How Corvallis Got So ‘Bent

IMG_9924Corvallisites ride a whole variety of bikes. Anyone who has lived here for at least one summer has likely seen mud-splattered mountain bikes barreling down Marys Peak or Bald Hill. They’ve seen packs of Spandex-clad road bikers scaling NW Highland Drive. They might even have stopped to watch the tricks being performed by BMXers at the track in South Town or at McKinley Skate Park. Everyone has seen the thousands of used 10-speeds and hybrids favored by college students on and around campus. And, anyone who has been paying attention has seen a curiously large number of recumbents.

Wait. What? Recumbents?

Recumbent bicycles, or ‘bents, place the rider in a lower to the ground, laid-back, more comfortable, reclining position. The pedals are in front of, not below, the seat. They can have two or three (or even four) wheels. Sometimes the handlebars are in the front, and sometime they’re hidden under the seat. But one thing these bizarre transports all have in common, they are superior to traditional upright bikes in almost every way. Better aerodynamics make ‘bents faster. More natural sitting positions are more comfortable and put less pressure on biker’s backs and backsides. The rider even has a wider field of view, thanks to a more relaxed head position. Lastly, riders who simply cannot ride regular bikes due to chronic pain or injuries are usually able to get around easily on recumbent bicycles.

In most cities, recumbents are rare. In Corvallis they seem to be everywhere. Why? One reason is the presence of Corvallis Cyclery downtown. Only a handful of bike shops in Oregon carry ‘bents, and we are lucky enough to have one right here. Customers come from miles around to test ride and buy these engineering marvels. They sell two brands of recumbent, Sun and Bacchetta, and they sell very well. Customers new to the style often purchase user-friendly two-wheelers or delta style tricycles, which have two wheels in the back and one in the front. Those in the market for speed, who don’t mind being frighteningly low to the ground, will pony up for a tadpole style of trike. They fly like street luges but two front wheels allow riders to turn on a dime.

Dennis Day, who has worked at CC for 28 years, says they sell as many ‘bents as they do mountain or road bikes. The style does not require any more maintenance or service than other bikes, and has a loyal following among locals. He is well aware of the number of ‘bents here in Corvallis, and knows it is not all due to the shop. He has his own theories to explain the phenomenon. First, the more people that see these bizarre looking bikes around, the more they consider riding or buying one themselves. The very presence of ‘bents makes people want to buy ‘bents. Also, there is an engineering culture here which is fascinated by the quirky mechanics of different bikes. Just look at the bizarre contraptions seen during da Vinci Days for proof.

So if people buy recumbents because they see lots of them around, where did the first ones come from? The answer is a company named BikeE.

In 1993, three men changed the Corvallis bicycle culture by making the first affordable, dependable, rider-friendly recumbent bike. The brains behind the bikes were engineer and bike mechanics David Ullman, Paul Atwood, and Richard Rau. Their goal, make a bike that you could just “get on and ride.” The name of the creation was a play on words credited to Ullman’s teenaged son. “Just do it” became “Just ride it.” Nike became BikeE.

Before they were done, their unique creations were being distributed to 700 dealers in 14 countries. Around 12,000 bikes were built right here in Corvallis, and another 18,000 overseas. They earned the title of “Bike of the Year” from Bicycling Magazine in 1996. By 1998, they were the biggest producer of recumbents in the world. In fact, they sold more than all the other ‘bent producers combined.

Corvallis was already a bike town when the three friends began the company, but ‘bents were a rarity, according to Atwood. “When we got started, I figure there were maybe 10 or 12 recumbent bikes around this area. And, they’re in the thousands now.”

Rau stopped short of saying the bikes sold themselves, but not by much. “It’s not a weird low-looking thing…It was nice-looking, like sitting in a chair. People would be interested in these things they were seeing around. That led to an increase in sales.”

So what about the nuts of bolts of their success? The first key innovation which set the BikeE apart from what little competition existed was the use of a long, low, wheel base. Smaller wheels increased stability and speed. This immediately made the bikes easier to ride. Then, they used a long, oversized beam shaped tube as the main horizontal piece. With a smaller front than rear wheel, the frame appeared to tilt forward. The unique and memorable centerpiece drew the eyes to the company name, displayed in large lettering. The beauty of the design was its simplicity.

The creations have lived on long after the company disbanded in 2002. Beyond aesthetic value, the main tube made conversions simple. Virtually any component from seats to chainstays to motors could be attached at any point along the bar. Biking aficionados and hacks alike have been cannibalizing and rebuilding these flexible ‘bents for years.

There are at least two more reasons BikeEs continue to roam the streets years later, according to Ullman. “We used good components. And we were damn good engineers.”

Where are these pioneers now? David Ullman is a professor emeritus of engineering at OSU. He lives in Independence, where he rides several BikeE’s around town. Paul Atwood and Richard Rau are still full time residents of Corvallis. The old friends can often be seen reminiscing at Imagine Coffee. Atwood practices bicycle maintenance for the Corvallis Bicycle Collective in his spare time. Richard Rau is currently designing and building quadrapeds. These four-wheeled cycles allow riders to utilize both traditional leg pedals and hand cranks.

A finite number of BikeE’s were built, but you can find them for sale on Craigslist with regularity. Amazingly, most of them are almost as good as new.

So we are left with the mystery of the chicken and the egg. Which came first, the ‘bents or the ‘bent-friendly culture? The next time you see someone riding a BikeE, Sun, Bacchetta, or some other alien-looking cycle, ask them. I can almost guarantee that they will have an opinion.

By Dave DeLuca