Person Power

A lot of wheeling and dealing goes on in one Oregon town, where bicycling is a business and a way of life

EUGENE, Ore., has got to be one of the most cycling towns in the United States.

Its 85 miles of bike lanes are constantly trafficked by two-wheeled commuters, fitness buffs, and pleasure riders - rain or shine. Its 12 retail bike shops and five manufacturers of bikes and biking equipment add 350 jobs and $4 million to the local economy. ``Bicycle valet parking'' is starting to be available at cultural events. And the city makes official Bicycle Friendly Business Awards to companies that actively promote bicycling for employees and customers.

So it's not surprising that a former bike racer and true believer in ``human-powered machines'' would settle here and start a business by that name designing and building recumbent bicycles, hand-pedaled transporters, and other odd-looking items that bear little resemblance to your old Schwinn.

The 8,000 square-foot former sheet-metal shop where Jan VanderTuin lives and works also houses a bicycle-repair collective, Oregon's major bike publication, an advocacy group called Auto-Relief, and the base of operations for a bicycle delivery service, Pedaler's Express. And a unicycle support group that meets one evening a month.

When he was younger, Mr. VanderTuin raced with world champion Greg LeMond in California. After that, he established one of the country's first community-supported farms in Vermont and spent several years working with agricultural collectives in Switzerland. While traveling around Europe, he saw the potential for bicycling as a routine part of daily life, both for individuals and for carrying workloads.

``I was fascinated,'' he says. ``I had ridden a bike, but never linked transportation problems or community issues with it.''

Back in the US, VanderTuin three years ago settled on Eugene, home of the University of Oregon and a city known for its progressivism, as ``one of the few places I could live and feel I could travel the way I wanted to travel.''

Once set up in the former sheet-metal shop, he began building custom-made bicycles - most prominently recumbent bikes. These are low-slung affairs in which the rider looks as if he or she is laid back in a lawn chair, legs sticking out front. Most are two-wheel, although some have a tricycle design. With some recumbents, the rider reaches forward to the handlebars. In others, the handlebars are tucked under the seat.

Recumbent bicycles actually have been around a long time. They broke all speed records for pedaled-vehicles back in the 1930s, and for that reason the UCI (United Cycliste International in Europe) banned them from racing. Otherwise we might all be pedaling them today.

``They make lots of sense for safety and comfort, eliminating sore hands, chafed rear ends, and worries about falling on your head,'' writes bike-designer Chester Kyle in Bicycling Magazine.

On the level and on slight upgrades, experienced riders can cruise at faster speeds than they would on a bike with the more familiar double-diamond frame. But because the rider can't stand up to pedal, steeper hills slow one down. To the novice, recumbents feel a bit tippy at first. But one quickly gets accustomed to the unusual posture and is soon wheeling along comfortably - and enjoying the scenery more than one would hunched over the standard handlebar.

About a year ago, VanderTuin established the nonprofit Center for Appropriate Transport, which includes the newspaper Oregon Cycling, the advocacy group Auto-Relief to push for more biking facilities in place of new roads, and a hands-on project to help people design and build their own bikes. Some of these self-built bikes are for riders with special needs.

RANDY NOWELL, who also travels by wheelchair, recently finished a three-wheel bike that is pedaled by hand. It weighs about 50 percent less than one manufactured commercially, and he's comfortably taken rides of 30 miles and more.

``This is proof that it works with a novice bike-builder,'' Mr. Nowell says as he shows off his new mode of transport outside the shop.

VanderTuin also has designed and is marketing several models of load-carrying bikes that now can be seen around Eugene making regular deliveries. Pedaler's Express riders like Dan Long-Coogen are independent operators increasingly getting orders to deliver bank deposits, plumbing and auto parts, and print shop orders - which they can do cheaper and just about as fast as motorized vehicles can.

VanderTuin sees himself as an advocate and educator. He gives talks on transportation at local schools and at the university, hosts visits by architecture students, and has set aside a meeting place and resource center at his shop. Others have begun looking at the Center for Appropriate Transport as a model for their communities, including a group of recent visitors from Vancouver, British Columbia.

VanderTuin is particularly concerned that students coming out of public school these days - whether or not they want to become designers or builders - ``can't put anything together.'' Of his growing work-bike manufacturing business, he says, ``I'd really like to see it become a job-creation program for kids.''

While Eugene is known as a bicycle haven, there still is controversy over proposed highway and bridge construction. For the $157 million cost of these projects, the bike buffs at Auto-Relief point out, Eugene could fill the town with bike racks and lockers, complete the city's bicycle master plan (another 30 miles of off-street bike paths), eliminate public bus fares, wipe out the city's projected budget shortfall through the year 2000, give $100 to every adult citizen ... and still have $7.4 million left over.

``People love the bike paths and bridges, the river trails. Let's build on that,'' VanderTuin says.

``It's not just about bikes,'' he continues. ``It's about how to connect our systems, how to build communities. And what it's showed me is that if you have one good model - hey, it'll fly.''

And what kind of bike does Jan VanderTuin get around on? ``I'm embarrassed to say it, but I ride a Schwinn I found in a dumpster,'' he says. ``I haven't had time to build myself a bike.''

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