Making a mountain out of Madison
Bike-friendly Madison still isn’t world class, but off-road biking offers growth potential.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
When it comes to bicycle-friendly cities, Madison is among elite company.
Madison came in No. 9 in the latest Best U.S. Cities for Biking report from PlacesForBikes, a top-10 ranking for the second straight year in the survey of 510 U.S. cities. That comes on the heels of the city taking the top spot on a list of Eight Surprisingly Bike-Friendly Cities from Livability.com in August 2018.
The city is home to more than 240 miles of bikeways that support an active outdoor community, and bike-share programs like Madison BCycle are also widely available.
Cycling isn’t just for recreation or exercise, either. Madison ranks second to only Portland, Oregon nationally among large cities with the highest percentage of those biking to work (5.1 percent).
This shouldn’t come as much of a shock. As a state, Wisconsin ranks 26th nationally for bike friendliness (though, as recently as 2011, the Badger State ranked third), according to the League of American Bicyclists Bicycle Friendly Community Program, with 18 bike-friendly communities, 44 bike-friendly businesses, and five bike-friendly colleges.
According to data from Destination Madison [formerly the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau], since 2010, a total of 26,490 people have attended cycling events held in and around Greater Madison, including a number of USA Cycling races, contributing roughly $4.3 million to the local economy.
Additionally, other events since 2010 associated with cycling or having a cycling component, such as Ironman Wisconsin, have been attended by 301,840 people and contributed nearly $40 million to the local economy.
The Wisconsin Bike Fed also notes that the city of Madison strategically placed bike racks outside many of its businesses in the downtown area and saw a 3 percent overall increase in sales tax revenues in the areas where the new bike racks were installed.
With no fewer than 31 bicycle shops located throughout the Greater Madison area, and major bicycle and bike accessories manufacturers like Madison-based Pacific Cycle and Saris, and Waterloo-based Trek, cycling is big business locally.
However, none of that means Madison doesn’t still have ample room for improvement when it comes to bicycling infrastructure, says Robbie Webber, a board member with Madison Bikes, a local advocacy group that focuses on transportation bicycling.
Webber should know what she’s talking about. Now 60, she spent 10 years as a program manager at the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin [now Wisconsin Bike Fed]; two years as a steering committee member for BikeWalk Madison, a local bicycle/pedestrian advocacy organization aimed at improving the walking and bicycling environment in the city of Madison and the Madison area; has put in 12 years and counting as a bicycle representative on the Governor’s State Trails Council; and worked for the past seven-plus years as a transportation policy analyst with State Smart Transportation Initiative. She also served from 2003–2009 as the District 5 alder in Madison.
“It all depends on whom you’re comparing us to,” notes Webber. “Compared to other places in the U.S., I think we’re doing a fantastic job. We are in that top tier of cities that is really making an effort to build the network so that everyone of all abilities can feel comfortable on their bikes.
“However, if you look worldwide, we’re nowhere near good,” she continues. “We still have gaps in some places, places where bicyclists are expected to ride with heavy traffic, and you’re just not going to get a family with a 12-year-old biking on that street. I’ll bike on anything, but somebody new to biking of my age is not going to bike on that. We need to fill those gaps and in many cases we still have problems filling those gaps because we’re prioritizing either parking on the street or car throughput.”
Webber says other U.S. cities are making the hard decisions and saying storing cars on the street is not really the best use of the public right of way, but Madison remains at a crossroads when it comes to fully embracing bicycling as transportation.
“Whether it’s connecting cul-de-sacs, removing parking from a street and making that into a protected bike lane, or installing improved bicycle parking, it’s sometimes hard to make the argument [for improved bicycling infrastructure] because the decision-makers and influencers don’t see it in their neighborhood,” Webber explains. “But, as I always like to say, you don’t build a pool based on who’s standing around with a bathing suit and a towel. However, if you build the pool there will be a lot of people swimming there. If you build the bicycle infrastructure, people will use it.”
Webber says growth in Madison, particularly downtown, isn’t stopping, so something needs to be done to address transportation.
“[As the city grows] there is no physical way to have everybody driving into the downtown,” she states. “It just is not possible unless you level a whole bunch of buildings, and we’re not going to do that. So, we have to start moving around in other ways. That means transit, walking, and biking. It’s a toolkit; no one method is perfect for every trip, but we have to start prioritizing those things if the city is going to thrive.”
That’s going to require some hard choices, Webber notes, things like prioritizing the speed of bus rapid transit or the ability of somebody to bicycle over the speed of personal motor vehicle traffic. Or, does the city want to continue to allow people to park for free on the street and essentially store their cars on the street over the ability of people to move around in other ways.
