DOUBLING IT IN THE DIRT!! An Off-Road Tandem Primer & Review of the Ventana El Conquistador de Montañas
NOTE: The dark text was not included in the article published in Doubletalk.
There you are, riding through the parking lot at your favorite off-road trail head when all of a sudden you hear two shouts of Olé!? Your attention is drawn to a pair of tandem teams passing each other on two of the most incredible looking tandem mountain bikes you've ever seen. No doubt about it, you've just discovered the El Conquistador de Montañas (The Conqueror of the Mountains), a full-suspension tandem mountain bike hand built in Rancho Cordova, California, by Sherwood Gibson and his company, Ventana Mountain Bikes, USA. As for the shout of Olé, over time it has become the 'tell-tail' fraternal greeting of Ventana owners whenever they cross paths. There's more to the story, but it'll keep for the long-term tandem update next year.
A Tandem Mountain Biking Primer
If you've never tried it, it could be because off-road tandem riding may be something you have written off as too extreme to be feasible, never mind fun. Of course, your opinion may be shaped by what you consider to be 'off-road' terrain. Here in North Georgia, our off-road terrain is found in hardwood mountain forests and consists of forest service access roads and single track, much of which is just wide enough for handlebars and legs to fit through. As for our riding surface, it is made up of red clay, rich top soil and sand with more than a fair number of rock outcroppings, exposed tree roots, low branches, switchback turns and, of course in the fall, a top layer of leaves. Therefore, the very idea of riding it on a bicycle built for two with a six foot wheel base quickly brings about skepticism and questions regarding your mental status. It's a terrible shame too, because the dirty little secret about tandem mountain biking is, for the most part, if you can ride your solo MTB on a given trail, you and your stoker can most likely ride the same trail on a tandem MTB. Sure, you may have to dismount to clear a few of the really tight switchbacks and taller log obstacles, but this accounts for less than 5% of what you'll probably encounter during a ride. Unfortunately, there's no way for me to prove this so you'll have to give it a try to see for yourself. If you do decide to give it a try don't forget that, just as on the road, your stoker can't see what's coming. Therefore, the captain must talk the stoker through everything to ensure they are not caught off-guard by sudden jolts, low branches and the like. The best way I can think to describe the stoker's ride is something akin to riding in the last car of a really fast, wooden roller coaster! The bottom line here is, your stoker's threshold for excitement and their trust in your bike handling skills will definitely be a factor in deciding if tandem mountain biking is for you.
To Suspend or Not to Suspend; That is the Question
OK, assuming you're now at least curious and perhaps even willing to give it a try, the first thing you'll need is a properly equipped off-road tandem. You can certainly get started with a rigid enduro to see if you and your stoker enjoy playing in the dirt and, if so, over time make upgrades to improve its comfort and stability. Of course, the stoker's comfort has to be your primary concern when you're riding off-road. Therefore, a shock post is a 'must have' even for the most basic of off-road rides. As the terrain becomes more challenging and your speed on the trail increases, there's no question a front suspension fork will greatly improve your ability to control the bike while, at the same time, reducing fatigue. Given the tremendous weight and loads placed on a tandem MTB, you'll need to find a fork that will be up to the task. While there are a couple of single crown, long travel forks that may do the job, the added safety margin of the more robust triple crown models will make them the better choice, so long as your frame can handle the increased loads & stress. Ultimately what you're looking for is a fork that will provide you with steering precision and stability, i.e., one that has legs robust enough at the front wheel's axle to ensure it will corner well. This characteristic is actually more important than the fork's suspension performance. I won't delve into the tandem suspension fork discussion here, but it suffices to say you'll need to do your homework by consulting with fork manufacturers and your frame's builder or manufacturer to find the right model of fork for your particular tandem and riding needs. Now, getting back to the stoker's shock post, while shock posts do a great job of taking the sting out bumps on the road, they are far less effective as you head into more aggressive off-road terrain. The problem with a shock post is it essentially works by transmitting bump & rut impacts from the back wheel through the seat post and into the stoker's body, making the stoker an integral part of the suspension system. Think about it for a minute, if there isn't a stoker on the rear seat the shock post doesn't do anything. It only works when an impact drives the bike and seat into the stoker. Hmmm. Is there a better way to manage impacts on a tandem? You bet there is and it's called active rear suspension.
