By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 1, 2012
It took more than five decades of living, but Joel Hakken — who had navigated his way from wildly successful business owner to comfortably retired to sports photographer, while in and out of love, and back in love again — decided his friend had been right: “If you tandem before you get married, then you know what the marriage is going to be like.”
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Life and tandem biking aren’t so different, after all.
Life led Hakken to a small, two-stall shop in a plaza off Plymouth Road near North Campus, where Hakken sells and repairs bicycles, primarily tandem bikes. The man, who grew up down the street from Bo Schembechler in Ann Arbor, has a tired, weathered face and hands that look as though they’re familiar with handy work.
Not every customer knows what they’re looking for when they find him. Some do; others stumble upon Hakken’s passion, Midwest Bike & Tandem, and walk out having enjoyed a healthy conversation and traded new ideas. Not of bikes, but of life, Hakken’s hometown, its people and its school.
“Half the time, I don’t know what he’s talking about,” said Hakken’s son, Dylan, who had been busy fixing a deep-blue-colored tandem bike, and who lovingly called his father a hippie.
In the 1970s, before his first tandem, Hakken indulged his first love studying fine-art photography at Michigan. He practiced as a professional photographer briefly, then decided to get his graduate degree, also in fine-art photography, at Ohio University.
To scratch his itch after college, Hakken taught part time at Washtenaw Community College and started his own business selling and renting photography equipment on the side. Hakken was married and enjoyed bike riding in his free time.
“My wife and I rode at two different speeds. So we said, let’s get a tandem and we can ride together,” Hakken said.
Tandem bikes are romantic at their essence, Hakken says. With a normal-bicycle look, but extended and built for two, it takes teamwork, coordination, trust and communication for the captain — who controls the steering, sitting in front — and his or her partner to ride painlessly.
Hakken surely imagined summer afternoons spent biking serenely around Ann Arbor with his wife when his photography business took off, and he sold it for enough money that he thought he could retire. But five years after his first tandem purchase, after many bumpy rides, Hakken divorced his wife.
“The tandem wasn’t the root of the cause, but it didn’t help,” he said.
Half of his money gone, Hakken found work at The Wolverine magazine as a sports photographer. He stayed three years, but they were painfully revelatory years: he saw his friends pushed out in favor of quantity and profit over quality. Life wasn’t as hopeful. He swore off journalism.
With similar passion, he had sworn to his mother that he would never marry again. Then he met Wendy, a Ford Motor Company engineer who lived two doors down and who said “sure” when Hakken invited her to ride the tandem. They rode comfortably together.
They wed a few years later and decided their wedding present would be a tandem. They settled on a bike that had been built in Eugene, Ore. Since they had friends in Seattle, they planned to visit and pick it up from the manufacturer, Co-Motion Cycles.
Always a people person, Hakken met everyone who worked at Co-Motion and befriended the owner, who complained about the company’s lacking presence in Ann Arbor.
Hakken said, “Well, I’ll see what I can do,” and started referring potential riders, who he had a knack for spotting. Three years later, Co-Motion came to him.
“They said, ‘Just open a store, you’re selling enough bikes just referring people, just open your own store,’ ” Hakken said. “That’s how we started.”
Since September 2008, Midwest Bike & Tandem has been owned and operated and embodied by Hakken. He has indulged his creative side by designing bikes for Co-Motion and building prototypes himself: In 2010, he entered a remarkably light 20-pound tandem in the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Richmond, Va.
Currently, Co-Motion is building the 20-pounder with a few modifications, Hakken said.
For him and Wendy, the wedding present remained the “counterpoint of our summer existence, getting out on the bike, getting away from phones and enjoying each other’s company.”
Hakken’s line of work introduced him to more eclectic company, the kind that would make interesting dinner guests. He’s a pied piper of sorts, hosting 420 riders at last year’s Midwest Tandem Rally and selling tandems to people all over Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.
One day, an elderly couple offered to sell Hakken a teal-blue-colored, two-speed, 1962 Firestone tandem with its original paint.
“It’s a terrible, sad story,” Hakken said. “With their outrageous state property tax, they needed some money. So I said, it wasn’t the type of bike that I normally buy, but I felt so bad for them.”
Hakken figured the bike, which he called a beautiful, “borderline antique,” would never sell. When asked, he loaned it out for two weddings, but the elderly couple, in his mind, would be the bike’s last owners.
“You get to meet some of the neatest people on tandem bikes,” Hakken said.
Three weeks ago, Hakken met Taylor Lewan.
As the Michigan football team’s left tackle approaches the door, Hakken wonders whether he can fit through it and whether his alma mater has desks big enough for a man this big. He guesses Lewan’s about 6-foot-8, 300-plus pounds, which would be the measurements of the biggest person to ever buy one of Hakken’s tandems.
Lewan has an entourage with him, including Chris Brown, the hockey team’s imposing right-winger, who looks small next to Lewan. Hakken has seen college kids before: they come in, take a look, but never buy his bikes. He doubts Lewan will.
It doesn’t take long for Lewan to spot the 1962 Firestone and announce, “That’s my bike!”
Everyone laughs, but Hakken starts preparing the bike for a test ride. Hakken figures, OK, they’ll ride it up and down the parking lot and that’ll be that.
Lewan takes it for a spin, trying to move his weight back and lift up the handlebars and get the classic tandem in the air while going over the parking lot’s speed bumps.
Later, Lewan will tell reporters that he’s more serious now. He will be a redshirt junior next fall and he expects to be a leader. He will say there are a times and places for his humor, including the impromptu mustache readily tattooed on his index finger and the tattooed “right-hand man” stick figure.
He will sound sincere and more mature.
“Football players cannot fly!” Hakken shouts. Now is the time for fun.
Hakken asks Lewan where the coeds are going to sit, as he rides around with his friends. Tandem bikes are, after all, romantic.
“No girls are going to ride my twosie,” Lewan says, incredulously, and Hakken laughs again. He's never heard anyone call a tandem that before, but he chooses not to correct Lewan, who makes it clear he’s serious about buying the bike.
“Can you do me better on the price?” Lewan asks.
“Yeah, I can do you a little better.”
“That’s good, that’s what I was hoping. We’ve got a deal.”
Hakken will later admit it was the cheapest he’s ever sold a bike. And no more than 30 minutes after they walked in, Lewan had his twosie and Hakken had two new friends.
Lewan’s also the youngest person to ever buy one of Hakken’s tandems. One day, Lewan will put away his right-hand man, he will hide his mustache, and, instead, he will pursue or nurture love, as Hakken did, riding his first tandem. Until Lewan does, Hakken will hope he “is wearing the thing right out.”
Life and tandem biking aren’t so different, after all.
“Don’t tell coach that I’m riding this thing!” Brown shouts as he, Lewan and their friends scamper out of Hakken’s store.
—Rohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TimRohan.