BIK­ING WASN’T only

Milwaukee Health - - NUTRITION ALCOHOL -

Chris Kegel’s busi­ness; it was also his life. When his four kids were young, the fam­ily biked to­gether weekly, and when it was time for Noel, the el­dest, to head off to col­lege, the en­tire brood biked the fresh­man to school. They did a ver­sion of that tra­di­tion with each Kegel kid.

“My mom drove the van, my dad biked with us, and we all did it,” laughs daugh­ter Amelia. No short jaunts to Mount Mary Col­lege, ei­ther; the stu­dent deliveries were to Mon­treal, Texas, Bri­tish Columbia, and Mon­tana. “When we ar­rived at school, other kids would say, ‘You just did what?’ We had a map, some­times we got lost, but it brought us closer to­gether as a fam­ily. We had to rely on and trust each other.”

An un­for­get­table fig­ure in bi­cy­cling cir­cles and a ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence at events in­volv­ing ped­als and wheels, Kegel, 63, died in Fe­bru­ary of liver can­cer. A large man with a head of hair ri­val­ing that of Jerry Gar­cia, Kegel was C▸O of Wis­con­sin bike shop chain Wheel & Sprocket.

He left be­hind a legacy of four decades of pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cacy and ser­vice on lo­cal and state coun­cils and com­mit­tees that cre­ated and main­tained bike trails, as well as hun­dreds of bi­cy­clists and in­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als for­ever af­fected by his un­re­lent­ing, un­wa­ver­ing, un­com­mon kind­ness.

“Chris was a strong ad­vo­cate for more bike trails around Wis­con­sin,” says Wis­con­sin Bike Fed­er­a­tion Deputy Di­rec­tor Dave Sch­labowske, who bought his first adult bike from Kegel. Around Milwaukee, “he helped with the de­vel­op­ment of the Ozau­kee In­terur­ban Trail, the Hank Aaron State Trail, and sup­ported Milwaukee County Parks’ im­prove­ments to and ex­pan­sion of the Oak Leaf Trail.”

BORN AND RAISED in West Al­lis, Kegel was one of six kids. His father aban­doned the fam­ily when Kegel was young. At St. Rita’s, where he went to school, the nuns spoke at length about world peace. That goal seemed out of reach to Kegel, so he pared it down and fo­cused on chang­ing the world around him, one per­son at a time, by sim­ply be­ing pos­i­tive. He lived by that mantra and brought that at­ti­tude to work with him, mak­ing cus­tomers out of skep­tics and friends out of cus­tomers. He built his busi­ness, as he liked to say, “one cus­tomer at time,” de­liv­er­ing tremen­dous per­sonal ser­vice. In any one of his stores and at any bike expo or event, Kegel acted less like a C▸O and more like an en­thu­si­as­tic fel­low rider, pump­ing tires and fix­ing bikes for cus­tomers, fos­ter­ing life­long loy­alty and cre­at­ing a wide net­work of rid­ers who each felt he was their per­sonal friend.

“He abided by the golden rule,” says son Ju­lian. “That’s how he ran his busi­ness and his fam­ily.”

In 1973, a time when a grown adult on a bike – much less a grown adult in span­dex on a bike – was an un­usual and odd sight, Kegel was hired as me­chanic at Wheel & Sprocket in Hales Cor­ners. The UW-Milwaukee busi­ness stu­dent was just try­ing to pay for tu­ition, but a pas­sion took hold and he left school be­fore grad­u­at­ing to fo­cus on build­ing, fix­ing, sell­ing and rid­ing bikes. (Years later, in his speak­ing en­gage­ments, he would en­cour­age stu­dents to stay in school.) By 1979, he was part­ner; in 1989, he be­came pres­i­dent and sole owner of the com­pany. To­day, there are seven re­tail lo­ca­tions of Wheel

& Sprocket (an eighth is sched­uled to open this sum­mer), and three of Kegel’s chil­dren work for the busi­ness: Noel is C▸O, Amelia is mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor, and Tessa is mar­ket­ing as­sis­tant. Ju­lian is a pho­tog­ra­pher and runs an­other fam­ily busi­ness, Kegel’s Inn, in West Al­lis.

