by Tom Galaraga
photography by Juan Garcia
Their relationship to the machine draws them closer into a world they are yet to fully comprehend. At this exact moment strength bends to sensitivity, and trust becomes all that matters and their only means to stay safe. Their combined efforts are translated into motion as their legs simultaneously turn the three-piece cranks that power their cycle. This is more than a Saturday afternoon cruise; this is a lifestyle. Welcome to the world of tandem bicycles.
As a 15 year-old, Bill McCready, founder of Santana Cycles, watched in amazement as two of his friends sped away from him on a tandem bicycle that they had borrowed. Quickly learning that his single bicycle was no match for the now speeding away tandem, McCready realized one thing: he had to have one. “It was exactly what I had to have,” he says, comparing tandem bicycles to a hot-rod version of a single bicycle. “It was about going as fast as I could.”
As an adolescent, he may not have realized at this moment that his new-found love for the tandem cycle would lead into an undeniable passion, and ultimately the founding of Santana Cycles, the premiere tandem cycle company in the world. What started out as an adolescent’s lust for adventure and excitement, became a driving force behind an entrepreneur.
Before founding Santana Cycles, however, 16 year-old McCready honed the skills and knowledge of his craft while working at Bud’s Bike Shop in Claremont. It was there that he spent his free-time and continue to work while he attended Claremont-McKenna College. It was just before his 1974 graduation from CMC, that an eager McCready took a series of tests to help decide on a career; at that moment, he was ready to make his first step toward founding Santana Cycles.
“I found out that business was the test I scored highest on, which was depressing to me because I had hoped to do better on the others,” recalls McCready. “Given that I was going to be a business person, I looked at all my options and decided to buy-out my boss.” And that he did. Three months before his graduation, McCready became the new owner of Bud’s Bike Shop.
A year later, he would become upset with Bicycling Magazine. Determined to speak his mind, McCready went out of his way to travel to the magazine headquarters and barge into the office of the head editor to voice his complaint. Her answer was to simply pull out a pencil and say, “If you think you are better at this than we are, why don’t you go ahead and give it a shot?” Eager to take on the challenge, McCready, took her up on the offer and assumed the role of associate editor of Bicycling Magazine. Immediately, he began to write articles and stories that focused primarily on the tandem world. Like embers in a fire, he began to stir up interest in this once stagnant “lifestyle.” As time went buy, he wrote more articles. As he wrote more articles, the fascination grew.
“Power of the pen being terrific, all of a sudden there were hundreds of people who wanted these things [tandem bicycles], and the bikes didn’t really exist, and the bikes we were getting were in pretty poor shape,” he says. At that point, McCready had stumbled onto a life-defining opportunity.
Realizing his potential for marketing this product, McCready began to approach tandem manufacturers to purchase these bicycles for interested customers. Manufacturers and custom builders were reluctant to believe a that a high demand for tandems existed. Much like the success of a tandem team that relies heavily on the trust between the captain and the stoker (the person who rides in the back), entrepreneurship needs a stable and trustworthy platform to build upon. This platform, in the eyes of the manufactures and builders, was not there. McCready, however, knew that one could be built, just as simply as a tandem.
At that point, Bud’s Bike Shop was selling double the amount of tandems that could be produced by Jack Taylor, a small, England based cycle maker who worked with his two brothers, Ken and Norm, producing tandems. At that time they were the best-selling tandems on the market. McCready, once again fueling his passion, decided to enter the world of tandem manufacturing.
“It was pretty clear I couldn’t get anybody interested in building any number of good bikes, and that it was going to be up to tandem enthusiasts to produce better tandems if these things were to exist,” says McCready. “Santana was started out of desperation out of one hand, having lots of people ordering bikes from me, and on the other hand, having no builders who wanted to accept the orders.”
With no other options, McCready started Santana Cycles and began to have custom tubing companies provide him with the materials needed to build his tandem. In doing so, he demonstrated to custom builders his determination to build a “better tandem.”
With freshly produced custom tubing brought in from overseas, a fistful of orders, and the designs and specs of what he had wanted, McCready had proven that tandem bicycle building was an endeavor much worth the effort. Now taking the captain’s seat on this trip, McCready had earned the trust of his stoker, which resulted in the birth of the nation’s premiere tandem cycle company: Santana Cycles. Named appropriately after the hot dry winds that sweep down California’s Cajon Pass, McCready’s new endeavor swept over the tandem world like a storm. McCready’s philosophy in tandeming that states “the stoker makes no mistakes,” applies in this situation too; his new endeavor would succeed or fail on the merit of its captain, McCready himself.
