Goal: Retire and Ride More

Traci Elliott, Bike Fed Board Chair, will serve as Interim Executive Director while the Board begins to conduct a search for a new Executive Director. For questions, concerns, or to submit a resume for consideration, please contact Traci at traci@wisconsinbikefed.org

Me by my first two wheeler

My first two wheeler

After 18 years of working in bicycle advocacy, it is time for me to join my wife Liz in semi-retirement. It had always been our plan to leave our full-time jobs after our house was paid off and our daughter graduated from college and got a job. So spring of 2018, after 34 years of teaching, my wife retired. Our daughter is now a working professional and we don’t owe the bank any money, so it is about time I get with the program.

Me riding on frozen lake superior

Riding by the ice caves on Lake Superior. Photo by Julian Kegel

It has been a great ride, but Friday, June 7th is my last day as an employee at the Wisconsin Bike Fed. Between climate change, our broken transportation system, and ever rising healthcare costs, I believe more strongly than ever in the power of the simple bicycle to solve many of today’s complicated problems. So I leave wishing that strong tailwinds push the Wisconsin Bike Fed forward in its mission.

After I take some time to ride my bike a bunch and spend more time with Liz, you may see me back working in bicycle advocacy in some limited capacity, either up on a digital soapbox or maybe organizing another ride. Liz and I have been frugal, but I still need to earn beer money.

Me riding the 400 Trail

Riding the Elroy Sparta Trail. Photo by Julian Kegel

I started at the Bike Fed in 2001 after I quit my career as an editorial photographer. A friend I raced with on the Alterra Mountain Bike Team told me there was a job opening for a bicycle advocate that he thought I would be perfect for because in addition to racing road and mountain bikes, I was a year-round bike commuter. As ubiquitous as fat bikes and studded tires are today, back then people who rode bikes for transportation in the winter in Milwaukee were few and far between.

Me riding a fatbike under a tree

My daily commute to the office.

Me in a santa suit holding a camera

Doing what I do best.

So I asked around to find out what a “bicycle advocate” was (remember, no Google back then either), and I thought it sounded fun, so I applied. I biked down to the interview, and was lucky enough to be offered the job as the first Milwaukee Program Manager for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin. The position was supported with funding from a small grant to organize Bike to Work programs at large employers in Milwaukee. The grant was not enough to pay for an actual office, so I shared a desk in the offices of Citizens for a Better Environment in the rough and tumble old Posner Building on Wisconsin Avenue.

I liked what I was doing, so I began looking for additional funding to keep the program going in Milwaukee after the one-time, limited-term grant ran out. I was successful in partnering with Milwaukee Public Schools to apply for a federal grant to start the area’s first Safe Routes to School Program. That allowed me to hire Jessica Wineberg as Education Program Manager to develop an-depth curriculum and implement that program. She had been a bicycle ambassador in Chicago working for the then Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, now Active Transportation Alliance.

me riding a gravel road

Grinding Northwoods gravel

The Bike Fed’s Milwaukee office continued grow, hiring people who were both passionate about the power of cycling to make the world a better place, and entrepreneurial enough to find funding to grow their programs. It has been a pleasure to work with Jessica, Shea Shachameyer, Jack Hirt, Jake Newborn, Matt Gissibl, Caressa Givens and all the seasonal staff who teach our classes. Each brought a different perspective to the office, and I learned something from all of them.

Me riding on the Slow Roll

Riding on the Chris Kegel Slow Roll.

After years of advocating that the City of Milwaukee hire a Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, in 2006 the Department of Public Works (DPW) retitled an open drafting tech position as Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator. Right after that, the DPW employee everyone thought would get the job was promoted. With no internal DPW heir apparent, they asked me if I would be interested. I was not unhappy at the Bike Fed, but then Executive Director Dar Ward, Jessica and I discussed it, and it seemed like a great opportunity to institutionalize a bike advocate in the DPW.

me with rifle riding past my tent deer hunting

Yes, I bring my bike deer hunting too.

So I left the high pay of the nonprofit world for the excitement of bureaucracy.

Me laying in the gutter taking photos at a ToAD race

I’ve spent a lot of time in the gutter over the years.

Not long after I began working for  the City, I started a personal bicycle advocacy blog called Over the Bars in Milwaukee. I wrote on my own time under the nom de plume Milwaukee Bike Czar and made clear the blog expressed my opinion, not the position of the City Bike Ped Coordinator. I also tried to steer clear of topics that might have been a conflict of interest with my job.