While folks can argue about the merits of full suspension (F/S) on solo mountain bikes, there is an indisputable benefit to their value for tandem teams who ride off-road. To understand why, consider how an active suspension system works. The rear swingarm transmits impacts from the tandem's back wheel into the frame's top tube or rear seat tube via a mechanical linkage that is connected to the frame by an air, air/oil, or coil over shock absorber with 2.5" to 6" of travel (i.e., shock absorber piston stroke). Therefore, rather than making the stoker part of the suspension system, active rear suspension sends the impacts into a shock absorber braced against the tandem's frame. Also, recalling that the stoker is blind to what's ahead, rear suspension will help to remove some of the 'shock' of any bumps or ruts you occasionally fail to call out. The bottom line here is stoker comfort (Rule #2 of tandeming). The second major benefit of active rear suspension is that it keeps the rear wheel of the tandem in contact with the ground to provide the team with a much more stable riding platform. Stable = control & control = safety. The point of all this is, while you certainly don't need a F/S tandem MTB to ride off-road, it is important to understand how and why suspension could enhance the comfort, safety, quality and, as a by product, perhaps even the quantity of your off-road riding.
Ventana & the El Conquistador de Montañas
This background information brings us to the subject of the review, our El Conquistador de Montañas. As I previously mentioned, Sherwood Gibson owns Ventana and both names have long been synonymous with high performance MTB frames. Now, while tandem MTBs have been around for quite a while, the full suspension variety really didn't have a formal debut until 1993 when Sherwood Gibson & Dave Tuner of Turner Suspension Bicycles built one for Interbike '93 to showcase their new Turner F/S bike's active rear suspension system. To quote Sherwood, "We definitely blew people's minds away with that bike!" Sherwood successfully campaigned that first F/S tandem through the next two years, racking up 23 1st place tandem class finishes out of 25 starts! During those years Sherwood also designed the first Ventana Marble Peak F/S frame that, time and again, has been recognized by mountain biking industry writers, testers, racers and consumers as one of the top five mountain bike frames of all time. The El Conquistador de Montañas was created around the Marble Peak's MFS rear suspension design shortly thereafter and, to the best of my knowledge, became the first 'production' F/S tandem MTB. Since then, Sherwood has turned out over 300 of the hand built El Conquistadors.
Two qualifying statements are required here. The first is, this is an objective review based on initial impressions from our recently completed Ventana El Conquistador de Montañas. The second is, there is no way to remain objective once you've taken a Ventana El Conquistador de Montañas for a 'hot lap' around your favorite off-road single track loop. You and your stoker will just be too darned giddy to get all of the newfound bias for this tandem out of your system; it's just that good.
Building the Tandem
As with many high-end frame builders, Ventana is just that -- a frame design and fabrication business. They aren't actually in the business of selling complete bicycles ready to ride. Instead, you come to them (or one of their authorized dealers) for a frame and then YOU decide how the bike will be fitted out with regard to the fork, components, wheels, tires, etc. So, when it comes to writing a review of the 'tandem' you have to draw distinctions between what the frame is doing for you versus how well you did at integrating the frame, your team's riding abilities, and your component selections. Now, with a Ventana you'll never be 'left on your own' so long as you take the initiative to call them and simply ask for advise. Also, there is a tremendous wealth of experience with the El Conquistador in the tandeming community and I found quite a few owners on Tandem@Hobbes who shared their component picks, pans and lessons learned with us (a big Olé to Jim H, Bob B, Scott L & Mike E). As for our build, it ended up being a little bit of freelance component selection tempered with consultation from Sherwood and other Ventana owners. As you would expect, where I deviated from Sherwood's advise I encountered problems. Now, all said and done, we have the tandem all dialed-in with the following major components:
Building the Tandem - Lessons Learned
General Rule: Leverage the experience and knowledge of your frame builder. They've probably forgotten more about their bikes than you'll ever know. More importantly, these folks have a passion for cycling and, if you are of like mind, you'll form an enjoyable friendship that will make ownership of their creations a life experience, not just another bicycle acquisition.
