The Business of Biking

Industry leaders headquartered in Madison contribute to the city's rich biking scene

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Planet Bike

Writing about the business of biking should be technical, an article full of figures, forward projections and suits. Instead, it turns out that Wisconsin’s role in the business of bicycling involves barns, some cows (okay, a lot of cows), a supper club and executives clad not in Italian wool, but in bike shorts and helmets.

As Jay Ferm of Planet Bike tells it, Wisconsin’s cycling industry started over a hundred years ago, when the state was the biggest dairy producer in the country. Poorly maintained country roads gave dairy farmers trouble, jostling the milk around and slowing delivery times so that milk went bad. To fix those problems, the state paved those roads. Milk stayed unspoiled, and so did the low-traffic backcountry roads. Those roads drew cyclists from around the nation and became the breeding ground for Wisconsin’s culture of biking. 

Fast-forward to 1976. Bevel Hogg of Madison and Richard Burke of Milwaukee put their heads together at the Pine Knoll Supper Club in Waterloo, halfway between their two cities and two areas of expertise, and Trek Bicycle Corporation was born. 

From its beginnings in a barn, the company has maintained its Waterloo headquarters and expanded to fourteen offices around the world and distribution in more than a hundred countries. In Wisconsin, Trek employs about a thousand people who contribute to a cross-pollination of talent between other major players in the biking industry, including Saris Cycling Group, Planet Bike and Pacific Cycle.

“It strengthens us hugely,” says Ferm, whose Planet Bike founder, Bob Downs, was once a product manager at Trek. The company has since traded employees between two other major players in Wisconsin’s biking industry, Saris and Pacific Cycle. “It creates good, friendly competition. That’s what you want in an industry—it’s competitive when they’re co-located with competitors.”

Competition between the companies often contributes to collaboration, as when Trek and Pacific Cycle support the Saris Gala. Saris started hosting the annual event at their Madison headquarters back in 2003, and since then, $650,000 of proceeds have gone to support theWisconsin Bike Federation.

The existing infrastructure creates opportunities for advocacy events like Bike to Work Week,
another example of cycling’s major businesses coming together with citizens and government to
promote biking as a viable commuting option.

And the collaboration doesn’t end there—in fact, it’s hard to tell where it might have begun or where it ends. The companies’ advocacy efforts constantly overlap, with leaders from the four sitting on committees like the Bike Fed, Platinum Biking Committee and the Bikes Belong board.

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