Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review of the FollowMe Tandem Coupling

The FollowMe Tandem Coupling attaches a parent's bike to a child's, creating a tandem bicycle in which three wheels are on the ground.  The child can't steer nor turn the front wheel, but can pedal to help power the bicycles -- or can just rest and enjoy the ride.  The child's bike attaches or detaches in one minute, so the child can ride attached or separately and switch between these modalities.

Mike, Silas, and Maeve ready to bike to daycare
I have been using the FollowMe Tandem Coupling daily for a year.  I carry two children:  my 5-year-old daughter on her own bike attached to the FollowMe Tandem Coupling, and my 2-year-old son on a bike seat attached to my rear rack.

My experiences are generally positive, but differ from other available reviews, many of which seem to be based on a day or a week of using the coupling.  This review is divided into four parts:  the good, the bad, the ugly, and the bottom line.

The Good

Children are upright.  I transport two children every day on my bicycle.  I wanted a setup that seats both kids upright, where they can see and participate in the bicycle ride.  For this reason, I didn't want a trailer; a trailer would also be harder to store and would be a step down for my daughter.  I didn't want a front-mounted child seat (such as the Bobike Mini and the Co-Rider), which are deathtraps that unbalance your bicycle -- even the few that fit on drop handlebars and don't interfere with your steering or your knees.  I didn't want to buy a new bike, which feels wasteful of resources and which I would have no room to store.  I had good luck transporting a single child on a tag-along (a single-wheel "bike" whose front attaches to the parent's bike), but most tag-alongs attach to the seat post, preventing use of a child seat on the rear rack.  The Roland add+bike looks great:  it is a tag-along that is compatible with a rear-rack child seat, but it does not seem to be imported into the US.  The FollowMe Tandem Coupling attaches to the rear axle of the adult's bike, so there is no problem putting a child seat on the rear rack.

Solid connection.  The FollowMe Tandem Coupling attaches my daughter's bike very firmly to mine.  She loved this immediately, compared to the small amount of wiggle she experienced when using a tag-along bike.  I am very safety-conscious, but I am comfortable going 28MPH every day with two kids on the bike.  There is a bit of road noise -- the metal components rattle a bit as you ride.  This has no effect on safety, nor does it cause any looseness in the connection, but it took me a little while to get used to it.  Really, it just means that the designers didn't take road noise into account.  The coupling I use also has a small build problem:  a weld connects two parts slightly crooked, so that two holes don't quite line up.  With a bit of a shove I can still get a pin to go through them as required.  As you'll see below, I didn't want to deal with the distributor (Clever Cycles) to get a replacement.

Easy attachment and detachment; coupling folds up.  It is easy to attach or detach the child's bike -- I do this every day, and it takes perhaps 60 seconds.  When attaching the child's bike, I do need to lean my bicycle against a wall rather than having it freestanding.  You will probably want to do this too, unless you are more physically gifted than I am and you have at least three hands and an armspan of 8 feet.  Attaching and detaching the coupling was a bit tricky for me at first, and in the first month I tipped my bicycle twice while attaching, but with practice it is now effortless.  The coupling folds up onto the adult's bicycle, so I can detach my daughter's bike when I want to run an errand or store the bikes.  You can also remove the coupling entirely; since it is extremely heavy, this is smart if you plan not to tow the child's bike for a while.

Attention magnet.  I get a lot of comments about the coupling.  People pull up beside me in their cars and roll down their windows to tell me how great my setup is.  People on the curb stop talking on their cell phones when I ride by.  People ask me whether I built the coupling myself, or ask me where to get one.  (The coupling says "" in big letters...)

The Bad

Expensive.  The coupling retails for $399, and I paid almost $500 when you count shipping and the extra parts I needed.  On the other hand, other solutions can be pricy too.

Heavy.  The coupling weighs 10 pounds, just for the parts that detach from the bikes, and the parts that stay on my bike are at least another 5 pounds, though I didn't weigh them before installation (and the last time I removed them, it look a hammer because of all the rust; see below).  Furthermore, all of this weight is on or behind the rear axle, which can affect the balance of the bike.  I balance this by putting my panniers on my Old Man Mountain Sherpa front rack, which accommodates my disc brakes.  With two kids, the coupling, a bike, a bike seat, and the kids' gear, I'm carrying over 100 pounds of extra weight, in addition to my own (steel) bicycle and my gear.

Fit problems.  The coupling consists of 3 parts:  axle extensions for the adult bike's rear axle, a small bracket that gets strapped to the child bike's down tube, and then the big heavy coupling itself that connects to the othre two parts.  I've attached the coupling to two adult and two child bikes (in all 4 combinations), and have had minor fit problems with three of the bikes.