The blog eventually gained some popularity, and then Executive Director Kevin Hardman approached me to come back to the Bike Fed, write a blog for them and update the Bike Fed’s monthly newsletter. I agreed, and was hired as Communications Manager in 2006. I worked with Kevin and Shine United advertising to rebrand the Bike Fed and launched a new website with a blog. I also worked with talented designer/photographer Peter DiAntoni to merge our annual Ride Guide and broadsheet newsletters, both printed on newsprint, into a high-quality quarterly magazine printed on Wisconsin-milled coated paper.

In 2013, Kevin left the organization to launch Bublr Bikeshare in Milwaukee. Dave Cieslewicz, the former mayor of Madison, was then hired as Executive Director, and I became Deputy Director.

As I mentioned above, it had been my intention to drift into semi-retirement when my wife retired from Milwaukee Public Schools. Some of you may have even attended the Schlabowske Fest send off party.  But right when I was going to retire, the other Polish Dave left the Bike Fed. The Board of Directors then asked if I would stick around a little longer. So in February of 2018 I agreed to stay on as Executive Director for a one year term. A year and a half later, it is finally time.

It has been a genuine pleasure to work with my Bike Fed colleagues: Michelle Bacchus, Carolyn Dvorak, Matt Gissibl, Caressa Givens, Jack Hirt, Jake Newborn, Shea Shachameyer, Jessica Wineberg, and all the seasonal staff who teach our classes and fix the bikes. Each brought a different perspective to the office, and I learned something from all of them.

I look back on what we have all accomplished with pride. Below are some of the highlights I thought of, but the list is far from complete:

  • Developing and implementing Milwaukee’s first robust safe routes to school program.
  • Painted the first 30 miles of bike lanes in Milwaukee as part of a Bike Route Improvement project.
  • Completed the Off-street trail plan for the City of Milwaukee.
  • Bike Parking Plan (installed and mapped 300 bike racks and bike lockers around the city).
  • Bike Parking expansion (another 300 bike racks).
  • Wrote the City of Milwaukee Bicycle Master Plan.
  • Successfully advocated for bike racks on buses for Milwaukee County Transit.
  • Create the Milwaukee by Bike Map.
  • Rebranded the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, launched a new website and magazine.
  • Started the Santa Cycle Rampage, the Polish Moon Ride and the Ride Across Wisconsin.
  • Helped get a nationally recognized Complete Streets policy adopted in Milwaukee.
  • Created the Statewide Share & Be Aware safety education and encouragement program.
  • Planted first pin in the midwest for bikepacking routes making the Chequamegon area an international destination for bikepackers.

I will be forever grateful to the Bike Fed for taking a chance on me, and to everyone who has advised and supported me as I learned my job on the job. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but overall, I look back with few regrets. Thanks for a great ride.

Me riding up hill at sunset

Proverbial riding off into the sunset closing photo. Photograph by Julian Kegel

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

12 thoughts on “Goal: Retire and Ride More

  1. Dave: Thanks for your work with the Bike Fed, and everything else you’ve been doing for bike advocacy! Enjoy your (semi)retirement and the rest of Wisconsin Bike Week! Tailwinds,
    Harald from Madison Bikes

    • Thanks for what you have done as well Harald. I have always been about data driven advocacy, and you provided some great tools and resources.

  2. Thank you for all you have done for the Bike Fed, my professional development, and the bicyclists of Wisconsin. Looking forward to riding with you more!

    The Bike Fed is an exciting and important place to work….I hope they find another great ED.

    • Jessica, as the first staff person I hired in the Milwaukee office, you set a high standard for all staff who followed. You turned a concept for a robust Safe Routes to School program into a model curriculum and implemented it in the complicated bureaucracy of Milwaukee Public Schools. When handed the ball, you, Shea, Jake, Jack, and Matt all just took it and ran with it. In addition to your passion, hard work and entrepreneurial fundraising skills, you all also brought new ideas to the Bike Fed that made it a more effective and inclusive organization. I really did learn a lot from you guys, particularly in the area of partnering with other community groups to more diverse voices informed our work. Milwaukee is a better place to ride a bike because of you all.

    • Thanks Pat, I hear freelance photography is a great way to earn a buck, so maybe I’ll try that in my retirement 😉

  3. Dave, great to hear that you are now going to begin the best phase of life. Remember , you always have an open invitation to come Ride to the Cut and enjoy a cold one!

    • I hope to have more time to ride the Spring Classics next year and spend some quality time on ORA’s new mountain bike trails as well. Thanks Rick!

  4. Dave,
    Bicycling in Milwaukee was made immeasurably better and safer because of your diligent efforts. Breakaway Couriers wishes you a happy and healthy semi-retirement. We wouldn’t have been the same without you.
    Cheers
    Wayne and the Breakaway Team, present and past.

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