“Those are some hard choices that a lot of cities all over the country are making,” says Webber. “If you look at cities that have thriving downtowns and thriving business districts, the places that millennials want to live are places where you can move around by different methods of transportation. We have made those choices in the past, but we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit and now Madison is going to have to make those harder choices.”
Off the beaten path
If hard decisions loom for the future of more utilitarian bicycling in and around downtown Madison, one aspect of the sport that seems to be enjoying a local renaissance is one you might not think of when you picture the isthmus and rolling hills — mountain biking.
Slow Roll Cycles, owned by Dan Dacko, right, is Madison’s newest bike shop. While Slow Roll accommodates road cyclists, Dacko says the shop specializes in mountain bikes and accessories. Photos courtesy: Modern Form Photography
Madison’s newest bike shop owner, Dan Dacko of Slow Roll Cycles at 4118 Monona Drive, is an influential local mountain biking advocate. He’s called Madison home for the past 20 years, but he spent much of that time traveling the globe, biking in Europe and Asia, as well as across North America, and getting a firsthand perspective on what makes Greater Madison such a unique cycling hotspot.
“There are so many opportunities in Greater Madison, it’s amazing,” he says. “There’s a mountain bike trail system out in Cambridge at CamRock County Park, and when I started mountain biking here it was like four miles, and today it’s 13-plus miles. I used to be a coach for a youth group of six-year-olds to 16-year-olds and we had upwards of 60–80 kids out there every Wednesday night. There are thousands of visitors out there.”
Indeed, if cycling’s future is the next generation, that generation likes its mountain biking.
“Mountain biking is more exciting for kids than road biking,” says Kelley Linnan, program director for youth mountain bike lessons at Madison’s Blackhawk Ski Club, bluntly. “Road biking is a social sport, but let’s face it, you’re riding in a straight line most of the time. Kids want to roll, jump, and bump their way through the forest and occasionally take a tumble in the dirt. That’s what kids should do.”
Biking on the road, unless you’re experienced and careful, can be also be particularly dangerous, explains Linnan. Kids can be taught how to reduce the risks of riding on the road, but there’s nothing better than a grassy field to teach them how to technically ride a bike.
The appeal of mountain biking for beginners of all ages is that every trail is a new adventure. “We tell the kids every lesson to expand their comfort zone and try new things,” says Linnan. “We want the kids to feel excitement in every class. The trails at Blackhawk are designed to allow a beginner to ride at a slow pace — staying at the bottom of banked turns and rolling over the jumps — while also allowing more advanced riders to rip around the banked turns and gap the jumps.
“We’re essentially allowing kids to come in on day one and dunk on a 10-foot rim,” she continues. “They will have as much fun on the trails on day one as they will on day 900. Additionally, they can go anywhere in the world for the rest of their lives and find mountain bike trails that will be completely different than anything they’ve experienced so far. Tell me how many basketball players can do that?”
‘I got to ride all over the world’
Dacko, of Slow Roll Cycles, grew up in the Minneapolis area, but went to college at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls. It was there that cycling took on new meaning in his life.
“I used to be a bike commuter when I was young, only I didn’t really realize it,” Dacko says. “But then in college something drew me to the idea of working in a bike store — I don’t know if it was roommates or friends — and so I just got a bike.”
From the Wisconsin Bike Fed:
• Bicycling contributes $1.5 billion annually and 13,200 jobs to Wisconsin’s economy.
• Tourists from outside the state spend $535 million on Wisconsin bicycling annually.
• 49% of Wisconsin residents report bicycling for recreation.
• Over 300 bike-related events bring thousands of tourists from around the world to Wisconsin each year.
A mountain bike, to be specific, and after that, Dacko just started riding — a bunch.
“I have a little bit of an obsessive personality, so when I get into something, I get into it,” explains Dacko. “It’s just one of those things that stuck, and when I really got into it I started breaking stuff. I thought, ‘Man, I really should learn how to fix this stuff’ because I like mechanics.”
During the summer after his freshman year, Dacko went to work at a Minneapolis bike shop. He says he wasn’t remotely qualified, but the crew who worked there were hardcore cyclists and they took him under their wings and gave him an introductory course in the sport and the science of cycling.
From there Dacko would work in a few other bike shops throughout college, learning as he went. At one stop, he worked with a former professional bicycle frame builder in Minneapolis. Under his tutelage, Dacko built a custom road bike that he still owns.
Dacko’s time at UW–River Falls wasn’t entirely spent in bike shops and riding trails, however. He says he caught a glimpse of the future and realized biotechnology was going to be huge, so he set his sights early on a science degree. “Then I got into organic chemistry and I was like, ‘Nope, I’m out,’” chuckles Dacko.
