The Business of Biking
Industry leaders headquartered in Madison contribute to the city's rich biking scene
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.
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.
Extending beyond intellectual contributions, Trek, Saris and Planet Bike make huge financial contributions to advocacy and philanthropic efforts around the state. Planet Bike is a philanthropic superstar in Madison’s business world, donating twenty-five percent of its profits to bicycle advocacy efforts. Since the company’s start in 1996, its donations total more than $1 million, a hefty number in itself, but especially impressive considering the company is a seven-person operation.
With considerably more resources, Trek extends its philanthropy beyond the biking world, contributing $10 million to the MACC Fund for childhood cancer research over the last twenty-two years. Saris has contributed $650,000 to the Wisconsin Bike Federation in the last eight years, and they sponsor a yearly nationwide poster competition among fifth- graders. The prizes range from helmets and bikes for an individual student to an entire bike parking system for the winning school.
Advocacy coordinator Heather Fortune says the idea is to get “youth thinking about the bicycle as a solution to many of our country’s emerging issues, like obesity.”
Planet Bike’s Mark LaLonde says it’s cycling products themselves, in addition to the company’s financial and intellectual contributions, that build a culture of biking.
“Our company tagline is better bicycle products for a better world,” LaLonde says. “We’re not just trying to make a profit.”
Those kinds of company philosophies, and the efforts they lead to, have contributed to a cycling infrastructure that makes Madison one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. Meanwhile, the existing infrastructure creates opportunities for advocacy events like Bike to Work Week, another example of cycling’s major business players coming together with citizens and government to promote biking as a viable commuting option.
All four companies have a strong base of bike commuters, some who even spin their wheels through snow to get to work. Trek buys its employees lunch if they bike to work, and Saris and Pacific Cycle offer incentives like bike products in exchange for self-propelled commuter miles. But during Bike to Work Week, each company goes a little further.
Trek organizes rides from Sun Prairie and other areas with high employee concentration, appointing a ride leader to show the groups new or better routes. It gives new and seasoned riders safety in numbers, and encourages first-time riders to give bike commuting a try and form commuting partnerships that last throughout the year, says Mark Joslyn, Trek’s director of human resources.
Planet Bike’s contribution to the weeklong event is less about logistics and more about fun and fuel for the ride. Its employees use cargo bikes to set up a station along the bike path, complete with grills and local treats like Nueske’s bacon, Just Coffee and Greenbush donuts.
That spirit of fun carries on throughout the year at Madison’s biking companies, which universally encourage a work-hard, play-hard mindset. At Pacific Cycle, that means encouraging employees to bring even their wildest ideas to brain-storming sessions, granting flexible hours to encourage them to ride and sponsoring friendly competitions and incentives for bike commuters during May Bike Month.
“I’ve been told many times this is not the real working world,” says Steve Wilcox, Pacific Cycle’s marketing manager. “It’s a happier, easier environment, but definitely we have a lot of talent here.”
Lex Gray is a broadcast reporter, freelance writer and former Madison Magazine intern.