Monday, June 23, 2008

Burton's Bikers Band Together

Burlington Free Press
Published June 23, 2008
By Lauren Ober

ESSEX JUNCTION — It’s 7:30 a.m. on a recent Friday and the sky is threatening to open up. Later in the day it will dump rain for hours, but for now the heavens are content just to spit.

Kahlil Zaloom and James Fisher, each well prepared for a downpour with their waterproof work bags, are practicing their trackstands as they wait to cross Susie Wilson Road. The men rock back and forth on their bicycles. They’re trying to stand still while not letting their feet leave the pedals and touch the ground. Fisher wobbles and eventually dabs a toe or two on the pavement. Zaloom is triumphant. Fisher will feel the slight sting of defeat for their rest of their ride into work.

When the road is clear, they zip across to the old Fashion Bug parking lot where they meet up with fellow cyclist Michelle Boutin, who has been exercising great patience while the men show off their skills.

Boutin is used to those kinds of antics. She, along with Fisher and Zaloom, works at Burton Snowboards, where playful competition is an implicit part of the company’s culture. Even on Creative Commute Fridays, a new initiative conceived by Burton’s employee-run environmental committee, there’s room for some friendly jousting.

After Zaloom and Fisher get their laughs out about their impromptu intersection spar, it’s time to head into work and get serious. Well, as serious as they get at Burton.

The trio rides along Vermont 15 on their way to Winooski where they will pick up some other Burton employees for their weekly company bike commute.Zaloom, a senior project engineer, initiated the bike pool as a part of the Creative Commute Fridays program, where employees are encouraged to find other ways to get to work every Friday besides driving their cars.

The company bike commute, which draws employees from Essex, Essex Junction, Colchester, Winooski and Burlington, happens once a week and has been steadily growing in numbers. Incentives abound for those participating in the program.

All “creative commuters” are entitled to a free breakfast at Burton, plus are eligible for a number of different prizes. “It’s worked out pretty well so far,” Zaloom said. “People realize they can do it and it’s not a big deal.”

For the last month, Zaloom has been leading the weekly group bike commute from Essex Junction. From Susie Wilson Road, the riders wend their way through Fort Ethan Allen and zigzag through some Winooski neighborhoods before picking up more co-workers at the Winooski Bridge. From there, they head along the Riverside Avenue bike path, through the Old North End and down to the Waterfront bike path where they meet up with more bike commuting colleagues. The journey ends a little more than an hour after the start at Burton’s South End headquarters.

For Boutin, a production artist for Burton’s in-house design agency, Syndicate, riding to work with her colleagues is not only good exercise, but it helps build camaraderie with people she might not directly work with.

“It’s cool to interact with other people at the company,” Boutin said.
For other commuters, like John Boon, a Web programmer, the ride into work is a way to have focus before the day ahead. The commute home from work gives Boon a chance to decompress.

“At the end of the day, it’s 30 minutes I have to myself where I can clear my head and have the wind in my face,” Boon said.

Bike commuting can be intimidating for the occasional cyclist. But riding with the Burton bike posse would allay any fears one might have of the road. Zaloom is an experienced bike commuter and tries to ride into work a few days a week. He points out road debris to other riders and uses appropriate hand signals to let other riders, as well as cars, know he’s turning or stopping.

By the time the group hits the Waterfront bike path, its size was formidable. A dozen riders, mostly bedecked in Burton clothing of varying degrees of neon, spun down the path, spooking more than a few people out for a leisurely morning stroll.

There were mountain bikes and fixed gears and tiny BMX rides, as well as a couple of bikes that have seen better days. Any bike or biker was welcome. A few of the commuters, like Frank White, seemed like they’re been awake for hours. Unbothered by the increasing drizzle, White, who said he works in the “global domination” department at Burton, skidded out the rear tire of his BMX bike and then popped a couple wheelies.

Another Burton cyclist, Ali Kenney, a financial analyst, , had the vestiges of the previous night’s kickball game — a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon — in her water bottle cage. She and mechanical engineer Rachel Gitajn, on a black fixed gear bike with purple handlebar tape and a purple chain, rode down the bike path dodging puddles and chit-chatting about the events of the night prior.

The company bike commute isn’t the only Burton program focused on reducing its collective carbon footprint. The environmental committee recently started a loaner bike program so employees wouldn’t have to use their cars to venture off campus during the day.
But Burton, ever the purveyors of cool, didn’t use any bike. Clothing company Paul Frank Industries designed five cruiser bikes for Burton employees to use. About 100 people have signed up so far to use the bikes and Zaloom calls the program “hugely popular.”

Zaloom, who is passionate about working to reduce the company’s environmental impact, is aware that browbeating his colleagues with a stewardship message isn’t the most effect tactic. The company bike commute is an easy way for people to buy into the idea.“We’re trying to lead by example. We provide the inspiration,” Zaloom said. “We’re not the do-gooders telling people what to do.”

Photo Credit: Emily J. Nelson
Caption: Burton Snowboard employee Michelle Boutin of Colchester waits for fellow bike pool commuters to join her for their ride to work on June 20. Boutin and fellow employees have organized a bike pool.

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