The first problem was with the disc brakes on my bicycle.  I asked the reseller (Clever Cycles) three times whether my disc brakes would be a problem, and each time they assured me without question that the FollowMe Tandem Coupling was fully compatible with disc brakes and I would have no problem.  My rear disc brake is mounted on the trailing side of the seat stay (that is, behind the seat stay) rather than on the leading side of the seat stay (that is, between the seat stay and the chain stay).  This location is not compatible with the upward arc of the coupling where it attaches to the parent bike's axle; I don't know why that upward arc is even necessary.  So, I bought an extension that adds a fake axle several inches behind the real one.  Clever Cycles swore to me that this extension would not interfere with the mounting of either a child seat or my panniers on the rear rack.  They were half right:  my child seat fits fine, but my panniers do not, at least not without bending them.  So, I usually put the pannier on the front rack even when I don't have my son in his rear-rack seat.

On my wife's bike, the retaining clip that safeguards the coupling from falling off the adult rear axle doesn't fit -- it's simply so big that it needs to be in the same space as the derailleur.  The coupling itself fits, as does the retaining clip on the other side of the bike.

Finally, the coupling barely fits on my daughter's 20" bicycle -- her tire is too low to the ground and drags in 4 places on our 1-mile ride to daycare.  The coupling fits fine on my daughter's 16" bicycle.  I don't know whether a 20" bicycle with different geometry would fit better or worse than the one we have, but this is a concern for older kids.

Rust.  Essentially every piece of hardware on the FollowMe Tandem Coupling started to rust within a month.  This affects looks and ease of installation/removal, but I am not concerned about safety.  Really, this indicates unnecessary cost-cutting by the manufacturer.  Did they not imagine that people might use their product in the outdoors, where rain is possible?

When I received the coupling, the plastic bags holding the parts were torn open (I blame not the manufacturer but the distributor, Clever Cycles, for this:  apparently, the coupling had been demoed or used before), and I couldn't find one of the bolts.  I bought a stainless steel replacement at my local hardware store, at a cost of less than a dollar but quite a bit of inconvenience.  That bolt is the only piece of hardware on the bike that isn't rusted.  Why didn't the manufacturer spend a few extra cents on stainless steel hardware?

Defective small parts.  A small pin that keeps the coupling from folding up while being used (and that rattles around while you ride) has a small metal wire tether.  This broke within two months of purchase.  The distributor says that its warranty doesn't cover small parts, so I bought a replacement pin and spring-type cotter pin at my local hardware store.  This works great.  It isn't tethered to the bike, but I haven't lost it yet.

Another defect is in the strap that holds the coupling folded away when you are not towing a child's bike.  It looks a bit like this.  Every time you hit a bump, the weak spring lets out a little bit of the strap until the whole thing goes crashing to the ground.  (This happened to me when I was carrying my son in his bike seat to the emergency room for a head wound!)  So, I bought a one-foot nylon cord and a plastic clip from REI, and these have given me a year of faithful service.

The Ugly

I had a terrible experience with the distributor/reseller, Clever Cycles.  I have to give them credit for being the only importer of the FollowMe Tandem Coupling into the US (if you know of another one, please let everyone know!), but that doesn't make up for all the other negatives.

  • They told me they had the coupling in stock, then that they didn't, then that they did, then that they didn't, and I finally got one months later.
  • They told me that the coupling is compatible with disc brakes, but some disc brakes require extra hardware.
  • They told me the extra hardware was compatible with panniers, which it is not.
  • They shipped me a product with missing hardware.
  • They didn't stand behind defects in small parts, but did try to sell me replacements for the broken parts.
  • Once they had my money, they were extremely hard to contact.  I generally had to contact them at least 3 times before I got a reply:  2 emails and 1 phone call, or 1 email and 2 phone calls.  The other employees, when I gave the name of the one who was supposedly helping me, clucked in sympathy but didn't offer to give me any assistance themselves.
  • Worst of all, the customer service was offensive and patronizing.  It's bad business to belittle your customer when the customer is wrong.  In my case, I was right, yet the Clever Cycles employee was still derogatory and impolite.
The Bottom Line

The FollowMe Tandem Coupling is an ideal fit for my needs:  I want to carry two children on a standard bicycle, safely, in a way that involves them in the ride.  If you have only one child to carry, then there are other devices with similar benefits, such as a tag-along or the Trail-Gator bicycle tow bar.

I would buy the FollowMe Tandem Coupling again.  But, I would wish that there is someplace to buy it from besides Clever Cycles, whose terrible customer service was a huge hassle, costing me time, money, and headache.