Lesson 1: Ask lots of questions and gain a full understanding of why certain design elements are as they are. What initially may not make sense to you is often times the result of 'out of the box' thinking. For example, initially removing the wheel was awkward because I failed to take into account the rear derailleur was mounted in front of the drop-out, not behind it. Once I 'got it' wheel removal became a snap, even with the rear disc to contend with. As a side note on rear disc brakes, if you are fortunate enough to end up with one of these incredible tandems you'll need to use a quick release skewer with a steel axle for the rear wheel -- not Ti or aluminum -- and will have to cinch it down as tightly as you can. The rear drop-out design pre-dates the latest versions of high performance disc brakes. These new discs generate tremendous braking forces strong enough to pull the rear wheel out of the left drop-out in a panic stop, that is unless you've 'learned the lesson' about rear skewers.
Lesson 2: Pay attention to the head tube angle & steering geometry when you are setting up an off-road tandem. The El Conquistador is designed with a 73-degree angle head tube angle, somewhat on the steep side when compared to the Cannondale tandem MTBs with their 71-degree head tubes. Without getting into too much detail, head tube angle is part of what determines a bike's steering geometry and handling characteristics. In general, if both of these tandems were set-up with the exact same fork in the exact same way the Cannondale's steering would tend to have 'wheel flop' at slow speeds and be a bit more stable through turns at higher speeds. The El Conquistador, on the other hand, would have very quick & precise steering at slower speeds but tend to push a little bit in fast turns. With the advent of the triple-crown forks, you can actually 'adjust' the effective head tube angle of your tandem. To illustrate, on a triple crown fork the fork's legs (or stanchions) extend all the way from the wheel axle to the handlebars and pass through a pair of brackets that connect them to the steerer tube. Therefore, you can slide the fork's legs up or down within the brackets, effectively changing the steering geometry of the tandem, as well as standover height and boom tube clearance. You'll sometimes hear this referred to as the 'chopper effect' on tandem MTBs that use very long travel (i.e., 5" or 6") front suspension forks. With our El Conquistador, I initially set the bike up just like our Cannondale and promptly experienced handling problems as a result. After moving the brackets up to the top of the fork's stanchion caps the handling problems were gone, i.e., the bike's steering was now dialed-in. In the process I lost 1" of standover clearance, but gained another 1" of bottom bracket height.
Lesson 3: You may have problems with a 9 speed set-up; we did and had to retrograde to 8 speed. Even though we're a relatively lightweight team at about 270 lbs, we were able to generate sufficient amounts of torque to overload the 9 speed drive train which resulted in the chain slipping off the front chainrings, rear cogs and eventually blowing apart during our first outings. To say this is disconcerting is an understatement. We searched out a set of 8 speed XT Rapidfire shifter pods, changed the rear cassette and installed a super-heavy duty SRAM PC-91 8 speed chain and the drive train has since been rock solid: no slips, skips or ghost shifts to speak of.
Lesson 4: You must use a Shimano M751 top-pull, bottom swing front derailleur. On the smaller sized El Conquistadors (14" rear stoker seat tube), the front derailleur's cable stop on the seat tube will end up putting the derailleur cable at a very sharp 45 degree angle as it runs out to the fixing bolt on the front derailleur. Don't be tempted to try the top-pull, top-swing Shimano derailleurs -- which would produce a nice & straight cable pull -- because you'll hate the way it shifts (everyone who owns one does, even if they won't admit it). The top-swings look cool, but the cage movement is all wrong for effective shifting.
