As Seen In RTR Magazine Issue #5:

Recumbent & Tandem Rider Review #29: Santana Sovereign SE - The Gold Standard of Tandem Handling

By Charles Coyne

Santana’s Sovereign SE is the gold standard of aluminum tandem handling. Solid. Smooth. Predictable. You like to swoop and slalom like a snake? This bike is ready for you. On the straight and level, the bike’s geometry gently quiets the struggles of even the most passive/aggressive stokers, and allows the captain to maintain easy control. If you’ve got a strong, well-behaved stoker on board, the bike will roll steady, fast and true for miles on end, putting very little workload on the captain. This leaves more energy for the captain to devote to the pedals.

Got a favorite piece of fast downhill you’d like to carve hard through? The same steady, predictable frame provides steady, predictable cornering all the way to the extreme. From long sweeping curves to tight, diminishing radius, off-camber corners, the Sovereign’s surefootedness really opens the eyes of the uninitiated, and rewards aggressive riders as well. This is the kind of handling that can provide a real safety cushion in emergency response maneuvers at high, or low, speeds.

Admittedly, some teams enjoy a tandem with quicker steering geometry. Santana addressed their concerns years ago, and offered framesets for those riders wanting a ‘faster’ bike with quicker steering. After offering identical tandems with “faster” steering and “slower” steering, Santana’s president Paul McCready began asking riders what made them faster on the bikes with faster steering. Hmmm. If all else is identical, (frame size, tires, gearing, riders, etc.) then could it be anything other than the perception of being faster, rather than the actuality of being faster? At any rate, Santana has long since settled on the currently available steering rate, and it’s quite acceptable. Construction material plays a huge part in the quality of a ride that any bike delivers, tandem or otherwise. A tandem made from plumbing pipe would ride like . . . well, let’s not even think about it. Actually, hard, heavy and unresponsive does come immediately to mind. So does cheap, because you probably couldn’t give one away for free! It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that aluminum would be a much better choice of material, but there is more to consider than simply substituting one metal or material for another.

When designing a tandem, there are an almost infinite number of variables to take into consideration. A builder must think about the type of metal (or composite), the wall thicknesses, butting (single? double? triple? reverse?), the various shapes, angles and connections that must be made, the type of welding that will be used, and all the costs involved. Now factor in the intended use of the bike, room and comfort for the stoker and captain, the realities of being able to actually manufacture the end design, and a host of other parameters. It obviously takes a lot of time, energy, skill, knowledge and experience in order to deliver a proper tandem to consumers. To date, no one has produced more tandems, for more years, than La Verne, California-based Santana. Those years of experience pay big dividends for Sovereign riders.

Founded over 25 years ago by the ever proselytizing tandem pioneer Bill McCready, Santana Cycles has introduced a wide variety of tandem innovations over the years. Granted, there is debate and a degree of controversy regarding some of these innovations, the fact remains that Santana has spent more years researching and building tandem bicycles than any other large-scale builder. There is no substitute for experience, and no one can argue about Santana having plenty of that.

While carbon fiber forks are not an innovation of Santana’s own, the V-Max carbon fiber fork fitted to our review bike is one example that reflects the always on-going efforts to improve its products.

We found the Sovereign’s ride on rough road surfaces to be superb. The carbon fiber fork seemed to absorb a great deal of road shock, yet never felt flimsy or weak. All carbon fiber forks should be capable of providing a better ride than a steel fork, in theory at any rate. Due to the strength to weight ratio of the carbon fiber material, less of it needs to be used to make the forks, so the wall thicknesses can be less than the wall thickness of a steel fork. Less material in the component means less material to transfer road shock - pretty simple really. The carbon Fiber V-Max fork is a $249.00 upgrade option on the Sovereign and should be seriously considered by teams shopping in the $3500 tandem range. It adds less than 10% to the total price of a bike that will likely be in the stable for years, so you may as well avoid any regrets later.

In many ways, tandem framesets are like pipe organs in churches. Engineers can explain the scientific principles of physics of why the organ’s pipes make noise when air is passed through them, but artists are needed to build and instrument that will turn the noise into sweet music. Engineers can talk forever about the tubes used to build bikes, but artists are needed to turn tubing into a sweet instrument on which tandem teams may play their best duets.

The arcane world of pipe organ-tuning enthusiasts is as full of controversy as our own band of tandem-tuners. Each builder claims to have the best, and certainly each does try to do their best, but the proof happens when the rubber meets the road. Santana uses 20/10/20 double-butted Easton 7000 series aluminum tubes on the SE, which is stress-relieved ball-burnishing after the welding process is completed. The welding process used is the single-pass TIG method. Santana claims the bare frame weighs just over 7 pounds. We didn’t strip our review bike down to the frame to check that claim, but with the bike’s overall weight being only 33.5 pounds, we’re not inclined to doubt it. Light does not mean flexy in the case of the SE. We hammered hard with the stoker standing, the captain standing, and with both standing without any feeling of whippiness from the frame. In the early days of aluminum bikes, tandem or otherwise, the material gained a reputation for causing a harsh ride. Most builders have now learned to tame and harness the good qualities of aluminum, and the SE serves as an exemplary sample.

