If you are looking for a way to take younger kids out for a ride, without worrying about them lagging behind or being too unsteady for the road, then a smaller wheeled tandem may be the answer. We take a look at the Circe Helios…
The Circe Helios is a twenty inch wheeled tandem. It’s unique because the rear, or stoker position, can be adjusted to fit either an adult or a small child. Circe say they know of children as young as three years old using one. My five year old certainly had no issues riding on it. This Circe Helios belongs to Outspoken Cycles of Cambridge. They hire out the Helios and it’s sibling, the Circe Morpheus, as part of a diverse range, from electric cargo to kids bikes. They can also arrange hire even if you aren’t local to Cambridge.
I took the Circe Helios up to Longstanton, just to the North of Cambridge, to meet its maker. Although the frame is manufactured in Taiwan, the Helios is designed and assembled there. Richard Loke, the man behind Airnimal folding bikes, has been designing and building bikes for twenty years. He wanted to build a tandem that is versatile and accessible to all. The low step over height and telescopic rear seat tube mean that anyone can fit on the back seat of the Helios tandem. Older people and people with limited mobility can still get on board, as well as people of all ages and sizes. It’s one frame size fits all.
The basic Circe Helios Duo comes with V-brakes, a Shimano Sora/ Tiagra mix groupset with a triple chainset, plus 9-speed cassette for twenty-seven gears, and starts at £1349. However, our Helios has an 8-speed Alfine hub gear and this particular one was specced with a single chainring. This is because Cambridge is flat and it is also as a hire bike, so it should reduce the wear and tear. There are various options including 11 speed Alfine, Rohloff gearing, disc brakes, drop bars and thinner tyres. There’s even a cargo rack that fits into the rear seatpost and enables child car-seats to be mounted. You can request an electric conversion using the superb Shimano STEPS system. Even better you can spec up to the collapsible option with the triplet frame section – more about this later. Let’s get on to how it rides.
The Helios is fairly light for a tandem. Its low centre of gravity, thanks to the small frame, coupled to the reasonably short wheelbase means that it’s fun to ride. I did quite a few miles solo and it compared favourably to the old MTB I normally use to get about in Cambridge. With one of my children on the back it was pretty nippy, and with an adult on it absolutely flies. The twenty inch wheels mean that you will notice the bumps slightly more, but the Schwalbe Big Apple tyres did a good job of minimising this.
The bike was designed with smaller wheels to keep the package size quite small. Smaller wheels are stronger and less likely to buckle; another way to build in reduced maintenance requirements. I’ve ridden big wheeled tandems before and perhaps there are some things they do slightly better, but they require a lot more thought, both to buy (as you must have the appropriate frame size on a regular tandem to fit both the riders, which can limit you) and to use. I found the Helios easy to steer in and out of traffic thanks to its upright position and good range of handlebar movement.
The Shimano Alfine hub gear was very welcome. It means you can change gear whilst stationary and it’s quite smooth in use; though you do have to ease off the pressure before you change gear. On a tandem, if you find yourself having to stop on a hill you can’t just lift up the rear wheel and spin the pedal to get into a more suitable gear, so I found it useful to be able to change gear at a standstill. The Helios has horizontal dropouts with Allen bolts to enable tensioning of the rear chain for use with the hub gears. Tensioning of the pilots chain is taken care of by a sprung jockey wheel tensioner.
The V brakes didn’t seem troubled even with two adults on the bike in the flatlands of Cambridge. With all frame mounts provided, there is of course the option of changing to disc brakes. Good if you were loading the bike up regularly, or navigating mountain descents and wanted that extra bit of reassurance.
The low weight of the bike meant moving it about in the garage and even throwing it in the back of my Mondeo estate car was a piece of cake. If you take the front wheel and quick release handlebars off, it sits upright in a medium sized hatchback with the rear seats folded down. The handlebars are easy to remove with a quick release and clever fitting arrangement that only lets you fit it in the correct straight position. There is currently a 26 inch wheeled Helios in prototype phase and it has a lot of the same features of the current model so if you really must have big wheels then get in touch with them and show some interest.
Versatile and accessible to all is what the designer wanted. My seven year old daughter is tall for her age and normally rides a twenty inch wheeled kids bike. She loved riding on the back of the Helios. On her own bike, even with me in a protecting position behind and slightly to the right of her, she gets nervous in traffic. On the Helios she was completely oblivious to the traffic as she had complete confidence in my piloting skills. We went up a hill (possibly the only hill in Cambridge – Lime Kiln Hill) as part of our ten mile Saturday ride no problem. She wouldn’t have managed it on her bike because of the gradient and the traffic passing close on the narrow road makes her too nervous.
My five year old son also loved the Helios as it’s the fastest he’s ever been on a bike! He normally rides a fourteen inch wheeled bike and has a sixteen inch one ready for when he’s tall enough. To fit him to the Helios we had the telescopic seat nearly as low as it could go and had to fit the crank shorteners that Circe had kindly provided (available as an extra). These ensured his legs weren’t too stretched at the bottom of his pedal stroke, or too bent on the top of it. The standard handlebars provide a good range of adjustment too.
For an extra £550 you can buy a collapsible version of the Helios, or get your standard Helios retrofitted with the necessary linkages from £650. The frame then comes apart and the whole tandem fits inside two regular suitcases or a single large suitcase, which is available from Circe. The collapsible feature also means you can store your tandem easily, or put it in a roof box or a small car; no need for costly tandem racks with the Helios. In addition to this, you can buy a further frame section that fits in between the couplings to convert the Helios to a triplet! You can then take your triplet apart and pop it in your boot. How’s that for clever?
My family really enjoyed riding the Circe Helios. At the very least I’ll be borrowing this one again when it’s warmer and drier. You can read the blogs on the Circe website to find out some of the amazing trips Helios owning families have taken their children on. I’m also keen on trying the Morpheus, which is even cleverer. Tandems are fun anyway but regular tandems are quite inflexible when it comes to who fits on them. With the Helios you can get one that even the smallest members of your family can fit on and it will adjust to them as they grow. This makes the investment worthwhile. Added to this you can upgrade the bike as you go. As the children get bigger and you need more gears, better brakes or more luggage you can add it.
Even the basic version of the Helios comes with all the necessary frame lugs for putting derailleurs and disc brakes on. There’s plenty of room for adding mudguards and different racks for luggage. Circe sell a complete catalogue of different accessories that will fit on the bike so you don’t have to rely on luck and bodging. I particularly like the adaptor kit that converts the hard suitcase for the collapsible Helios, into a trailer so you can easily take it with you and use it after you get off the plane or train.
My only slight worry with the Helios was with chaining it up outside a shop. Both seats, handlebars and front wheel come with quick releases. If I bought one of my own I’d be tempted to swap some of those with anti theft bolts. I’m not quite ready to swap it for my race bike but, when I was at their workshop, I saw a triplet with a Shimano STEPS electric motor and N+1… It certainly tops my most wanted list at the moment and I’ve had some lengthy discussions with my wife about how much we really need the car. If we bought the cargo rack then I could easily fit a weeks worth of shopping in it.
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