The Big Ask

The Big Ask

Almost twenty years ago, 1997, and I'm at the podium in a Las Vegas ballroom at the Interbike trade show. The bike industry’s 200 senior leaders have packed this room to hear our pitch.  I’ve summarized our campaign and now this is my big finish. “You’ve heard the threats from Washington and our proposed response. If we don’t start this Bikes Belong Campaign now and win it, federal funding for bicycling will completely disappear. So, are you ready to join us now, and get this campaign started?”

I stopped talking, allowing space for a response. Silence echoes back at me. The highway lobby was targeting our share of federal funding for bike infrastructure. Andy Clarke of Rails to Trails, Cosi Simon of League of American Bicyclists and I representing Bicycle Federation of America, had just risked our reputations on this first ever big ask of the bike industry to fight back.

Our plan mobilized bicyclists and bike dealers in key congressional districts while working an overall capital hill strategy. We needed to raise $300,000 from them to launch this campaign, now.

Time in the ballroom slows. My body tenses and sweats, my heart pounds in my ears. I scan the audience; they’re squirming, clearing their throats, looking around nervously.

I wonder if I'm going to need to do some kind of impromptu face-saving, soft-shoe act to gloss over their non-response. After all, this was an audacious ask from advocates to the bike industry. But we had never before fought as big a battle as this one and we couldn’t do it without their help.

Like many good ideas this one had come together fast. Andy scribbled it on a notepad while flying to Wyoming to pitch me in July. We honed it into a plausible proposal for this group of business leaders in September. Mike Sinyard of Specialized organized the meeting and invited his peers.

But our doubts lurked just below the surface. Maybe we hadn't given ourselves enough time to put together a compelling enough case for this audacious, first time ask. Maybe asking for money in public like this was just too awkward. Maybe...

Then on my right side, leaning against the wall a young man raised his hand. I recognized him as John Burke, the new CEO of Trek Bikes, and point at him to speak.

John says, “I like what I am hearing from you and the team. On behalf of Trek Bikes I pledge $100,000 for the Bikes Belong Campaign with one condition. The condition is that the rest of the bike industry must match this amount two to one by the end of Interbike, three days from now, so we can this campaign started.”

It took a moment for that to sink in on me, and the audience. Our doubt had just died and our dream was on. I said “wow” as the audience exploded in unbridled revelry. Applause, yelps and standing ovations you’d expect from a joyous family whose young patriarch just stood up and signaled to his peers, “Success is this way friends, follow me.”

I use the revelry time to take a deep breath, wipe the sweat off my hands, and bask in the emotional relief of Burke’s pledge and challenge. Leaning over to Andy and Cosi, I ask them to help keep track of pledges I'm about to ask for.

“Thank you John, for that generous leadership pledge and ambitious challenge." With all the confidence I can muster, I repeated his challenge and asked the audience, "So who here will join John and help us get this campaign started?” Hands go up around the room simultaneously so I start on the right and work left.

“I’m inspired!” shouts a multi-store owner from Portland, “put me down for $10,000.” Spontaneously another dealer responds, “Well, I’m not that inspired but I will pledge $5,000!” Cheers fill the room.

One of Burke’s business rivals congratulates him and makes his own of $25,000 pledge. The audience applauds. Each pledge inspires bursts of enthusiasm, which triggers more pledges. The momentum is real, and the joy in the room is contagious.

Andy and Cosi are keeping up with the staccato pace of pledges as I recognize another man with his hand in the air. He stands and says, “On behalf of the Chicagoland Bicycle Dealers Association, who just held a board meeting at this table, we pledge $25,000 to the Campaign.”

After a few more pledges I ask Andy for an accounting. After some addition, Andy reports that of the $300,000 goal, the campaign has just secured pledges totaling $210,000.

Not a bad start for a 20 minute-old campaign.

Two days later we met our fundraising goal and the Bikes Belong Campaign was real, and ultimately successful. Since 1998 we can trace two big outcomes back to the Big Ask.

We are currently benefitting from literally billions of public dollars invested in new bicycling infrastructure across the country because bike advocates and the bike industry joined forces, worked hard and were fearless.

And today, Bikes Belong has evolved into People for Bikes and we bike advocates have more respect and wheal more power in city halls and state capitals than ever before. I’m proud of our political movement’s accomplishments to date.

However, signals from Washington indicate new battles for bike infrastructure are on the horizon. The question for us today is whether or not bicyclists will be heard and respected in this conversation.

Maybe it’s time for a new Big Ask?