Posts Tagged 'burley'

Tandem gems from Raleigh

For some reason, it’s not easy for us to get over to Raleigh. On the weekends, it seems we’re either bunkering up in the vicinity of Saxapahaw to enjoy great bike rides, and goat burgers from the General Store, or we’re escaping very far away, like last week’s trip to the Bay area. Raleigh, the dominant city in the region, seems to exist an uninteresting nomansland between near and far. It doesn’t have much to offer that Orange and Alamance Counties don’t already have, so if we’re going to make the effort to get over there, we may as well head straight to RDU and fly away.

Unless we’re talking tandems. There’s no shortage of great bicycle shops and experts in North Carolina – probably a testament to the diverse and extensive conditions for riding across the state – any state that can claim “mountains to the sea” deserves a leg up over the top tube. However, Raleigh seems to be the locus for tandem riding. Raleigh is home to the southern cuisine-themed riding club GRITS (Greater Raleigh Intrepid Tandem Society). The focus for the locus is All Star Bikes at Quail Corners. I’m still re-acquainting myself with my re-adopted state of NC, and while researching dealers to find the kind of high-end tandem we’re looking for for our wedding registry, I found out that All Star Bikes is the closest by a long shot. A trip to Raleigh finally seemed necessary.

The store location in a non-descript suburban strip mall in the uneasy mishmash of business and neighborhood developments of fast-growing north Raleigh is more a comment on the realities of Raleigh city planning than the shop itself. While there, we got to chat with their expert wrench Terry, and long-time sales guys Jeff and Neil. They sell Santana and Co-Motion, which is exactly what you’re hoping for when you’re looking for the highest quality production tandems.

We got to test ride a Co-Motion Speedster, which is only the exact tandem make and model I’ve pinned my dreams on since my first ride on a tandem (a Co-Motion Big Al) back in 2000. The differences between the good ol’ Burley Duet and the Speedster are just about night and day. First the similarities: they’re both steel; both handmade in Eugene, OR; both are tandems. There the similarities basically end. I’ve always enjoyed the functionality, serviceability, and smart details of the Burley. It’s handling is predictable, and even though on the chubby side, I’ve often felt its weight lends it an impressive gravity – when the road starts to point downhill, the momentum it generates makes it feel like a muscular train steaming across the vast expanses of the continent. What I didn’t realize is that I could feel the same confidence in a tandem, and still feel nimbleness similar to a quality single bike.

This is so with the CoMo Speedster. We got to test ride the tandem along residential streets that actually offered a couple of decent hills by which to gain a sense of its climbing prowess and the feel as it picked up speed downhill. We also got the blah attention-demanding surburban experience of dodging cars exiting driveways and sucking exhaust and debris belched from noxious leaf-blowers. The CoMo handled these challenges and grievances as easily as Gatsby navigates a cocktail party. The Speedster seriously is about 15lbs skinnier than the Duet, but gives nothing up in rigidity or surety. The handling is much sportier, turning with the ease of a Panamian drug-running boat, as opposed to a container ship turning miles in advance of an iceberg. Sure, components that are 15 years newer are also a nice upgrade, but the real advancement is the slick handling and smooth riding. A high performance machine, the steel Speedster is also ready for self-supported touring, with all the right rack and fender mounts. Alas, the only thing missing is a pump peg.