He reevaluated and ended up with a business administration degree with a marketing emphasis, unwittingly steering his education down a path that would shape the professional outlet for his passion.
“I really wasn’t thinking long term,” says Dacko. “I have friends who went back for their MBAs and are really motivated, and at times I regret not continuing down that path, but cycling just gave me a different experience and it afforded me some fantastic things.”
It started with Dacko relocating to Madison to take a job at Planet Bikes, and at the time he was just the second employee at the bicycle accessories manufacturer. There, Dacko learned the basics of everything from sales to logistics to inventory to sweeping floors. He also got to travel to Asia and learn how to make and sell products, as well as the finer points of pricing, margins, and more. In seven years at Planet Bikes, Dacko grew into the role of general manager, but he knew there was still more to learn.
Dacko continued his education with a nearly seven-year stint at Trek, in the bicycle manufacturer’s Bontrager cycling accessories division.
“I got hired because I was scrappy and I knew how to go to a vendor, take drawings, figure out what we needed, and make things happen,” recalls Dacko. “When I started there, it was just basically me and a few other people, and then we grew it into something fairly big over the next seven years.”
It was also the start of a period of Dacko’s career that was heavy on travel — full of amazing experiences, but ultimately what would lead him back to Madison full time.
“I got to ride all over the world,” says Dacko. “I had experiences that not many people have, from spending three days just riding bicycles and visiting retailers in Copenhagen, to riding all over Europe and in Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as all over North America. It was just awesome. Just a lot of mountain bike stuff.”
After Trek, Dacko landed what he calls his dream job, a gig with SR Suntour, the largest bicycle suspension manufacturer in the world.
“I got to ride in all these amazing places, just taking other people on rides and going to photo shoots and doing suspension product testing stuff,” says Dacko. “But I ended up missing a lot of community stuff back home.”
By “community stuff,” Dacko is referring to his mountain bike advocacy work with the Capital Off Road Pathfinders, a local group that works to expand the mountain bike trail system surrounding Greater Madison.
But Dacko says he also realized he was missing his family life. “I just didn’t want to travel anymore. It gets wearing on you, and I was missing out on experiences with my kids (daughter Ella, 14, and son Ryder, 11) and wife, Stacy. I realized that the best parents are the ones who are there. I don’t know that quality will ever trump quantity with your family because there are just a lot of idiosyncrasies that you’ll miss. I realized that I’d failed at part of being a parent.
“You just don’t have certain memories,” Dacko continues. “Your family starts telling stories and you don’t remember any of it and they’re like, ‘Oh, you were gone at that point.’ Also, my daughter wrote me this note a long time ago that I have framed on my workbench at home, and it says something like, ‘I really love my daddy, he’s really awesome, something something something, when he’s home.’ Every time I look at it, it just kind of breaks my heart.”
Back home in Madison for good beginning in January of 2018, Dacko took some time to figure out his next steps. By May of that year, he knew that cycling was all he really wanted to do, and that old inkling notion of owning his own bike shop returned.
“With SR Suntour, I was able to visit a lot of retailers and learn even more about service and all these different perspectives,” says Dacko. “And I just really love cycling. I would be a full-year commuter if I could, and I would be spending my time digging and riding bikes, and I like helping people and I like teaching because at least in this town, [none of the other bicycle retailers] are really focused on the mountain bike stuff.”
Dacko’s philosophy behind Slow Roll Cycles is rooted in inclusiveness.
“We wanted to do it differently because I don’t agree with the way that a lot of people are being educated about cycling,” he explains. “A lot of times, people feel an inferiority complex, as it is with anything in our consumer world. People think, ‘my bike isn’t as good as someone else’s,’ and it doesn’t matter at all. At some point you will push your bike far enough that you will start breaking it, and you’ll realize that you probably need something better. But until then, as long as you have a smile on your face, just skip [the fancy bike].
“We say with Slow Roll Cycles it’s your pace, it’s your adventure — we’re just there to help you out,” says Dacko. “We believe that to be a cyclist you only need a bicycle. We want everybody in the community to be able to enjoy cycling, regardless of who or what you are or where you live. It’s just: have bike, will ride. I don’t know that that really gets conveyed to most people.”
For the growing mountain bike community, there are 12 trail systems within a triangle of Blue Mound, Pleasant View Golf Course in Middleton, and Cambridge, notes Dacko, and there are a ton of other trails locally besides those that are all easily accessible.
One of the biggest hindrances to mountain biking is mobility — just being able to get there — and Dacko says he was fortunate to help shape an adventure trail system with the city of Madison, using the bicycle infrastructure and the green spaces and melding them together. The Boys and Girls Clubs and Goodman Community Center want to engage kids in mountain biking, but it’s hard for them to get there. So, the city of Madison has taken the vision of Dacko and others, and it’s creating a master plan within the parks department with a group called the International Mountain Bike Association.
