pleased to finish about 60% of the way down the field of competitors. On the ride back down to the valley the re-straightened crank gave out completely and Jackson’s pedal fell off. Turns out that spare crankset we had packed was good for more than just quick chainring swaps!
The Megavalanche consists of a qualifying race on Friday to determine which of the five starting waves you will race in for the Megavalanche proper. We needed to catch our flight in Paris on Monday morning, so we hoped we would qualify for the 4th fastest wave which started on Saturday, rather than the 3rd or 5th fastest waves which started on Sunday.
As we were the first tandem to ever race the Megavalanche, we were allocated the last line of the last qualification wave. This meant we had our work cut out for us to try and pass as many of the 160 odd riders in our quali. Pulling passing manoeuvres on the tandem has pros and cons. If Jackson can get his handlebars past another riders, he assumes he’s got the lead. The moment of surprise is often enough for Rose to get in front of them too, although she occasionally has to get her elbows out when Jackson inadvertently shuts the door on a rider who is still alongside. The qualification race was incredibly physical and we were exhausted after only 25 minutes of riding. We qualified 69th in our wave and were amazed that we had managed to qualify to race in Saturday, but in the 2nd fastest start wave rather than the 4th fastest we had been expecting!
Race day the following day involved catching 4 uplifts (1 bus, 2 télécabines, and 1 téléphérique) to get us to 3,330m up Pic Blanc. At the start line we felt like warriors heading into battle, filled with a mixture of excitement and fear as we waited for the signal, heightened further by the French techno pumping from the sound system. Alarma!
Skidding down the ski slope and then onto the glacier, it was an effort just to stay upright let alone avoid colliding with all the people who had already fallen. We were lucky to only run over one person as we avoided the numerous collisions. We seemed to pass heaps of riders, but in the mayhem our chainrings became clogged with snow and both our drive chain and sync chain came off. It was dispiriting to stand beside the track working on the bike as riders streamed past, but eventually we were back on.
Video credit: Cotic Bikes
We had expected to be slower than other riders in the single track, but it turned out to be the opposite. We were soon held up behind great long lines of riders and could find no way to manoeuvre our big bike around them. We were able to pass a few riders by running where others walked, but mostly we had to wait and save energy on the single track then sprint when the trail widened. The pinch climb about half way down the course allowed us to pass a few more people before it headed into single track again. With some successful and not so successful passing moves, we made it through the trees and dust to the finish in 1 hour and 8 minutes.
Wearily packing the bike the following day, we checked the results and were excited to realise that we had been faster than about three quarters of the 1600 riders. The drive to Paris and the long flight home passed quickly, but the memories of the race still get our hearts pumping.InformationHow do I get a bike like that?
You can’t buy one off the shelf! Jackson made our bike himself, but if you’re not confident doing that then there are plenty of custom framebuilders who will make you one. Try Ventana in the ‘states, or Kinethic, Nicolai, or MSC in Europe.How can I plan a trip to Aìnsa?
There is a heap of information available on the Zona Zero website (https://zonazeropirineos.com/#) covering riding, shuttles, accommodation, and food.How can I plan a trip to Puigcerdà?
You can get good riding information from the Esports Iris bike shop (http://www.esportsiris.com/) and they can put you in touch with Taksi Trigo for the shuttle (http://www.portalcerdanya.com/taksitrigo/).Where can I see more tandem stuff like this?
Follow us on Facebook or Instagram @tandemdhnz.
All photos Rose Green collection unless otherwise stated.