I went to the National Bike Summit wearing two hats.
I was awarded a scholarship from the National Bike Dealers Association, so I was obviously going as a bicycle retailer. But I was also going as an advocate for Axletree. I’m going to write from the two different perspectives, so be sure to check out both posts. I’ll be referring to the two perspectives together at times, so don’t be confused when I say “both of me”. The Advocate perspective will be posted on the Axletree blog after we get done with some spring cleaning this weekend.
The National Bike Summit is put on the by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) every year. For many years, I’ve heard about it and never felt like it was my sort of thing. I have never been political and didn’t really feel like my little voice from our little place would really carry any weight in the big white buildings in Washington. Advocacy is intimidating, honestly. For the longest time, I thought the Summit was where the old retailers with big successful stores went to escape their shops, push their agenda and glad-hand politicians.
As a retailer, I used to think it seemed disingenuous to go lobbying for bikes in Washington. I used to think the same locally, too. As North Central Cyclery grew and became a crossroads for active people in the community, I realized we had solid ground to stand on in working towards better infrastructure. That was one of the driving factors for starting Axletree and ultimately the impetus for me applying to the Summit Scholarship.
My perspective has changed as I felt these entities were really making a difference. And I’ve also come to realize I can genuinely work towards making DeKalb County a safer place for cycling not just because it’s good for business, but because it’s good for everyone. I used to be afraid of being “caught” making a profit on bikes, but now I see the immense value in building a business that can sustain families, build community, and sustain “big picture” efforts like Axletree. We can’t do all of that if we don’t make a profit. Personally, I think having children was a turning point for me in regards to how I think about our shop and how I think about the bike infrastructure locally. I’m more confident to work towards a successful business because I’m providing for a family. Riding around DeKalb with children has really changed my value on bike infrastructure, too. I am a pretty dedicated rider, and I want my family to ride together, but it can be a tough ride if you’re herding little riders and pulling a trailer if the bike path ends abruptly or there are no curb-cuts at intersections. These things make me want to see DeKalb improve its infrastructure.
“I don’t belong here.”
After I won the scholarship and started preparing for the trip, I began to read articles and watch webinars about what to expect. At that point, I wanted to believe I had a cold coming on and there’d be no way I could make it. The LAB actually does a great job with the prep materials, but no matter how you package the info, the bottom line is this: “You’re going to go to DC, to the very offices of your Senators and Congressmen, and ask for their support of these specific initiatives.” Both of me didn’t like that statement. The retailer me thought, “I mean, I JUST SELL BIKES”. What am I going to say to a Congresswoman about bikes? Surely, she’ll want to talk to a bigger dealer with more employees and a larger economic impact. The advocate me thought, “I just started doing this, I don’t know enough to try and convince a Senator!” Even in the microcosm of our store, I can think of a couple other people who would be better suited (literally, they would have better suits) who could speak about the economic and tax impact of our business.
But I was sent, so I went, and there I was, sitting in my first meeting in Congresswoman Bustos’ office, when her staffer, an affable giant named Todd, started the conversation by telling us his Surly Long Haul Trucker was locked up outside. He then told us he’d ridden the Northern Tier and Southern Tier cycling routes across the country. He’s from Dubuque and knows the Freeport area well.
At that moment, I exhaled, and realized I was in the right place.
“I do belong here.”
Among the eight or nine advocates from Illinois, I was the only representative from the bike industry. Ed Barsotti, Executive Director of the League of Illinois Bicyclists (LIB), had told me it was crucial that I be that industry voice at a number of meetings. I didn’t really know what that meant, but it sounded like pressure. But honestly, sitting at the various tables with various representatives, it became clear to me that what we’re doing in DeKalb, and what we’re working for in Freeport, is exactly what Washington needs to hear about. We’re creating jobs, building tourism, and getting people moving. And we’re seeing the vast need for improvement in the infrastructure. I was able to look the staffers in the eye and say that signing on a Bill that can get pathways built can have a direct effect on the people around those trails – the city can be healthier – physically, socially, and economically. Being the only retailer at the table, I had a loud voice on these issues, but it could have only improved my situation to have more retailers at the Summit.
I was one of 25 winners of the NBDA Scholarship. The NBDA hosted a reception for members and winners on Tuesday night. I was surprised and, in hindsight, a little saddened by that event. There were tragically few retailers present. Based on years of hearing about the Summit and never attending, I felt like there would be so many more people there, in Washington, making our case known to the government. But there were few. After that reception, I attended another gathering hosted by Trek Bikes. It was an intimate event at the historic Old Ebbit Grill. While I cherished the intimacy of the event, literally rubbing elbows with Trek owner and industry icon John Burke, the legendary Gary Fisher, the stalwart Rich Cook of IMBA, to name a few, there were surprisingly few people there (for being a national gathering).
Admittedly, I had never gone before, so I truly didn’t know what to expect, but regardless of that, I was surprised to hear that the overall attendance being less than 800 people. Someone mentioned that the Ham Radio Summit draws over 1200 attendees. At this statement, I felt a deep personal offense. We can’t let the HAM RADIO people show us up. Bikes are the future, right!?!
The other scholarships seemed to share my sentiment, but we all admitted not really understanding the impact we could have. We couldn’t quite grasp spending the money (when the money is most scarce in bikes), to go to D.C. (when we need to be preparing for Spring), to talk to the gov’t about the bike agenda (which is a distant, nebulous, and hard to understand assemblage of concepts). BUT. With the scholarship, we had the incentive to come and see, and we were all amazed how simple, accessible, and crucial it is to attend. Taking a day to influence decision makers that bikes have incredible value for our country isn’t political jabber-jawing, it’s job security.
”We all belong here.”
If I can affect change at the national level to make transportation dollars trickle down to fund small projects in small towns, which will help communities stay active and healthy, and create a context for safe cycling which can be filled with well-made bikes purchased from independent bike dealers large and small, I need to do that. And so do all the bike dealers. And so do representatives from all those small towns. And so do bike club presidents. And so do bike club members. And so do you.
If I brought home anything from D.C., it’s that there need to be more voices for bikes in this country. I am possibly the most apolitical person you know, but I still believe this is an important topic worth our time and attention. If I can go again, I will. And if I can’t, I’ll work hard to make sure there are a couple people there in my place.
I’d like to especially thank the NBDA for their generosity, the LAB for their incredible efforts, and Ed from the LIB (and all the IL delegates) for leading the way on the local level.
Like I said, I’m writing my two perspectives separately, so be sure to check out my Advocate perspective on the Axletree blog next week. That’s where I’ll share a little more detail about the Summit Agenda. If you have any questions, please email me at Tobie(at)nccdk.com.