Back at the shop, we absorbed some good tips from Neil, a dedicated tandem-rider (owning a carbon Calfee), veteran racer, and salesman for 25 years. Here’s some new things we’re thinking about:
-Cornering technique: the stoker should slightly elevate off the saddle, lean into the turn, and keep weight on the lowered pedal on the outside of the turn (the pedal opposite the turn) to achieve the lowest center of gravity. Our first experience with this is that this move has to be smooth, natural, and unconscious, as the concerted effort by the stoker to force weight down on the pedal is more upsetting than we usually experience.
-Disc brakes versus drum brake on the tandem: disc brakes offer an upgrade in stopping power over rim brakes, but when it comes to long, steep downhills, they’ll fade out. I’m thinking rim brakes are the most sensible to run, adding a drum brake set up to drag with a friction shifter for the rides in the mountains.
-Contrary to popular thought, it doesn’t matter whether the heavier person is in the front (usually considered best practice) or the rear. I was thinking it makes sense to have the heavier person up front since that’s the fulcrum of steering. But our whippy salesperson Neil, who’s “130lbs soaking wet” claimed to have no problem riding with a 300lb stoker. As long as the stoker is a smooth pedaler and leans with the captain, it doesn’t matter at all.
-There’s two ways to start off on a tandem. This is news to me, since I have always done this by having the stoker mount the rear and push off and start pedaling at the same time as me. The other technique, supposedly to be used for less experienced stokers, is to have the stoker sit on the rear with both feet on the pedals while the captain balances the weight up front and pushes off himself when ready to go. Even though the later is supposedly good for inexperienced riders, I can’t imagine doing it like that. Stopping at a stop light and balancing the stoker who doesn’t put a leg down seems unlikely to me. Of course, on tandem, you do just about all you can to avoid ever having to stop and put a leg down.
-Take “butt breaks.” Who doesn’t like the sound of that?
-Cut-up old inner tubes are better than bungees cords.

The field trip to Raleigh was eye-opening for lots of reasons. Not the least of which, of course, is that we have identified the bike dealer for our dreamed-of wedding tandem. We also got some good tips on rides around North Carolina. As great as Saxapahaw is, it’s good to get out from time to time.


Something old, something new

Between the two of us, my partner and I don’t consume much. Except for rent and utilities, by far our greatest expenditure is on food. There’s just not much else out there necessary or interesting to buy. This does not mean that I don’t have a deeply inculcated consumer impulse. I get fixated on acquiring certain possessions, thinking it will somehow make my life better, or fill in a hole where I feel like I’m lacking – and as such, the advertisers have done their job.

It makes sense that I would feel the need to acquire new stuff, or at least stuff new to me. But it’s not the marketing of specific products that makes me want to buy and obtain, rather it’s that the culture of marketing seems to have fostered my acquisitive nature. How do I know this? Well, the thing I’m preparing to purchase, though still wrestling with the decision in my mind and with my partner, is a new tandem, as I’ve mentioned here before in the context of it being our wedding registry. When was the last time you saw a tandem advertised? Of course if you’re reading this and you’re not one of my personal friends whose arm I’ve twisted to read my blog, you may in fact be interested in bikes, and maybe even interested in tandems specifically, and therefore are exposed to bicycle advertisements. However, I definitely am interested in tandems, but I don’t recall being exposed to any tandem advertisements recently.

The bike industry is not shy in advertising, and it is quite relentless in releasing new product lines each year that are slight modifications, often mere cosmetic/style changes from the previous seasons, in order to get people to replace the old with the new. This marketing I am definitely exposed to, even if it’s not specifically selling tandems.

Tangentially, the style of the street feeds into the consumer impulse, that is, the culture sells itself. When I lived in Chicago, I wanted to ride around on a fixed gear “urban” bike, as was the fashion – and I did, too, and then I sold that bike when I moved back to the country (though I’ve seen single speeds and fixed gears doing long rural rides down here in the NC hills, even centuries, it just doesn’t seem like it would be that fun or useful to me). Sure, I appreciated the simplicity of having less moving parts to keep clean and functional in the dirty city of the long winter, but in the end, nothing is more functional than my touring bike with full fenders and racks.

