Friends of the Bicycle,
On Saturday, May 3, we lost a legend when Congressman Jim Oberstar passed away in his sleep. He was 79 years old. The Congressman was the leader of the bicycle movement in America.
As his story goes, his first wife was battling breast cancer and he was thinking of an activity they could share. So he dusted off the bikes. After Jo lost that battle with cancer, the Congressman started to spend more time on his bike. One of the conclusions that he came to is that facilities for bicycling in America were horrible and since he sat on the Transportation Committee in Congress, he was going to do something about it. He began with his Vision of a Bicycle Friendly America and very few people in the movement. Beginning in the 1990's, he worked to build that movement and in 1997 I received a call from the Congressman. "John, I would like to visit with you in Washington. I need your help." I showed up in Washington and listened to the Congressman's Vision of a Bicycle Friendly America and was sold in five minutes. Trek got off the sidelines and joined the team, all because Jim Oberstar asked.
History will say that the bicycle movement that Congressman Oberstar started made a difference. When the Congressman started this movement, federal funding for cycling was at zero. Over the last 15 years, it has averaged over $700 million. In that timeframe more than 30,000 bicycle projects have been completed in all 50 states. Over the years, I was lucky enough to get to know Jim Oberstar not only as one of his soldiers in the bike movement but also as a friend. I am a list guy and here are my Top Six Memories of the man I called "The Chairman".
1. Meeting the Congressman in 1997. I will never forget our first meeting. I flew down to Washington and was ushered into his office. Small man, big personality. Kind of like my Dad. Oberstar had a big smile, a bigger voice, and a hearty handshake. He gave me his Vision of a Bicycle Friendly America for over an hour. I was sold after the first five minutes, but when Oberstar got on a roll, you got out of the way and just enjoyed. No one commanded the English language the way that Congressman Oberstar did. After that meeting, Trek got off the sidelines and became an active participant in changing transportation policy in the United States to include the bicycle. It has been one of the most meaningful campaigns that I have been a part of.
2. Listening to Oberstar speak at the National Bike Summit. Pick a year, any year, and he was AWESOME. You could always count on a few things in an Oberstar Speech:
1. No script.
2. The history of the bicycle movement.
3. Spectacular stories seemingly unrelated to cycling until the very end when Jim would reveal that the entire story was about the importance of the bicycle.
4. Speaking at least two different languages during the speech. Sometimes as many as four.
5. The finish. No one closed like Oberstar. Towards the end of his speeches he would pick up the pace, and the volume, and it would electrify the room.
The first year Oberstar spoke, there were 80 people in the basement of a lousy hotel. Ten years later there were 800 people packing a Senate conference room. Oberstar had built an army.
3. Jim Oberstar and Safe Routes to School. Oberstar thought there should be more kids riding their bikes to school. In the 1970's, 30% of kids either walked or rode their bikes. I was one of those kids. I knew what he was talking about. By 2000, the number had declined to less than 5%. Oberstar came up with a program called Safe Routes to School and he wrote it into law. He personally made this program happen, and it has turned the tide so that today for the first time in the last forty years, the numbers are starting to go the other way.
4. Jim Oberstar and his family. One summer the Congressman and his family were vacationing in Wisconsin and Tania and I had them over for dinner. We had a great time and I learned that night that not only was he a great Congressman and a great leader of the cycling movement, but he also had a great family. For desert that night I cooked Crepes assisted by four of his grandchildren and by the Chairman himself. We made Crepes and I had each of them taste test the whipped cream directly from the bottle. Truth be told, this crepe making did get a little out of hand and I do have a video of JB, Congressman Oberstar, and his four daughters making crepes and dancing to Michael Jackson all at the same time. Jim Oberstar was FUN!
5. Losing. When Oberstar lost his re-election in 2010 and lost his Chairmanship, it couldn't have gotten much worse. I felt so bad for him. I will always remember getting a phone call from him after the loss. I was in New York City and it was raining and the phone rings. It was Jim Oberstar calling to tell me that he was sorry that he could not get the job done. He was sorry? I was mad. How did we not see this coming? How did we sit on the sidelines and not rally every single person who cared about Jim Oberstar to help him win that campaign? It still bothers me. Always the gentleman, we chatted for 15 minutes. He had no regrets. He was looking forward to the next chapter in his life and…he was looking forward to riding his bicycle more.
6. Saying Thank You. For sometime, I had wanted to say “thank you” to the Chairman for all that he had done for the bicycle movement. He was the leader and without him none of the success over the last 20 years would have happened. The Congressman came to Trek World in 2009 and in front of over 1,000 people, on behalf of Trek and Trek Retailers, I said “thank you”. I gave the Congressman a map of the United States with pins in the map for all of the recognized Bicycle Friendly Communities; a platinum, gold, silver, or bronze pin for each community. The crowd went crazy. Five minute-long standing ovation. The Congressman accepted the gift and then on a perfect August evening in Madison, WI with a lit Capitol Building in the background he spoke to the faithful about the future of the bicycle in America.
All of us who care about the bicycle owe Jim Oberstar a debt of gratitude. The best way to pay off that debt is to do something. Let us take the movement that Jim Oberstar started to the next level and make him proud.