The big dog on the block

Does anything convey the image of summer like a bicycle?

In “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” Bruce Springsteen paints the picture:

“Well the street lights shine. Down on Blessing Avenue. Lovers they walk by, holdin' hands two by two. A breeze crosses the porch. Bicycle spokes spin 'round.”

My bike provided me my first true sense of freedom to leave Mom and Dad in the dust and venture out without their assistance when I was 11 years old. Looking back, one could argue that since we lived out on Highway 32 – which was a major highway in Racine with really no shoulder – my parents’ willingness to watch me pedal off perhaps could have meant my charming personality had worn thin … but that would be pure conjecture.

Regardless, I was free. Free to go to my buddies’ houses or meet them at the park or find some other type of mischief.

Today, especially in Wisconsin, the bicycle is a lot more than an iconic staple of summer freedom. It is big business. We all are familiar with Trek’s prowess in the cycling world and many are familiar with the fact that its world headquarters continues to be located here in little Waterloo, Wis.

In reality it goes much deeper than just Trek. Wisconsin accounts for about 20% of the entire U.S. cycling industry. Some of these Wisconsin companies include: Gear Grinder (Glendale), Hayes Brakes (Mequon), Mt. Borah (Coon Valley), Olympic Supply Company (Milwaukee), Pacific Cycle (Madison), Planet Bike (Madison), Saris Cycling Group (Fitchburg), and Waterford Precision Cycles (Waterford). In all, there are over 200 bicycle-related companies in Wisconsin.

In addition to Wisconsin being a behemoth in the cycling industry, we are a big dog when it comes to cycling destinations as well.

One of the first places I think about when I think of biking destinations in Wisconsin is the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, and with good reason. Over 15,500 visitors bike the trail each year, and it is estimated to generate more than $924 million in economic activity.

But there are unbelievable trails and bike-friendly local communities throughout this state. And while it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Wisconsin’s economic drivers, it doesn’t go unnoticed by bicycle-crazed enthusiasts across the country, or the world for that matter. Bicycling brings in more than $535 million a year from out-of-state tourists alone. That’s a lot of people coming to the state looking for food, lodging, entertainment, shopping, and other activity.

And who can forget just a few short years ago, in Chicago’s (ultimately losing) bid for the 2016 Olympic Games, the biking hub was to be in the Madison area? The bid had Madison hosting the road race, the individual time trials, and the mountain bike events with an athlete’s village – an Olympic one! – at the University of Wisconsin.

This ESPN article from early 2009 describes how the hilly terrain just outside of the state capital would have been a "perfect fit" and would have provided a very “tactically challenging” course. Wisconsin almost had the whole world watching the best of the best bikers competing in our state.

So here in Wisconsin, we have the perfect terrain for a huge variety of biking pursuits. We have the well-established industry players who make our state a global leader in the biking industry. So we can sit back and enjoy our position as a bicycling powerhouse, right?

Unfortunately, we did slip a bit the past two years in one ranking. In 2010, Wisconsin was ranked as the second most bike-friendly state in the country by the League of American Bicyclists. In 2012 we ranked sixth. One could quibble with how the group weights its rankings, but it is something to pay attention to.

Most economic development specialists argue that states and regions should assess their assets and accentuate them. For Wisconsin, our bicycle industry is clearly an asset.

So let’s get behind our Wisconsin-based companies that are driving the cycling world and maybe even get off our butts and ride. Ride to work, ride with the family – whatever, just ride. The Wisconsin Bicycle Federation is sponsoring its 2012 Wisconsin Bike Challenge. In fact, this is another example of Wisconsin leading the way. Last year’s challenge in Wisconsin was so successful it inspired a national challenge. The national/Wisconsin challenge ends Aug. 31. Go to www.bfw.org to find out more information or to sign up yourself or your business.

Participants are able to download an app to their phone to track their mileage and record it on a national website. Now that is something I would have never dreamed of when I was maneuvering my Sears special with the blue banana seat, wearing my Gorman Thomas jersey, down the narrow white line of Highway 32.

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