One of the style movements within bike culture is that of “vintage” bikes. The Let’s Go Ride a Bike blog is sort of in the middle of exploring the style and utility of vintage bikes. Like diving through bins in used clothing stores, the appreciation of and search for high quality and attractive older bikes is nothing new. Steel Bridgestones that have now spawned the community around Rivendell became vintage collectors’ pieces the year they went off the US market in 1994 – it was primed to do this since their chief marketing director Grant Peterson was already resisting new trends and embracing vintage design. Acquiring vintage bikes is in a sense more noble than simply expressing a fashion – it’s a culturally couth way of consuming and recycling at the same time. It prevents all that imported metal and rubber and plastic from ending up in land fills, preserves some historic design, and reminds us how little has actually changed about bikes. Some people choose the vintage route for the practicality and longevity of some older designs, as well as the cost savings. Then there’s the style aspect.

What I’m wrestling with is my desire, a huge lust, that I’ve been harboring since I first rode a Co-Motion Big Al back in 2000: that I must a shiny, new, top-end tandem. I sicken myself a little when I think about it. I’ve picked up the magazine Bicycling the past few months after a hiatus of many years, and I’m surprised by what I see. Besides absolutely horrendous writing (like this misogynistic and rival-baiting masquerade of journalism), what really turns me off are the short bicycle reviews where they give a flaccid description of a new bike, some snappy but useless pros and cons. It’s not these elements of the reviews that bother me. Rather, it’s that when they review the latest carbon contraption, they don’t bat an eye at the price tags of these bikes. $10K-20K! The reviewers don’t even comment on it. I think if you’re looking at a bike that retails for $20 grand, the first thing one should ask is not how compliant the seat stays are under the force of a professional racer’s acceleration, but whether the performance and new trinkets really add that much value to your life. And, that distaste forces me to ask myself just that about a spendy new tandem.

As it stands, my honey and I have a very capable, “vintage” rig. A 1991 Burley Duet, considered a fine standard of the “entry-level” tandem market at the time. The stout steel frame handles extremely predictably, is remarkably stable at low and high speeds, absorbs the road but has no noodle feeling whatsoever, has sensible, durable components (48-spoke wheels!), smart design features (I love the pump peg, and the drum brake, but we can debate whether it really is a good idea to to have the right hand brake actuate both the front and rear rim brakes, while the left operates the drum brake, or whether it’s not). It’s heavy, probably around 45lbs, but it could probably survive a short military engagement. Every time I get excitedly talking about acquiring a new tandem, and then the talk comes around to the cost, H reminds me of how dependable and comfortable the Burley is, and then I’m back to convincing her and myself why I would want to lay out months of income for a new one.

There are a few reasons I’d like a new tandem that involve the bicycle itself. First, a new tandem would allow us to get fitted properly together (though the Burley feels fine as is). Second, we could get it spec’ed with the latest, yet still practical components. A new Co-Motion, even a steel one, would weigh about 15 pounds less – this may be the greatest reason. I’d also like a tandem with traveler couplers. I already ride a Co-Motion Co-Pilot (which I actually bought used with great success/luck on eBay) and have flown with it on numerous occasions. The couplers on the tandem have the added benefit of being able to break it down if you really really have to in a pinch in order to fit it in a car or some other space not normally equipped to handle its size.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to get a new tandem is the romantic notion that a new tandem would be ours and only ours, and would achieve some sort of metaphorical status in our relationship – an active tool and symbol of the work we’re be putting in together toward our continued happiness. On the other hand, the tandem is just an object, so I wonder if somehow, insidiously, my deeply-rooted consumer nature (which, to her credit, my honey does not share with me) is adopting these tones of symbolic grandeur to justify its base motive. And to what end? Sarah Goodyear, an editor of Streetsblog recently reminded me of an apt tandem adage: “No matter which way you’re going in your relationship, you’ll get there faster on a tandem.” This goes both ways.

The other morning, as we were tandem commuting to work, my honey and I got to debating whether we really need a new tandem. I went on about tech (wouldn’t disk brakes be great?), about lower weight (we’d shoot up hills!), about the couplers, about being able to choose a shiny new color rather than this dull blue. She was basically unaffected by any of these arguments. Then, as we were finishing the commute in Chapel Hill, a single older woman on a bicycle caught up with us and was enthused that we were riding a tandem. What she was really excited to talk about was that she and her husband had recently acquired a brand-spanking new Co-Motion (with couplers, no less!) and that it was the best ride ever. When she rode off, my honey tried to think of how I might have planted that woman, like, I somehow paid her off to bike up to us right then like some tandem marketing angel. Of course I could not have, but it also might have worked.

