Axletree in Illinois: What grassroots bike advocacy looks like
What happens when a bicycle shop chooses to broaden its focus on selling bikes to include bicycling advocacy? Something pretty darn special happens. You’d think every bike shop in the world would also advocate for bicycling, and many do. But it’s rare I find one which works so hard at it as North Central Cyclery and Axletree.
Back in April at the Dairy Roubaix gravel race, I was introduced to Axletree. I met one of their disciples. He was wearing their kit, which is beautiful I must say, and I instantly got interested in the work they were doing. Mind you, I’ve never had much interest in cycling in Illinois outside of Chicago, but this organization got my attention. It made me want to explore the flatlands a bit more.
So what and who is Axletree exactly? Although Axletree is a big part of North Central Cyclery in DeKalb, it is also its own entity. NCC is and will always be the shop side, selling everything from carbon road frames to long distance, off-road adventure bikes and fat bikes. The kind folks behind NCC have also taken over Freeport Bicycle Company in northern Illinois.
Where the retail side ends, Axletree begins as a nonprofit. This great organization educates the public on safe cycling (they put on workshops on how to be seen when riding at night, for example), cyclists’ rights, how to be a more considerate rider in traffic and how to ride all kinds of terrain. Since Axletree was established in 2011 by Tobie DePauw and Dean Frieders, it has won community awards and is regularly recognized for its work all over Illinois, not just in DeKalb. Its motto, which you can find on their jerseys and their website, sums it up: “Events. Advocacy. Awesome.”
This year I was lucky enough to take part in two of Axletree’s gravel events. A week after Almanzo 100 gravel race in Spring Valley, Minnesota, in mid May, I met some friends of mine from Madison down in DeKalb for the Gravel Metric. As with most gravel events, the funds raised covered the cost of food and drink with the rest going straight towards Axletree’s advocacy efforts. Some 370 riders showed up, trumping last year’s numbers by 40 percent.
Riding flatlands are harder for me than riding hills, and this ride proved it. My energy petered out as I tried to push into the wind. But being around so many cool people, riding under the moving shadows of wind turbines, hitting several B roads and several miles of grass trail helped. I didn’t do as poorly as I could have.
I got my chance to play in the hills two months later for their first annual Ten Thousand gravel ride around Freeport. Chad Ament, another member of both NCC and Axletree, put the event together and did one bang up job. Although he purposely instilled a bit of fear for those used to riding the flats (Axletree pulls a ton of riders from the Chicago area) by setting a 125-mile course with 11,000 feet of climbing and a 70-mile route with about 6,000-feet worth of ascent. With a friend of mine from Madison, I chose the shorter option this time.
I will sing the praises of this ride a thousand times – ten thousand, maybe. Other than the Dairy Roubaix, this is the most beautiful gravel ride I’ve ever done and most likely will ever do. Go next year. Seriously. You may think Illinois is flat, but this corner of the driftless area will prove you wrong. It also has the gnarliest B roads I’ve ever seen.
The other events Axletree currently puts on are The Night Bison, a night gravel event in August on the same roads as the Gravel Metric, the Hopkins Park cyclocross race, weekly group rides and several social rides. As a rider at any of these events, you are also an ambassador for the cycling community. In fact, when you choose to join the Axletree cycling group (which is all inclusive and not just about racing), and wear their jersey, you are asked to sign a pledge to encourage cyclists at all levels of development, promote cycling through responsible riding, ride safely and get folks to slow down and realize our actions play a huge role well beyond cycling community.
Q&A with Axletree’s DePauw
During Trek World this year in Madison, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Tobie DePauw to ask him a few questions about this organization. We sat and talked at the Weary Traveler Freehouse restaurant (owned by yet another cycling advocate, Christopher Berge). Our conversation left me feeling refreshed and excited to share what I learned from him with my fellow Wisconsin Bicycle Federation board members.
Kloeckner: In your own words, how would you describe Axletree?
DePauw: Axletree is a few people with good hearts working pretty dang hard to make things better for cyclists in DeKalb County and the surrounding area by creating fun, challenging events, making and achieving realistic advocacy goals and incubating a culture of riding that isn’t just about racing but about community.
What got you started in bicycle advocacy and event organizing?
A few years ago at the Gravel Metric, the weather got very serious and we had some true survival stories afterwards. I received some great counsel that it really wasn’t a good idea to continue doing these events without a liability shield to protect us from lawsuits. At the same time, as a business we were starting to get involved in local advocacy and saw the limitations we’d face. Axletree was born out of both of those needs and gave us a neutral flag to gather riders under without making them shop team riders. I think I started creating these events out of a restlessness. I wanted to ride interesting events, but I didn’t want to drive across state lines to do them.
What are you hoping to achieve through Axletree in the near future and further down the road?
In the next few years, I’d love to see Axletree stabilize and mature as an organization. The core people behind it all can do only so much for so long, so I hope we can create an infrastructure that keeps the energy sustained. I’d like us to get more community involvement and get bike safety/bike lifestyle education in the schools.
You’re based in DeKalb but most of your followers are in the Chicago area. Do you see yourself as serving more of the DeKalb/Chicago area or do you consider the work of Axletree statewide?
It’s certainly become more regional in the last year. We have a strong Chicago following because it’s close and simple for folks from there to come ride. They also find it novel to ride in a straight line for 30 miles without putting a foot down. We have been humbled by the number of riders coming in from other states, too. It’s amazing to think people would come from places with better riding than here to ride with us. That means it’s the overall community that makes it worth it, not just the terrain. We’re proud of that.
As an organization, we’re getting asked more and more to expand into other communities and/or expand in a franchise fashion to other states. We’d love to encourage other communities to create advocacy groups and work on achieving small goals. At this point, we don’t have the structure to expand, but maybe someday.
Besides being one of the folks running Axletree, you also run NCC. How do you have time to do both?
It’s a struggle, honestly. The line is often blurred. I have a great crew at NCC, so I have some freedom to work on Axletree stuff as part of my regular workday. I also get a ton of my Axletree daydreaming done on my bike. I think most all of the Axletree names and promo ideas have come to me on bike rides.
Can you describe your dream ride?
That’s a tough one. I think the title of “favorite ride” is a tie between a day riding through redwoods with my wife in California and riding to New Glarus from DeKalb with our whole NCC/Axletree crew. If I had to answer right now, I’d say I’d rather be riding in California with Anna today.
What’s in your stable right now?
This is Kierstin again. Being a part of a bicycle advocacy group myself, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that all of us continue to put energy into groups like Axletree or set up groups like it in communities that need one. In the upcoming years, I look forward to working with DePauw and the rest of the Axletree crew to not only improve Illinois cycling but Wisconsin cycling as well. By having organizations and states partner up, we can not only make better use of our resources, but also learn from each other. I guarantee you I’ll be signing their pledge and wearing their jersey next year with pride. Thanks, guys, and keep up the amazing work.
Kierstin Kloeckner used to race bikes and now commutes by bike in Madison, Wisconsin, where she is a personal trainer and yoga/pilates instructor. She blogs at twowheelsfromhome.blogspot.com.