This is one reason why Eugene, OR will remain one radical pedal-stroke ahead of America’s Bicycle test kitchen Portland, OR, Eugene’s cloying, attention-sponge sister: Eugene, Oregon Set to debut Tandem Cyclocross World Championships
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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 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.
The captain swings his leg forward over the handlebars in order to mount the tandem. This is the first advice I received before I took my very first ride on a tandem, and I think it encapsulates nearly all of the best advice for successfully riding a tandem.
Of course I was going to receive good advice like this, given that I was living in one of the tandem and other zany bicycle products capitals of the country – Eugene, OR. Forget Portland. Yes, Portland is now America’s test kitchen for all things bicycle and otherwise alternative transportation. But Eugene has been ground zero for bicycle design, culture, and characters for decades now. It’s home to Co-Motion, a fine handmade builder specializing in tandems (and amazing single touring and racing bikes of which I am the proud straddler of one each); Burley, maker of ingenious bicycle trailers now, but were then renown for their tandems, rain gear, and recumbents; Bike Friday, building innovative, quirky folding travel bikes; even the Center for Appropriate Transport, which could probably fabricate anything for you, including a trike that hauls a half-ton: I rode it and it’s for real.
I was told to swing my leg over the handlebars when mounting the tandem by my favorite bike guy in town, Bert, who worked at Paul’s Bicycle Way of Life. He sold me my Co-motion Americano, and we built it up together over beer and cookies. He was also the one who suggested I take out the Co-motion Big Al they were testing in the shop that week. When Bert explained to me the unorthodox mounting technique, it signaled to me that my chief responsibility in riding a tandem is to my partner. You don’t want to kick your leg over the back and tag your stoker in the teeth. But more than that, everything you do on the tandem is about keeping your partner safe and happy. You want the same things on a tandem that you do on a single bike – stability, momentum, speed, comfort, safety – but the starting point is different on tandem. Before those things can be achieved, you have to take into account your partner’s happiness. Lay the ground work, and then you can haul ass. And get honking.
That first tandem experience in the Coburg hills outside of Eugene was exhilarating. It also spoiled me for other, lesser tandems, allowing me to ride one of the higher-end, lightest, stiffest, best-handling, and very spendy tandems on the market. The bike, and more importantly the experience of being in synch with a partner, together the whole time, talking, struggling, laughing, and picking up huge momentum on the downhill sold me on an eventual future of tandeming. It took me eight more years before I finally acquired the used Burley.
Of course, good tandem advice isn’t the only you’ll receive in Eugene. The place is full of earnest bike nerds intent on pure functionality and innovation, on whom a prevailing fixation on bike fashion over utility would be lost. Before I left Eugene for a cross-country bike tour, one man asked me if I was going to equip my touring bike with a fairing. A fairing? I asked. Fairings are those bulbous windshields you might see on some recumbent land-speed record racers. He told me that for protection from the elements and for an aerodynamic advantage in the wind, I’d be an idiot for not using a fairing, emphasizing his point by claiming that every cyclist in San Fransisco uses a fairing. Hmmm. Try swinging your leg over that.