Anatomy of a commute

This was a great week for tandem commuting, road rage incident notwithstanding. Tuesday was world car free day. The daylight is holding out for us in the early fall. The weather was widely varied – sun, rain, heat, humidity, still, windy, fall chill, and all the lovely smells of the outdoors that come from these conditions.

Honey and I have now been living together out in the country for three months, and only now does the 20-mile commute into town start to feel like a normal commute, and not a huge bike ride that you have to get amped up for. Heat? We’re used to it. Low light? We have lights and reflective gear. Rain? It doesn’t stop us (well, not always).

The Burley.

The Burley.

Here’s an anatomy of our tandem commute and the bike and gear that make it possible and enjoyable. First, the equipment:

The Burley Duet in all its length. Ortleib panniers that, after nine years of daily commuting and multiple self-supported bike tours, are as functional and waterproof as the day I got them. They’re stuffed with clothes and enough food to get our ravenous selves through the day. Plus we can do a little grocery shopping after work – we hauled home two pie pumpkins last night in the panniers! (Hey, hungry honkers demand fresh food, and you can’t beat fresh pumpkin for pies and soups. Celebrate the slow life – slow transport, slow food…) Note the matchy Brooks saddles. Helmets are a must. As are sunglasses with changeable lenses, because no matter the light, you need to keep debris and bugs out of your eyes.

The pilot's cockpit.

The pilot's cockpit.

My handlebar bag holds lots of necessities – wallet, phone, keys, snacks, camera – and can even accommodate small shopping items, like that pint of yogurt that didn’t quite fit in the pannier yesterday.

"Vintage" Burley rain jacket.


A well-cut, rain-proof jacket with reflective strips (alas, Burley cut this line, too) and a bright, reflective safety vest. Essential and ultra-nerdy. But at least the vest is nicely complemented here by the model’s Paperhand Puppet Intervention t-shirt.


Gotta get those PSI up for fast rolling. I love these fat slick Continental Sportcontacts for their cadillac ride on rough roads.

Rolling out.

Rolling out.

Now we’re ready for the ride to work.

We cycle along lovely country lanes…


We hit Highway 54 for a quicker way to work in the morning when time is more of an issue. There’s more exposure to cars – heavy volume, generally traveling over 55mph – but the car lane is wider than most secondary highways in NC, and there a wide paved shoulder, another rarity in this state. Just look out for road debris, which is usually gravel strewn from driveways that enter onto the road.

Highway 54.

Highway 54.

Of course, the stoker has another great view:

The view from the rear.

The view from the rear.

The end.

Eccentric corpse

We were recently off the Burley Duet for two weeks- a bit too long for a routine mechanical fix. The forward bottom bracket – the eccentric – was creaking, and I had to pull it out for new bearings. The eccentric is a cylinder holding the bottom bracket bearings and axle, which are seated in a hole drilled off-center through the cylinder. When the bottom bracket is seated in the frame, turning the eccentric enables the timing chain that connects the front chainring to the rear to slacken or tighten in order to service the chain, cranks or BB. The eccentric is one of those little parts that makes the tandem unique from most other bikes. Coming up with any reason to work on it, talk about it, or otherwise make reference to the eccentric makes me feel nerdy cool.

The off-center eccentric bottom bracket.

The off-center eccentric bottom bracket.

The time away from the tandem was probably good for us. It gave us a chance to re-hone some single bike skills, especially giving my partner more time on her new Cannondale. I missed riding the tandem so much that I started this blog. And I got to find out a bit of what happens to a small bike company when they go out of business, or in the case of Burley, go through a complete structural overhaul that includes abandoning their entire bike production.