Lesson 5: You should use an XTR rear derailleur. This is probably the only XTR component worth spending the extra money on. It is simply a superior design that shifts more precisely than the XT.
Lesson 6: You should not use a Wilderness Trails Bikes (WTB) Velociraptor as your front tire on any tandem MTB. It's just not up to the task. We tried it -- against Sherwood's advice -- and as predicted it couldn't hold a line through any corner on any type of soil surface. The rear tire was OK, but we changed out both front & rear for the IRC Mythos XC model of tires. Other tires to consider: WTB MotoRaptor and WTB EnduroRaptor.
Lesson 7: If you are ordering a new El Conquistador, be aware Ventana uses 135mm rear spacing as their standard offering and that you can obtain the optional 145mm rear spacing at no additional cost. As to which one you order, there are as many reasons for one as the other. We have 135mm rear spacing and the wheels, even with double dishing (right side for the cassette and left side for the disc brake) our rear wheel is rock solid. A heavier team might feel more secure on a wider rear hub but, as far as I know, there haven't been any problems with wheel failures attributed to 135mm rear spacing.
You'll have to forgive me here for a moment since there's only one way to describe how our El Conquistador performs: This outrageous tandem absolutely screams through the gnarl, goes clean on the climbs, shreds the whoop-de-doos, and rips on everything else in between!! Whew, I feel better now but, having said that, I now feel the need to go riding again. Sweetie? Are you doing anything this afternoon?
OK, I'm back. I should tell you right up front, with children in their 20's we're hardly what you'd call Gen-X'rs and we're certainly not part of the hard core mountain biking scene (sorry, no tattoos or body piercing going on here). But, once we had our El Conquistador dialed-in I quickly found myself drifting to the mountain biking lexicon in an effort to find words that adequately describe how well this tandem performs. For comparison purposes, our previous tandem MTB was a 1998 Cannondale MT3000, an outstanding hard tail tandem with an outstanding component group and the awesome Cannondale Moto FR suspension fork. As much as we loved our MT3000, the El Conquistador absolutely blows it away. I think I can best sum up the most important quality of the El Conquistador in two words: stoker's comfort. As I mentioned earlier, an active rear suspension system does an amazing thing that no shock post can do, and that is soak up impacts without beating up the stoker. It wasn't until we rode this tandem that Debbie realized her back and neck didn't have to hurt after a day of off-road riding! If that's not an unsolicited, spontaneous testimonial to the benefits of the El Conquistador's outstanding rear suspension design, I don't know what is. The 3.4" of rear shock travel is more than enough and the Fox Alps 5R is an outstanding shock for our weight and riding style. Add to that plush suspension a 30.5" rear cockpit (which is a full 3" longer than our Cannondale's and most other small tandems) and you now have stoker's heaven on two wheels; well knobby wheels to be exact. Seriously, Debbie is now treated to a ride with no fanny-slamming on bumps and ruts, no face plants in my back on whoop-de-doo's, and no fanny in her face on steep drop-offs. As far as the rest of the frame's performance goes, there is absolutely no wag in this dog's tail. Ventana's MFS rear suspension design is so well engineered that there is no detectable lateral play coming off of the rear end of what is otherwise one of the most robust aluminum mainframes I've ever seen.