“So, you’ll start somewhere, and you’ll take a bike path, and then there are dirt sections and you’ll hop off and hit that, and then you’ll hop back onto the bike path and continue on to your end destination,” he explains. “Just seeing these opportunities in the last three years or so has been really cool.”
Selling Madison as a cycling destination
For Destination Madison [formerly the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau], cycling definitely tops the list when it comes to touting all there is to see and do in Greater Madison.
Competitors in the 2017 Ironman Wisconsin event get ready for the cycling portion of the race. Photo courtesy: Destination Madison
“One of the first things we talk about is our ranking as one of the top bike cities in the country,” says Rob Gard, PR and communications director for Destination Madison. “We promote our 240 miles of bike paths pretty enthusiastically to media around the country and world, as well as the number of cycling and cycling-related events that we’ve brought here over the years, from USA Cycling events to things like Ironman and even the CrossFit Games.”
However, Gard says there’s not much to say about Madison to the avid cycling community that they don’t already know.
Best U.S. Cities for Biking; peopleforbikes.org, May 2019
#1 on 8
Surprisingly Bike-Friendly Cities; Livability.com, August 2018
Percentage of people biking to work in Madison, second only to Portland, Oregon among all large U.S. cities; Livability.com, August 2018
“People who know bikes and cycling know Madison. If they’re in that space, they know it, in part because the Ironman course that goes through the countryside outside of Madison is so well ridden by locals and visitors, and people who participate in Ironman come here months in advance to train for that course. It’s ranked as one of the more challenging bike courses in the Ironman circuit.
“That part does it’s own [marketing] work to a certain extent,” acknowledges Gard, “which is why we’ve been able to bring so many cycling events here, and why CrossFit partnered with Trek for the CrossFit Games in its first two years here to do two cycling events.”
In fact, one of the selling points for Madison as a potential host city for the CrossFit Games was its ingrained sports culture.
“The ‘legendary’ story of CrossFit was that they were here for one of their final site visits in February 2017 at the Alliant Energy Center,” recalls Gard. “Their people were looking over toward Olin Park, looking at the drive down to the isthmus, and seeing all of these people out jogging and biking. They were legitimately were curious if we had set that up for their benefit, and we had to tell them that’s just what people here do. It’s just part of our DNA here in Dane County.”
According to Gard, Madison is not really a tough sell to more casual cycling enthusiasts, either. “When we tell people you can go out, have these beautiful rides through the rolling hills in the countryside during the day, and then ride your way back up to the isthmus in the evening for a night out in the city for great food and music, it’s a pleasant surprise. You don’t get that combination in other cities.”
Getting around year-round
Robbie Webber of Madison Bikes bristles when she hears about one of the “common barriers” to expanding the bicycling culture and infrastructure in Greater Madison — that bicycling is not practical in all seasons.
“You CAN bike in winter, and people do it all over the world,” she notes. “Minneapolis hosted the World Winter Cycling Congress a couple years ago — the first time it had been held in the U.S. The Twin Cities have done a great job making sure that people can bike all year, and cities all over northern Europe think it’s weird that folks in the U.S. use that as an excuse to not improve cycling infrastructure.”
For its part, Madison Bikes hosts a Winter Bike Fashion Show each year in the fall to teach people how to dress, equip their bikes, and feel comfortable and safe biking in winter. The group also hosts Winter Bike Week in the dead of winter.
Webber says she’s found in both her advocacy work and also her professional work that people seem fixated on how one or another type of transportation is not practical because it’s not practical or possible for all trips.
“Different modes of transportation are like a toolbox. You need hammers, screwdrivers, drills, saws, and wrenches, and you might even need different sizes of each. Similarly, having good walking, biking, and transit in addition to driving allows people to pick the right mode for the trip and conditions. If the weather sucks, I take the bus to work or downtown. Having good bus service to my house, work, and shopping allows me to bike most of the time, because I know I have a backup.”
Webber also disagrees with the thinking that something needs to remain at peak use year-round in order to justify the investment. “We build roads to handle peak-hour traffic and parking lots to handle the Christmas rush — both of which are REALLY expensive — and we put benches on the street that most people don’t use in winter either,” she states.
“We cannot and should not define our transportation choices by whether it snows in January. After all, driving isn’t such a great choice in a blizzard, and yet just about everyone does that. We live in Wisconsin. We all have coats, hats, gloves, and boots. Many of us ice fish, cross-country ski, or play hockey in the cold. We can bike, too.”
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