When I moved to Eugene briefly in ’99, Burley was one of the first businesses I found out about. Fresh out of college, I was already really into bikes, and was planning my first cross-country bike tour for the following year. My first and most essential acquisition for this lifestyle in the Pacific northwest was a set of rain gear handmade by the folks at what was then Burley Design Coop. Then I found out about their other products: tandems, trailer bikes, trailers for kids, recumbents, folding bikes – basically nailing most of the products for the whole family to bike together, and in any weather. Later, I actually did a couple stints of seasonal temp work for Burley.

This was one of my first post-college jobs, and still ranks as my favorite, more for what they were about and how they were run, than for what I actually did there. Sure, assembling D’Lite trailers all day was decent work and felt like I was producing something important, but it was the organization that was so inspiring. It was a completely employee-owned coop that had decided to pay everyone – including temps! – the same dollars per hour, and provide everyone – including temps! and even temps’ unmarried partners! – health benefits. At the end of the year, the worker-owners divvied up profits, if there were any, and reinvested a portion back into the company to make improvements. They had grown a lot in their 20 years at this point, and had a sterling modern facility at the west end of Amazon bike path, along which I had a nearly exclusively off-street 6-mile commute to work. Again, yay Eugene!

Burley also provided forward-thinking incentives to encourage workers to find alternatives to driving alone to work in a car. More than providing secure indoor bike storage and showers, which they did, they gave employees $1 per day in gear or cash for everyday they biked, walked, took transit, or car-pooled – anything other than SOV.

Another cool thing about Burley was that they had a fleet of tandems and some of their other products that employees could borrow. I took one out for an overnight ride to stay at a hippie-witch’s house in Creswell. Hippie, because of the organic garden, free-range chickens and ducks, a dozen semi-feral cats coming in and out the open door, and the homemade slop of raw meat, eggs, and flour to feed the cats and dogs. Witch, because of the stone labyrinth garden, and those ducks. Doesn’t it seem like a witch would keep ducks, duck parts being necessary for certain incantations? I was never so happy to leave a place as the next morning, and it just so happened I had a pleasant tandem ride to take me home. What’s more, this being tandem-happy Oregon, a ProAm tandem bike race was randomly being held in this little town of Creswell that morning.

Anyway…once I get talking about one thing, I can’t leave the other out. It’s like all the different periods of my life are competing to write this post, as in an exquisite corpse.

Unfortunately, all of this awesome stuff about Burley may have something to do with what the company looks like today. Back in 2006, the company found itself in serious arrears, and sold to a private businessman, who restructured it and dropped everything except the trailers. There’s a lot I don’t know about the reasons this happened, or what the place is like today. From what I’ve read, it seems maybe they lost their focus with too many product lines – they were eventually making a line of single bikes, too – and got into bad debt. For all I know, it’s probably still a great place to work. It’s sad because I want to believe a coop can work, as Burley did successfully and notably for many years. It’s also sad because the rain gear was smart, and the tandems were, and are still, iconic.

I tell all this because the present make up of Burley had a bearing on getting my bottom bracket fixed. I just couldn’t figure this eccentric out. It seemed that it was probably propreitary. The eccentic has sealed bearing cartridges on either side that the axle glides on. I knew I needed to be able to pop them out, and either re-seat or replace them. The cartridges themselves were actually sliding in and out, which is not good, but I couldn’t figure how to ultimately pull them off, since they were pretty well bonded to the axle. It’s likely the eccentric has never really been serviced since it was purchased in ’91.

I thought about what Jason, a mechanic/owner of Back Alley Bikes would do – hit it with the rubber mallet. So that’s what I did. While smacking at it was gratifying, the bearings weren’t coming free of the axle and the shell, so to Back Alley we went. I said, Hey Jason, here’s the eccentric from my Burley, can you get these bearing cartridges out? True to form, Jason took out his hammer. Nothing gave. When his co-worker suggested whacking it some more, Jason replied that if was his own tandem, that’s what he’d do. I think he wanted to spare my delicate reaction to more exaggerated thwacking.