Looking at how the frame design plays into the rest of the tandem's off-road performance, the 14.5" of ground clearance under our boom tube is absolutely outrageous and we love every inch of it. Even with normal suspension sag, we're left with a tremendous amount of ride-over clearance for obstacles and drop-offs. However, you do need to take into consideration what the suspension is doing since it can cause ride-over clearance to vary by as much as 4". The 30.5" rear stoker cockpit gives this bike a wheelbase of some 71", which is about 2" longer than our Cannondale. But, even at 71" the El Conquistador is quite nimble and can be finessed through IMBA switchbacks. As for its ability to climb and descend, this is where the entire frame & rear suspension really shows its stuff. On climbs, the rear suspension keeps the rear wheel in constant contact with the ground, digging in and taking us over the big and little stuff without missing a beat. Although this may be a tribute to Debbie's great skills as a stoker, the rear suspension has yet to show any 'pogo' action so there's no need for a rear shock with lockout. As for the downhills, I can't over emphasize how stable this bike is regardless of the speed or the extent of the gnarl we've run through. The only barrier to your ability to get down any technical descent on an El Conquistador is rider skill and maturity. This tandem will take you anywhere you're willing to go as fast as you can stand. You want big air, take it -- the bike will go where you point it and take just about all the abuse you can dish out.
One other thing that has to be mentioned in the context of 'riding impressions' are the aesthetics that go along with the incredible performance of this frame. What does aesthetics have to do with it? Attitude and confidence. One of the intangible qualities of any fine bicycle (art, structure, car, boat, etc.) is the psychological influence that it has over those who appreciate what it is that sets it apart from the rest. Call it euphoria or exhilaration, but whatever it is we've all experienced it at one point or another. Ventana's frames (yes, our tandem has a little sibling) seem to have this effect on me in that each one is as much a work of industrial art as they are bicycle frames. The art form starts with the 'medium', in this case the oversized 6061-T6 straight gauge aluminum tubes that are used for the frame's main tube set and Ventana's unmatched ability to create nearly perfect TIG welds. Sherwood has long sought to produce 'The Perfect Weld' where each bead in the weld is nearly identical and there is no indication of where the weld starts or stops. The El Conquistador is perhaps the perfect canvas for this art form because it provides so many opportunities with its large tubes and long miter joints. As you would expect, this is what we see with our frame. It's amazing to see how features you would expect to seem ungainly, such as the large reinforcing gusset at the head and down tube junction, can become sensuous looking under Ventana's torch. However, what makes these artistic welds look so fantastic on our tandem is a very tedious, Ventana trademark powdercoat process that produced a red candy colored, translucent finish that the weld beads, natural 'birth marks' and the hand brushed tubes all show through. As a compliment to the frame, the investment in welding, CNC work and stainless steel details on the rear suspension's polished aluminum swing arm and brake bridge produce the perfect companion piece to the richly colored frame. As for the end result, there's no way to prove it but, I believe the aesthetics of our tandem push us to a higher level of personal performance, if only because we are trying hard to ride up to the frame's potential.
Here's how the major components on the El Conquistador are stacking up so far.
Stratos Shock FR-4T: The guys at Stratos also happen to be tandem MTB riders and on one particular occasion they asked themselves a good question, "How come no one is making a really good tandem MTB suspension fork?" No one had a good answer so they decided to do just that and the FR4-T (tandem) was created. The FR4T is an incredibly robust fork that provides us with a very stable front wheel (almost no axle shear) and about 4.5" of travel.
Hope 04 DH Hydraulic Disc Brakes: Buy 'em if you're in the market for hydraulic disc brakes. You won't be disappointed and I doubt you'll find better ones. Once you use disc brakes off-road you won't want to use anything else. As for their performance, they have superior modulation, incredible stopping power and will not fade under loads. Also, since the rotors are attached to the hubs and the calipers are attached to the bike's frame and fork, their alignment and performance is not affected if wheels get knocked out of true or if the rims get wet or muddy -- which is a routine occurrence.
Shimano XT/XTR Shifting: Now that the 8 speed retrograde is complete, it is flawless. No need to say more.
da Vinci Tandem Crankset: They are the finest ones made and worth every penny. Stiff, beautiful and innovative in their design approach, particularly the spider-less one piece 34t timing rings.
