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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ENTERPRISE : Peddling to the Upwardly Mobile : Tandem Cycling Is Gaining Speed in the Bike Industry


What has two wheels, four legs and an obsession for an anachronistic mode of transportation?

That would be Bill and Jan McCready, owners of La Verne-based Santana Cycles, the premier crafter of high-quality bicycles built for two.

But theirs are not the old-fashioned contraptions immortalized in the 1890s song "Daisy Bell" (remember: "You'll look sweet/upon the seat/of a bicycle built for two"?).

Modern tandems, as the two-seaters are called, employ sophisticated engineering to deliver the same handling as fancy single bikes, and in the process have become one of the fastest-growing segments in the bicycle industry.

The McCreadys, who met in 1969 when Bill showed up at a bike rally with a tandem but no partner, believe tandems have hit the right gear with upscale couples who are looking to recapture fitness and togetherness in one package--a sort of mobile marriage counseling.

"Our customers are people who have gotten to the point where they look at each other and say: 'How can we spend more time with each other?' And they've come to a point where fitness is an important part of their lives," Bill McCready said.

Tandems allow riders of different abilities to ride together. The rider in front--the "captain," in tandem lingo--is usually the taller and heavier. The captain is in charge of steering and pothole avoidance while the rider in back--the "stoker"--can pedal as vigorously as he or she wants.

Tandems are proving quite popular. No one collects firm numbers because the dozen or so tandem makers are privately held, but tandem enthusiasts figure that 6,000 to 8,000 high-quality tandems will be sold this year, up from about 2,000 in 1990. Santana sells nearly 2,000 a year.

In all, about 13 million bicycles will be sold this year, of which about 3 million to 4 million will be high-quality bikes for serious riders, according to Fred Zahradnik, technical editor of Bicycling Magazine.

"The growth of tandem cycling has been steady," said Zahradnik, a tandemist himself. (Tandemist is the preferred term by those involved in the sport of tandeming, although "tandemaniac" might better describe some of the devoted, who like to ride highly decorated tandems and wear matching jerseys and socks.)

"The fun factor is really there," Zahradnik said. "I can get all the workout I want and my wife can pedal as much as she wants. It does bring a couple together--no matter what."

The recession did nothing to deflate sales, Bill McCready contends, because tandem riders tend to be about 20 years older than the average bike rider of serious intent and are more financially secure.

"This is an important purchase for them," McCready said. "They view this as a commitment."

Santana is pumping its way toward $3 million in sales, with tandems ranging in price from $2,600 for a steel tandem to $8,300 for titanium. The company produces models for the road and for dirt. All of the bikes are custom-fitted to the buyers, but extra customization adds about $500. For an extra $1,000, Santana will build a take-apart tandem that can be dismantled in about 15 minutes and stuffed into an oversized suitcase.

Santana also manufactures triplets--which are popular with families--four-seaters and even the very occasional five-seat bike. McCready, who was a member of the Claremont City Council for eight years, crafted one of the five-seaters that he and his colleagues rode for several years in Claremont's Fourth of July parade.

Santana occupies the high end of the price range--which has generated some controversy on the Internet, where Santana maintains a World Wide Web page--among fiercely brand-loyal riders. Tandems of varying quality from other manufacturers can be found in a variety of price ranges, with some starting at less than $1,000.

"I would prefer not to get into what our competitors do or not do," McCready said. "It's unseemly."

Bill McCready's fascination with tandems began when he was a 15-year-old aspiring racer and two normally slower friends borrowed a tandem and challenged him. "They dusted me," he said.

Later, McCready found his tandem was a good way to meet women, including one named Jan Jones, who helped him labor up Mt. Baldy on their first ride together. He and Jan were married while still in college and, a few months before Bill's 1974 graduation, bought Bud's Bike Shop, the Claremont store where Bill had worked since he was 16. But the McCreadys could not find a tandem to sell that met their high standards: Jan is a tandem racer and maintains a display of trophies and medals at the Santana factory.

"Santana was a product of our desperation," when the pair could find no company interested in building a tandem to their specifications using the specialty tubing they had commissioned, Bill McCready said. It took Santana two years to turn out a tandem that the McCreadys were willing to sell, and that first model rolled out the factory doors in 1978.

Today, Santana tandems are sold by 150 dealers nationwide, and a small number are sold every year in Europe.

Bill McCready believes Santana and tandeming in general are responsible for scores of happy marriages. "People can't ride a tandem successfully unless they can communicate about what they're afraid of and what they are comfortable with," McCready said. "Those skills are essential to tandeming, and a lot of married couples never learn to do that."

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