The timing could not be more ideal. Community Shares of Wisconsin has named Chris Fortune, president of Saris Cycling Group, as one of its Backyard Heroes for the month of September.
This is auspicious on a number of counts.
Saris - the Madison-based manufacturer of bicycle racks, CycleOps indoor trainers and other velo gear - has a record of commitment to bicycle advocacy. The company contributes to groups ranging from the Thunderhead Alliance, a national coalition of state and local bicycle advocacy groups, to the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, whose members include engineers, planners, landscape architects and others devoted to improving safety, viability and infrastructure for pedestrian and bicycle transportation.
These interests overlap those of more than 600 advocates, policymakers, educators, land managers, transportation and public health specialists expected to convene Sept. 5-8 at Monona Terrace for Pro Walk/Pro Bike 2006, also known as the 14th International Conference on Walking & Bicycling. (See sidebar.) This year's conference is being held here in conjunction with the 2006 Wisconsin State Pedestrian and Bicycle Summit, scheduled for Sept. 6-9.
And as if that's not propitious enough, the recognition bestowed on Fortune presages the third annual Saris Gala to benefit the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin. Scheduled for 6-9:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20, at the Saris headquarters and factory, 5253 Verona Rd., the gala has become a crucial fund-raiser for the federation and its efforts to promote bicycle safety, education and infrastructure throughout the state.
Asked for his reaction to being named a Backyard Hero, Fortune deflects credit away from himself. "It makes me extremely proud of the Saris Cycling Group," he writes via e-mail, citing the economic, transportation and public-health benefits of cycling among the reasons his company supports organizations like the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.
Della Haugen - who oversees membership and development for the federation, sits on the board of directors for Community Shares of Wisconsin and nominated him for the Backyard Hero recognition - suggests such self-effacement is typical of Fortune. "He's quiet," she says, "and doesn't like a lot of attention."
The idea for the Saris Gala was Fortune's, and he wants it to keep growing. "He said, ‘I think you're thinking too small,'" says Dar Ward, the federation's executive director. "Chris is always looking to take the next step."
The federation is taking his advice to heart. In each of its first two years, the Saris Gala has raised $25,000 for the group. Ward says this year's goal is $50,000. If the event reaches that threshold, it would account for about one-eighth of the federation's annual budget - rivaling membership dues as one of the nonprofit's chief revenue sources.
NBC 15's Randol White, an avid cyclist, is this year's emcee. The suggested minimum donation is $25. Ward estimates that about 500 people will attend. "It's not black tie," Haugen says.
Indeed, it may be the most casual gala on the area's social calendar. "It's Madison," says Ward.
Planned festivities include celebrity tricycle races, food and beverages, live music by the Oak Street Ramblers bluegrass band, self-guided tours of the Saris factory, an awards presentation, a drawing for a Trek Travel trip for two and a silent auction. Among the goodies up for bid: a high-end Waterford bike frame and fork, a Bontrager wheelset and Tour de France posters.
Ward hails Saris as one of those bicycle industry exemplars that cue other businesses to support bicycle advocacy. Planet Bike, which pledges 25% of profits to bicycle advocacy, is another Madison-based firm that wears its commitment on its jersey sleeves. Pacific Cycle, Trek and Waterford have also been forthcoming with their support, Ward says.
She adds that this may be due to the concentration of bicycle firms in the state: About one-fourth of the U.S. bicycle industry is headquartered in Wisconsin, she notes. A recent study put the economic impact on Wisconsin at $556.5 million, including bicycle manufacturing as well as wholesale, distribution, retail and service sectors. Many of these businesses are contributing items toward the auction.
You might think such a commitment would be a no-brainer, an obvious exercise in enlightened self-interest. Not so, says Ward. The industry as a whole "has been a hard nut to crack."
Ward notes that Fortune's support extends beyond sponsorship of the gala to intangibles. "Chris has helped us figure out how to get people to work together more," she says. This is crucial, she adds, because "the number of people who identify themselves as advocates is pretty small."
In this regard, Fortune's role as a catalyst is indeed heroic.