One recent morning while motorists were scrapping ice off their windshields, Bill Hartz hopped on his Schwinn hybrid and rode the scenic route to work. “I took the long way and went down by the lake to watch the sun rise,” said Hartz, who lives in Riverwest and works at Marquette University.
That same morning, Paula Schewe cycled 4 miles into work on her Surley fat-bike, stopping on the way at the Shorewood Colectivo for coffee and granola bars with some biking buddies. “I get to work on a riding high, there’s really nothing like it,” said Schewe, who works at a retail shop on Milwaukee’s Capitol Drive.
And on that icy morning, Steve Czerwinski daydreamed about the arrival of spring, about pumping up the tires on his Trek Bike and cruising on the Capital City State Trail.
Wisconsin is one of the best biking states and Madison is one of the 10 best biking cities in the country, said Czerwinski, a cycling enthusiast since his sixth birthday, when he got a BMX bike coveted by every kid in his neighborhood. “In a couple of weeks, with spring, everyone will see why. For cyclists, this is just a superb time of year to be in Wisconsin.”
March madness exhilarates cyclists. Warm-weather riders tune up their bikes, register for tours and update their gear. Four-season cyclists change out their rides or their tires, and also their clothes, as they shift from winter to spring.
Schewe has cycled, literally, through 12 Milwaukee winters. “The first year, my friends thought I was crazy and my parents thought it was because I didn’t have enough money for a car — which was kinda true,” she said. “But it’s just a way of life for me. If you know how to dress, and you learn how to ride, and you take care of your bike, it’s all good.”
Bike retailers, mechanics and association members report a recent uptick in winter bicycling in Wisconsin. The explanations: refinements in cold-weather gear, attention to infrastructure, the popularity of fat-bikes with jumbo tires that seem to float on snow, rising gasoline prices and environmental awareness.
Hartz said he’s long cycled in warm weather to work, where he’d otherwise have to pay $65 a month to park a car. “A few years back, I decided to see how far into winter I could go,” he said. “It turns out — all the way through to spring. This is my third winter.”
Cycling, he said, is “far cheaper than a car, less crowded than a bus and gets you out in the fresh air for exercise year-round.”
And it’s also a way of life, Czerwinski would add.
Czerwinski doesn’t ride through the winter, but he thinks about riding all winter. And he saves what he can from tips to kickoff the spring season at regional bike expos. “There’s Bike-o-Rama, that’s big,” he said. “And Wheel and Sprocket, that’s the biggest. Everyone goes.” This year, Czerwinski is considering trading up his bike, an opportunity offered by the Wheel & Sprocket Bike Expo Sale at the Wisconsin State Fair Park next month.
Six years ago, the university student and barista relocated from Kentucky, ranked No. 48 on the League of American Bicyclists’ list of bike-friendly states to Wisconsin, ranked No. 3.
He’d like to see Wisconsin reach No. 1. So Czerwinski is taking an interest in political goings on at the capitals — in Madison and in Washington, D.C.
Gearing up for funding fights
Conservative Republicans at the state and federal levels this year launched initiatives to weaken biking programs. So the National Bike Summit this month was bringing bike advocates to Capitol Hill to:
• Encourage federal lawmakers to co-sponsor the Vision Zero Act to prevent traffic fatalities and the Transportation Alternative Program Improvement Act to provide more local control on transportation priorities and funding decisions.
• Counter a campaign to strip bicycle funding from the transportation bill. Congress could vote in May on the anti-cycling initiative, which is backed by right-wing groups with strong ties to the fossil fuel industry and billionaires David and Charles Koch.
“Despite billions in Highway Trust Fund shortfalls, Washington continues to spend federal dollars on projects that have nothing to do with roads like bike paths and transit,” read a letter signed by representatives of Tea Party Nation, the Heartland Institute, Club for Growth, American Energy Alliance and Americans for Prosperity seeking to eliminate federal transportation money for cycling programs.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has strong political and financial ties to those in this conservative coalition, is at the forefront of the campaign to puncture the state’s bicycling program.
Earlier this winter, at the start of his second term as governor and an apparent run for the White House, Walker offered a budget that proposed:
• Cutting $2 million from the Transportation Alternatives Program.
• Gutting the Stewardship Fund used to buy and preserve conservation and recreational land for the public.
• Repealing the Complete Streets Law mandating that bicyclists and pedestrians be considered whenever a road is built or rebuilt.
State Sen. Chris Larson, in a statement responding to Walker’s proposals, said repealing the Complete Streets Law “jeopardizes pedestrian and bicyclist safety, resulting in fewer safe places for our neighbors to bike.” Larson added that cutting TAP “will result in fewer pro-bike projects, some of which seek to create more safe ways for children to get to their schools.”
Larson said, “The governor’s budget lacks a long-term, sustainable vision for our state. In fact, at the same time the governor is seeking to curb the growth and popularity of cycling in the state of Wisconsin, he is also borrowing $1.3 billion to pay for large highway projects. Each day, I grow more amazed by how backward Walker’s priorities are for Wisconsin.”
Dave Cieslewicz, executive director of Wisconsin Bike Fed, has described Walker’s budget as “a direct assault on biking.”
Bike Fed is collaborating with many organizations and lawmakers to protect the programs, according to Cieslewicz, who served two terms as mayor in Madison.
Czerwinski said he plans to get involved in the pro-biking push.
“Maybe there will be a bike-in,” said Georgia Cramer, of Kenosha, who also is interested in crusading for cycling.
Cramer, interviewed by WiG via Facebook, is a recreational rider — bicycling is a family activity on the weekends. But she wants to see bicycling opportunities expanded in Wisconsin. Like a majority of bicyclists, Cramer said she’d ride more if she felt safer on the roads, and she’d allow her children to ride more if she felt more secure in their safety.
Biking for all
“I love riding. And some of my fondest childhood memories are of riding my bike in the summer,” she said. “Government should do more, not less.”
Earlier this month, the nonprofit People For Bikes released a study showing 34 percent of Americans ages 3 and older rode a bike at least once in the last year and, of those who ride, 70 percent rode six days or more.
The survey also found that a majority worry about being injured on the road and 48 percent of adults in the U.S. don’t have access to an operational bicycle. The statistics are higher for people of color, according to a groundbreaking report, “The New Majority: Pedaling Towards Equity,” from the Sierra Club and the League of American Bicyclists. The research, for example, showed that efforts to improve infrastructure for cycling can skirt communities of color, contributing to a higher fatality rate for Hispanic and African-American riders.
The study also outlined the benefits of bicycle access and examined transportation costs. The average family with an income of less than $50,000 spends about 28 percent of its annual income on housing and 30 percent on transportation. The average yearly cost of operating a car is $8,220; the average yearly cost of operating a bike is $308.
Such statistics and real-life situations motivate Wisconsin cyclists to promote projects such as Bublr Bikes, the Milwaukee bike rental program, and participate in efforts such as Milwaukee’s Vulture Space, a nonprofit do-it-yourself bike shop that redistributes repaired bikes in the community; the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective, which educates and encourages the re-use and recycling of old bikes; and DreamBikes in Madison and Milwaukee, which since 2008 has employed and trained dozens of teens while refurbishing and returning more than 10,000 bikes to the community.
“I’m for a bike for everyone, because biking is just good for your health, mind, for the environment and it’s economical,” said Czerwinski, the guy who spent that recent icy morning daydreaming about riding out winter and cycling into spring.
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