Hope BULB hubs & Velocity Aeroheat Rims: So far so good! In fact, I liked them so much that I've already ordered the exact same wheelset for my solo MTB. By the way, this is one of the benefits of the 135mm rear spacing on the El Conquistador; interchangeability of wheels between solo and tandem MTBs.
How much does it weigh?
In regard to the weight penalty of the rear suspension, I'm not sure there is one. On the trail, the El Conquistador feels lighter than our Cannondale and it certainly seems faster. The latter probably has more to do with human factors such as reduced fatigue and vastly improved confidence in the bike's handling. Back to the real data, our Cannondale weighed in at 42.5 lbs ready to ride and the El Conquistador is currently tipping our scale at about 44.5 lbs. The fork we have installed contributes 6.5 lbs to the total weight and, although they're not heavy for disc brakes, disc brake systems are generally heavier than any of the direct lateral pull (aka. V) brakes. I should probably point out that none of the components on our tandem was chosen for their weight saving potential. Instead, durability was the order of the day. Had we tried really hard, I could have shaved off at least 4 lbs from the total weight of the bike by using lightweight racing components. However, one thing you should be aware if you are going to venture off-road into the wonderful world of technical single track is you will eventually destroy certain components! All of the rear hub cassette bodies on the market can be blown-out and some blow-out much faster than others. Bottom brackets are another place where the rigors of high torque will eventually take a toll. Chainrings and cassettes should be thought of as 'consumables'. Therefore, you should definitely not look to these components for weight savings opportunities. Same thing goes for cranksets, seat posts, and other components; make sure they are robust enough to work with your weight class. Most important of all, buy the strongest handlebars, wheels, brakes and fork that you can afford. While you can survive the failure of any other component on a tandem MTB, these are the parts that will keep you out of the emergency room. Bottom Line: Save your gram shaving for the road tandem. Walking a broken tandem out of the wilderness is not something you want to do if you can avoid it.
As for the cost, if we had to do it over again with a new frame, we could probably build a similar tandem for about $6,000 by applying what we've learned about component selection, vendors and the like. How does it compare to the other F/S tandem MTBs on the market? It's a bargain, even compared to most of the premium hard tails! You can certainly spend a lot more than we did on components, but I'd be surprised if the additional money would yield significant improvements over what we've managed. Well, there is one option that you might consider if you'd like to travel with your Ventana -- S&S couplers. Believe it or not, Sherwood's just finished one and it's the first of its kind; a chromoly steel F/S travel tandem MTB that can be configured as a tandem, triplet, quad or quint! There's only the one so far and it doesn't have a model name yet, but I have a sneaking suspicion it will become a best seller. Reports from the owners have all been quite favorable and are highly complimentary of the steel frame's ride qualities. Also, no problems to report with the S&S couplers other than the need to cover them with an exterior moisture barrier to keep grit and grime out.
To sum up this review, the last topic to mention is the most important one when you're considering the purchase of a high end performance tandem; customer service and commitment. Even though we didn't buy our frame directly from Ventana, the folks there -- Sherwood, Charlie and Teresa -- have been tremendous help who love what they do and are a joy to deal with. Sherwood is an incredibly decent man, a great frame builder and a mountain bike industry icon because he knew he could make something special. He has turned that passion into a livelihood that has benefited the thousands of cyclists he and his products have touched. So, as you can see, there is definitely something about the persona of an El Conquistador de Montañas that allows it to live up to its name and to stand out from the rest. Is it the 'best' there is? It is for us, but only you can decide what's best for you. However, be forewarned, if you see one you'll want one and if you ride one you'll buy one!
Mark Livingood is a tandem enthusiast, a frequent contributor to the Tandem@Hobbes listserver group and owner of the Forum For Off-Road Tandem Enthusiasts listserver group. He and his wife Debbie work, live and ride in and around the roads and trails near Atlanta, GA.