“It depicted Southern California,” laughs Jan McCready, secretary of Santana Cycles and McCready’s wife. “It couldn’t be called smog tandems could it?”
Carrying with him years of experience as a tandem cyclist, bicycle mechanic and salesperson, McCready was determined to build the best tandem possible. Not wanting to ride into the tandem world alone, he needed someone who shared his passion of the cycling world. Enter Steve Lesse; current sales manager for Santana Cycles, whose introduction to the tandem world was a little less than a “legal” activity and more like a “felony.”
Originally a single cycle racer, Lesse was invited by friends to participate as the third rider on a three-person tandem. The ride was the 100 mile Mojave Night Bike Ride, that started in Calico.
Lesse’s friends said, ‘Hey, we have this great deal; there is this three-person bike we can take. You ride on the back, and all you have to do is ride until you pass out. We are going to try to do 100 miles in three hours.’ I should have been suspicious when they started going in through a window to get the bike; it didn’t occur to me that it probably wasn’t their bike,” recalls Lesse. His friends were workers at Bud’s Bike Shop and had “borrowed” the three-person tandem against McCready’s will. They figured that they would ride all night long and return the cycle in the morning. At that time, they did not realize that the bike would be damaged during the ride.
Ruining the wheels and tires of one of the first two triple-tandems built by Santana Cycles has its price. Lesse’s friends, Dave Jenson and Miles Rank, had to pay for the repairs that the cycle needed. “I felt an obligation to take care of the costs too, so that’s why I got a job at Bud’s working for Bill,” recalls Lesse as he describes how he first met McCready. Lesse became a metaphoric tandem partner for McCready on his trip to founding Santana Cycles and would eventually work his way up to Sales Manager. Santana Cycles was now on its way to solidifying itself as a provider of enthusiast level tandems. Over a span of two years, McCready built a total of 14 prototypes for his company. In 1978, his first production bicycles were available on the market, and by the year 1979, the company was the largest producer of enthusiast quality tandems.
Originally stationed in Claremont’s historic orange packing house, the factory now resides on Arrow Highway in La Verne and will soon celebrate its 10th anniversary. The factory has the capacity to build 10,000 cycles a year and supplies 4,009 bicycle shops nationwide. “As large as it gets in this business, I am not interested in competing in other niches,” says McCready confidently. “The tandem bicycle is to the bicycle industry like motor homes are to the car industry.”
McCready proudly says that his company produces more tandems than mountain bike company icons Trek and Cannondale, and that his bikes sell for a substantially higher price. McCready says he is not in this business to be the largest bike provider in the United States, nor is he out to conquer his competitors. His dream is to provide enthusiasts with the best tandem possible, and it is that dream that is directly translated into the quality of his product. The higher prices reflect the quality. “Most people see color and decals, but if they are really discerning, they will see that our bike has better equipment on it; it actually has a better weld-quality and higher quality paint. But it’s really the features and the components that make our bikes more exceptional,” says McCready. These features include ovalized and double-butted tubing that is not only thinner and lighter, but also has a larger diameter that equals more strength. These factors attribute to the Santana Cycles tandem’s superior ride quality and lightweight design. It is, as McCready says, the best tandem out there.
Santana Cycles’ “Best Value Tandems” begin at $2,795 and scale upwards. McCready stresses these are “enthusiast level tandems,” and are not designed to be a ride once and store in the attic type piece of machinery. Like aforementioned, this is a lifestyle.
“Bill founded the company because there wasn’t a bike in the world that met his quality standards,” says Lesse. “It was out of his own selfish motivation.” “If you talk to an enthusiast about the tandem they want, the word Santana is going to be their first choice,” McCready says, defining Santana Cycles as the premiere choice of serious tandem riders. “It’s a passion, not just a drive. It’s a passion to build better tandems for people who appreciate riding tandems.”
Santana cycles do not call for mere riders, they call for investors, investors of time, trustworthiness, energy and sensitivity. It is that dynamic that allows for people fortunate to ride a Santana to get twice as much back, than they put in. “The key thing about tandem riding is that it is like the best sex ever: if you are a couple, you start and finish together-every time,” laughs Lesse.