The Santana 160 mm rear wheel spacing needs to be addressed. Santana’s reasoning for the wide rear hub is that it allows for the construction of “stronger” rear wheels, without any dish configuration of the spokes to the hubs. While this makes much “eyeball engineering” sense, it’s not a specification that many other tandem builders have adopted as yet, although Edco, Phil Wood and Shimano have provided the rear hubs in that size since the early 1990’s. Other tandem builders will debate the wisdom or even the need for 160mm, citing chainline problems, the need for wider chain stays, and limits as to the sizes of tires that can be fitted, among other things. While this debate may never abate, we do feel that the wider triangulation from the chain and seat stays required by the wider hubs probably increase the overall strength of the frame.

The fit and finish on the Sovereign is second to none. The cable routing is especially noteworthy. There is not a place on the bike where any brake or shifter cable housing rubs against, or even touches, the bike’s painted or finished surfaces. It is one of those little things that you begin notice that starts to set the Santana apart from other manufacturers. It also must be one of those things you learn after building bikes for a while, because a quick peek at our old ‘87 Arriva reveals that the brake and shifter cables are all up routed right up against the paint.

Another detail, the crankset. The Sovereign SE comes fitted standard with Santana’s own SplineDrive forged crankset, a nice looking setup. What may be missed by the casual observer is that the captain’s crankarms are 175mm in length, the stoker’s are 170mm. If we can agree that the majority of tandems bought are used by male/female teams, and that generally the larger male rides as captain, and the generally smaller females ride as the stoker, we can agree that it makes a certain amount of logic to equip the stoker with a shorter set of cranks. You can bet that Bill’s wife, Jan, his stoker of three decades or so, had a bit of input for that detail.

More details; the accessory threads on left side of the rear hub are tightly covered with a plastic collar when the bike is delivered from Santana. This inexpensive plastic collar serves to protect the threads and keep them clean until, or if, an Aria-type drum brake is installed. Very nice.

The finish on our review bike is unique, to say the least. It’s very hard to show this ‘prism’ finish in the accompanying photos, but it’s basically a clear coat over the aluminum frame. Before the clear coat is applied, however, the bare aluminum surface is sanded by hand until it is covered with semi-circular sanding patterns. The resulting finish is quite striking to see and provides benefits aside from the obvious beauty. A bike with this finish is slightly lighter than one with the full complement of pigmented layers of paint. Fewer layers equal less weight. A long term benefit is the ability of this finish to hide the inevitable dings and scratches that will sooner or later occur to just about every tandem that gets ridden with any regularity.

On the subject of paint and finish, it must be mentioned that the paint on all new Santana bikes painted with the DuPont process since 1998 have a lifetime guarantee, backed up by Santana’s paint supplier, Du Pont. Santana began using the DuPont paint system in 1998, and it’s actually Du Pont that spends the money if a bike needs refinished due to a flaw in the paint. Santana’s painting crew is trained by DuPont, and they periodically go back to the DuPont factory for refresher courses and skill improvement classes. As long as the frame is prepped according to the steps required by DuPont, and the paint is mixed, applied and cured according to DuPont’s specs, DuPont will stand behind the paint job. Forever.

We expected that a bike set up by the Santana factory would be rigged and tuned to perfection when we rolled into the company’s parking lot to pick the Sovereign up. We were not disappointed. From the first turn of the cranks, the bike performed pretty much flawlessly. We were especially delighted with the shifting. Click, snick, click, snik, smooth as silk, crisp as a cold carrot. The only missed shifts were really the result of SISS, (Self Induced Shifting Sloppiness). One down side of riding a constantly changing stable of review bikes is not being able to get to the point where shifts happen intuitively. Braking on the Soverereign SE is fantastic, the Avid Single Digit’s being easily modulated and a minimum of effort needed on the levers to produce plenty of stopping power. Some of the braking smoothness has to be attributed to the wheels spec’d by Santana, and built for Santana by Wheelsmith. Wheelsmith uses their own spokes to build the wheels, which have machined braking surfaces, a great feature which makes for a more exacting contact between the brake pads and the wheels. Another great feature is the slot that is machined into the braking surface. As the braking surface wears out over time, the slot will become more and more shallow, making it much easier to judge when it’s time to replace the wheels.

The Sovereign SE is the less-expensive counterpart to Santana’s aluminum Sovereign. It’s equipped with less-expensive components like the Shimano 105 integrated shift/brake levers instead of the Sovereign’s Ultegra equipment, a less expensive shock absorbing stoker seatpost instead of the Tamer PivotPlus and other more modestly priced components. The result is a bike that is $900.00 less expensive (in standard trim) that the Sovereign, but it still delivers an exquisite ride. All the components functioned beautifully during our time with the bike, and if it were my money being spent, I might have to consider that the SE may be the better value. With the money saved, that $249.00 carbon fiber fork becomes very affordable, with money left over for other tandem toys.

Contact: Santana Cycles, P.O. Box 206, La Verne, CA 91750. 1-800-334-6136.

NOTE: You can buy a copy of Recumbent & Tandem Rider Issue #5 featuring this review fully illustrated with detailed photos. Our other fully illustrated reviews in Issue #5 include: two trikes from Hase Spezialraeder, the Cannondale Easy Rider recumbent, da Vinci's Symbiosis XC tandem, Burley's Cro-Mo Rumba tandem and the Sun EZ Sport recumbent, along with other interesting features and columns. To order your back issue, forward a $5.00 check or money order to: Coyne Publishing, P.O. Box 337, San Dimas, CA 91773. (Price includes postage & handling)

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