Wisconsin: Trek and DreamBikes

This week has truly been one of my faves. I’ve felt (more than usual) like a naughty little scamp. Hopping from town to town, indulging three of my greatest passions – bike geekery, meeting adventurous people and learning about community projects. I even managed to find some beautiful countryside to cycle through too …

HEY THERE, BIG RIVER

The Mississippi is synonymous with adventure. Even trying to spell it can transport you to the most far flung corners of your brain (I can finally now do this without assistance). At the mere mention of this mighty river, my mind floods with childhood follies, thoughts of Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain’s colourful depiction of the characters that line it’s shores. Entering Wisconsin via the town of Prarie du Chien, I crossed the river for the first time, and it was pure magic. At this time of year, the river bluffs are just dripping with colour. The most spectacular Golds, Oranges, Yellows and Reds – tripping over one another, scrambling and tumbling down cliff edges into the waters below.

Fall colours at The Mississippi

WISCONSIN – A CRITIQUE

I’m frequently asked “What’s your favourite state so far?”, and I struggle to answer. That said, I usually begin my (long winded) critique by splitting them into ‘states that made me go wow’ and ‘states where I would really want to live’. Wisconsin has parked itself firmly in the latter. Until this week, it was simply the place that Love Actually’s Colin (“and he’s got a big knooob”) went to pick up babes. But the rolling hills, forests and network of bike paths through not-too-big-not-too-small cities are bang on the money. Wisconsin, Colin or no Colin, is my kind of place.

THE TREK EFFECT

The state is dominated by one bike brand, and one alone – Trek. America’s only bicycle factory is located just East of Madison, in Waterloo. I concluded it’d be downright ridiculous for me to ride thorough the 50 states and not make a pedal pilgrimage to this cycle mecca. So as a birthday treat to myself (and Boudica) I dropped in for a tour.

Trek HQ is reminiscent of Willy Wonker and his factory du choc. Instead of being greeted by Gene Wilder doing a roly poly on a red carpet, my Golden ticket had earned me a tour with the Head of advocacy, Brandon. We began with a display of the Trek’s of yesteryear (some seriously beautiful bikes, full of character), before being catapulted into the the 21st century. I watched carbon frames being formed, hand-sanded, custom sprayed, checked and boxed. By far the coolest introduction was to the new ’Project One’ robot. This little fella (yet to be officially named) will spray a frame with a bespoke design in the blink of an eye. It’s Nike’s ID concept, but for bikes. And it’s super sweet.

Trekin’ it up

Over the course of the morning spent at the factory, I got to understand that Trek really is a family company. Originally started in a small barn by Dick Burke, it later passed to his son and current CEO, John. And it seems that John really does care. The employees at Trek HQ are happy campers. As would you be if you had mountain bike trails in your office garden. Seriously. Many employees spend their lunch hours throwing themselves around in the mud on two wheels. There’s even a full time engineer who’s sole responsibility is to build and maintain the trails. It’s a clever move. Not only does it let employees live and breathe the brand, it also serves to provide designers and engineers with immediate product feedback. Design it, get it made in the factory, casually test it in the garden. And Bob’s your uncle (Fanny may be your aunt) – you can move forward with the design the next day. Genius.

My fave – A Paul Smith special

DREAM BIKES

Yet more impressive than the factory are the two unique, Trek run, community DreamBikes stores. These are situated either side of the HQ – One in Madison and one in Milwaukee. Dreambikes take good old fashioned community principles – exchanges of kindness, knowledge and trust, and shape them into something that works for the modern world. How? Oh I’m so glad you asked:

Affordability – DreamBikes accept bike donations from the general public, sometimes via other bike shops, and then restore them (as best they can) to the bike’s pre shed-storage glory days. They then sell them on at a price those in the local neighbourhood can afford – as low as $75 in Milwaukee. If this is still beyond budget, they offer a micro-finance payment option to those who live locally. What a host of ruddy sensible ideas.

Youth – The mechanics and shop assistants aren’t just any old Tom, Dick or Harriet. The stores are directly linked with the local ’Boys and Girls Club’. In Milwaukee kids do 6 week mechanics courses before joining the DreamBikes team. In Madison some work at DreamBikes as part of their class credits for High School. But for most, DreamBikes is a first job, and a stepping stone to a solid career.

With the Kids at The Madison store

Education – I’ll leave it to Madison store manager Erik to explain this one: “When John Burke decided to devise a community initiative, he asked the question ‘what does this neighbourhood really need?’ The answer was more people on bikes …. so we’re trying to educate the community that cycling isn’t just a leisure activity. It’s an economic mode of transport.” With the investment in, and quality of bike trails around Madison, this isn’t an off the wall idea. Cycling is a realistic alternative to driving around town.

Non-profit – Trek makes no money whatsoever from the two stores. Both locations support one another and, after 5 years in operation, are just about breaking even. Any sales go to paying the kids who work there and covering overheads of the store space. They’re not short of bike donations, far from it. Each store gets in excess of 20 a week. In Milwaukee donated bikes are piled high in the basement, just waiting to be fixed up. There’s simply not enough funds, space and employees to get through the backlog. Grants are sought and used where possible, and should the stores start to make a profit it would go directly back into the local community via the Boys and Girls Club. Does that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, or what?

No shortage of donations in Milwaukee

THE DREAM FACTOR

When people go and eat at fancy restaurants, they talk about ‘ambience’ and I’m always fascinated – because it’s an X-Factor kind of thing. There’s no cut and dry formula for it. When you go into a great place, it just feels… great. DreamBikes, Madison especially, has that feel. For me to describe it to you – it’s like watching the Church fundraising montage in Sister Act I (for those of you looking blankly, use the link). The place just oozes goodness. I wanted to hang out. I wanted to paint things. I wanted to stay and chat.

Compare this vibe to many of the cold, clinical bike shops you’ve been in over the years, and the contrast is stark. It’s not about whether a big brand owns a store, DreamBikes is evidence of that, it’s simply a shift in attitude. To the belief that a bike shop has the potential to be so much more than a place you go to buy aluminium and wheels. It’s the jumping off point for a new adventure. It’s a coffee lounge. A destination. A centre for learning. It’s a central force for good in a community, and something that makes the world a better place.

Milwaukee manager (and all round cool dude) Aris, outside the store

EASTWARDS FOR THE SECOND HALF

With all the commotion this week, I bizarrely no longer feel like I’m riding my bike across a country. Instead I ride it from one appointment to the next – like a mega-commute. And so it strikes me that this is going to be a trip of two halves. The first half was about vast spaces, incredible geology, small towns and … strange weather. From here, it’ll be more about the people, the hustle and bustle and the cities.

I’m now hanging out in Chicago. Exploring downtown and doing my best to be a ‘normal’ tourist. Come the weekend I’ll be back on the road – headed East and making inroads into the 1,100 miles to Maine. It’s getting a wee bit nippy, down to just about freezing, but I’ve got a hunk of extra gear on its way to see me through.

Until next week – massive High Fives to you all
McNuff out 🙂

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