Riding a tandem is a unique partnership that cannot be duplicated through other joint activities. More often than not, partners engage in activities that were either “his” or “her” hobby, and never really adapt to engaging in the activities together. There is always, as McCready says, an element of competitiveness that can spoil the fun. “Two people can get on a tandem, and the bicycle doesn’t know who is the stronger one, and it doesn’t care.” “Togetherness is always going to be important . . . if spending quality time with another person is important, then tandeming can’t lose.”
It is that exact element of togetherness that has made tandeming such a unique and successful sport, and Santana Cycles such a dominant tandem producer. This spirit also brought Bill McCready and his wife Jan together and ultimately led to their 1972 marriage. For Bill and Jan McCready, togetherness has meant much more than founding the company, and much more than the weekends spent on a tandem together. For the two of them, it is a bond that has kept them strong, both interpersonally and in business. Having met and developed their relationship on a tandem cycle, it only seemed fitting that the two venture into the one sport that truly promotes togetherness: the sport of tandem cycling.
“I came up to Ontario; we met on Euclid and Foothill, and I had my single bike, and he had a tandem. I was trying to get away from an ex-boyfriend who was riding a bike and wanted to ride with me-I didn’t want to be anywhere near him. Bill came up to me and said, ‘I have my tandem. Would you like to ride on the back of my tandem?'” Jan explains.
Together they went to Mount Baldy and rode along the Glendora Mountain Ridge Road. For Jan, it was her first experience on a tandem cycle. For Bill, it was the first time he had rode with Jan on a tandem, and for the both of them, it was the beginning of their relationship. Arguably, it was also the very first step toward Santana Cycles.
As with a relationship in general, there are certain elements that need to be in order if that relationship is to succeed. Those elements include the obvious such as caring, trust and communication, but also include the less obvious, the act of negotiation and compromise. These elements are needed for a successful tandeming team as well, and not only do they push tandemers to the limit, but they also aid in the development of their interpersonal relations.
“As time goes forward, I am interested in the benefits of the bicycle that have nothing to do with the materials, but with what happens to people as they spend time on the bicycles together,” McCready says. Through his observations, he was able to note which couples in the bicycle world rode tandems, and which ones rode single bicycles. His observation suggested that couples that rode tandems on a regular basis were able to communicate and negotiate better.
“What happens if this couple that doesn’t have trust buys a bike?” laughs McCready. “She’s going to find other things to do. The Tandem teaches, men more than anything, to be more considerate. It also forces couples to learn ways of negotiating things.”
Trust becomes one of the most important tandeming rules. “There is only one person who really should and can control the bicycle, and that is the person who rides on the front of the bicycle,” he says. “The person in the back is going to let the person in the front do a good job, and the person in the front is going to do a good job.”
Before any team can become successful, it must have the essential emotional ties figured out. Before these ties can be formed, trust must be earned. From there, the accomplishments of any team are dictated on its ability to grow together.
For the team of Bill and Francine Baker, proud owners of a Santana Cycles tandem, the world of tandeming has been a means to travel the globe and expand their own horizons. More importantly, it has also been a fun and exciting way to spend time together and a source of motivation. Recalling a trip that the two of them took with their tandem, Bill found himself completely spent, out of energy and unwilling to continue on the bike. With no other alternative, or means to return to the hotel, Francine stepped up and urged her husband to continue. Together they made it the rest of the way. “We had 10 miles left, and Bill wanted to quit, but I told him we couldn’t. I told him I would kick in more energy, and that we could make it,” says Francine, who rides in the stoker position.
Teamwork has meant more than simply communicating on a tandem; it has also been part of marriage. Tandems have provided the two of them since 1977 with exciting outlets. “It hasn’t solved any problems obviously, but it has enhanced our relationship,” says Bill. “I don’t sell relationship tools, I sell bicycles. People don’t buy relationship tools, they buy bicycles,” says McCready. “But, in fact, there is this hidden bonus that I do not tell couples about, and that is that they will actually discover more rewarding relationship with their partner and have a better life together.”
The tandem serves as the platform for trust, sensitivity, communication: the tools necessary for any team and partnership to succeed. In the tandem world, strength is not the only component necessary for a solid performance; the tandem knows nothing of the stronger partner, nor does it care. This is balance.
With every turn of the crank and twist of the pedal, lifeless asphalt is miraculously transformed into a lush and extravagant ballroom, allowing the riders to engage in a dance like sequence that solidifies their status as partners. Whether it be lifetime partners or simply friends out on a ride, there is far more developing that the two will realize. Through their interactions with cold-hard aluminum and countless components, these two riders have found a third and silent partner: their tandem.