The make of the eccentric was not clear, so Jason thought of the next best thing – call Burley. And thus began the two-weeks off the tandem. Despite having made tandems for 20 or more years, no one was left in the service department that could tell Jason about the make of the eccentric. It took more than a week for Burley to admit that Jason should just call another bike shop, and they gave him the contact of a former Burley dealer.

Jason found out he just needed to hit the eccentric harder with that hammer until the bearings popped out. Oh yeah, and replace the now-trashed cartridge bearings with new ones. We’re rolling again, and not a creak from below in the past couple hundred miles. Thanks, Jason.

In regards to Burley, I’ll always be grateful I got to work with that crew for a while. I still appreciate their products, even if it’s just trailers now. And I love the Duet we’re riding now, because even if Burley had to stop making them, the ones they put on the road can be ridden forever.

One less bike

Before I moved from another state to live with my fiancee three months ago, I started warming her up to the idea of the tandem. I have a great old tandem I got a few years ago from a retired couple, and was excited that I’d finally have a full-time partner to ride it with. She, on the other hand, had just taken a step up in the bike game, purchasing a nice new racing bike for herself a month previous, and was itching to break it in instead.

Bikes already formed one of our mutual interests. We met years ago in Chapel Hill, and I just moved back here to be with her. In those earlier years, I’d helped foster her interest in biking- fixing up her around-the-town bike, setting her up with a road bike to try out, even took her for a ride on the tandem. She was game for anything, and loved it all. Before I moved away initially, I set her up with a speedy steel Allez, and she took it from there herself, becoming a dedicated rider and commuter.

Now I’ve returned, and our bike collections have merged. There’s her two road bikes – the classic steel, and the new-fangled aluminum carbon; and my larger amount of bikes that includes my our 1991 Burley Duet tandem, which will appear regularly in this blog.

Burley Duet

Burley Duet

She was reluctant to look away from the new bike, and we did a couple rides together on the single bikes. One agonizing ride on the Burley in the high heat of the early North Carolina summer after she’d been off the bike for a month while traveling did not bode well for my dreams of tandeming every chance we got. She was hot and tired, as was I, but I pushed hard and pretended we felt better than we did.

Then we started the commute. I had just moved from Chicago, and before that I’d always lived in town. My commute had never been more than three miles, so I could walk and bike everywhere. Now, we’ve decided to live in the country, about 20 miles from our jobs in Chapel Hill. Minimizing car trips is still very important to us, and that means planning in the bike commute. She’d already been doing for a year, which was reassuring.

The first tandem commute to work decided it – we are tandem riders. The tandem commute is right in so many ways: we can talk the whole time, so it’s a great way to ease into a day or decompress from work; we don’t get separated on the road; cars seem to give the tandem a little more respect; and we get to spend the extra time together, which is great since we’re really at the beginning of our relationship. Plus we get a work-out.

After a couple weeks into regular tandem riding, she gave me one of the most flattering comments I’ve ever received – and isn’t that what relationships are all about? We decided to ride our single bikes for a change. She was struggling up a long hill, and then started to chuckle. She’d been wondering why, as she went up the hill, was it just getting harder and harder, and the bike not making it any easier. Then she realized it was because I wasn’t up there shifting, and she had to do it. I know this doesn’t sound good for individual empowerment, but it sure made me feel pretty smooth.

And now it seems like an appropriate time to start a blog about tandem bicycle riding:

My fiancee and I have moved in together. I just started a new job. We have this great rural bike commute that takes the edge off the anxiety of a new job.

There’s a growing population around the country that’s deciding to replace more car trips with biking and walking, and clamor for better policies and infrastructure. And while these people are joining the noisy activists that have been riding their bikes and shouting “One less car” for years, we’ll be saying, “One less bike.”

And we’re planning a wedding. The next task is to convince my fiancee to agree to put a new tandem on the wedding registry.