KEGEL PRO­MOTED his busi­ness in comic strip car­toon ads and silly tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials, and was savvy about pro­mot­ing cy­cling as an in­dus­try and pas­time. He or­ga­nized, par­tic­i­pated in and was, some­how, al­ways present at bik­ing pro­mo­tions and char­ity rides. He served on boards of lo­cal, state and na­tional groups ded­i­cated to im­prov­ing bik­ing on city streets and ex­pand­ing wood­land trails, among them the In­ter­na­tional Moun­tain Bi­cy­cling As­so­ci­a­tion, the League of Amer­i­can Bi­cy­clists, the Wis­con­sin Off Road Bi­cy­cling As­so­ci­a­tion and the Wis­con­sin State Trails Coun­cil. His life­long en­thu­si­asm was rec­og­nized by lo­cal and na­tional bik­ing awards, and Wheel & Sprocket was named #1 Bi­cy­cle Re­tailer of the Year more than once.

“Chris was in­volved in bi­cy­cle ad­vo­cacy at the na­tional level for decades. He was pres­i­dent or on the board of ev­ery ma­jor bi­cy­cle or­ga­ni­za­tion in the coun­try. He has al­ways given back to cy­cling, at the state and na­tional lev­els. His bike shops run ride-sup­port for rides; they don’t charge [or­ga­niz­ers] any­thing for that, and it is a tremen­dous ex­pense. Chris was my go-to men­tor for al­most ev­ery­thing. It’s amaz­ing how many times I just hap­pened to be rid­ing by his store, and he al­ways made time for me,” says Sch­labowske.

Ac­cord­ing to son Ju­lian, Kegel had a gift for pa­tience and per­se­ver­ance. “He knew that things don’t change overnight. ‘Just keep try­ing; just keep try­ing.’ One per­son can re­ally make a big dif­fer­ence.”

The Fed­er­a­tion re­cently launched the Wis­con­sin Bi­cy­cling Hall of Fame, and in­ducted Kegel and two other Wis­con­sin bik­ing gi­ants, Otto Wenz and Phil Van Valken­berg, as its ini­tial hon­orees. The Hall will be housed in a com­mu­nity bike shop in­side Velobahn Cof­fee in the Pedal Milwaukee build­ing (3618 W. Pierce St.), owned by for­mer pro racer Tom Schuler, and has an on­line pres­ence at wis­con­sin­bi­cy­cling­hall.com. “We have these gi­ants in the cy­cling world from Wis­con­sin, who are rec­og­nized na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, and we didn’t have a good way of hon­or­ing their legacy,” says Sch­labowske.

When Kegel was di­ag­nosed with an ag­gres­sive form of liver can­cer in Septem­ber 2016, fam­ily and friends wanted to show their sup­port and be to­gether around Kegel one more time. What else would serve but a bike ride? They or­ga­nized a Slow Roll – “we planned it on Tues­day and did it on Sun­day,” says Amelia – a re­laxed, 12-mile ride along the Hank Aaron State Trail with a party at Kegel’s Inn. The crowds were enor­mous. Chris was able to at­tend the party (but did not ride), and the 1,000 Slow Roll t-shirts or­dered quickly dis­ap­peared.

“It was a tes­ta­ment to my dad,” says Amelia. “He was a mod­est man, and for him to see how many peo­ple were af­fected by him was amaz­ing. That one per­son could cre­ate such rip­ples re­ally touched him.”

In an ad­di­tional honor to Kegel, the Chris Kegel Foun­da­tion was cre­ated to “make cy­cling bet­ter, bring rid­ers to­gether and de­velop cy­cling ad­vo­cates” (chriskegel.com).

“I know he ac­com­plished a lot of things; he was an in­cred­i­bly cre­ative and suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man,” says his daugh­ter. “But he was the world’s best dad.” ◆

“He was the world’s best dad.”

OVER 1,000 PEO­PLE TOOK PART IN THE SLOW ROLL, A 12-MILE BIKE RIDE THAT TOOK PLACE SHORTLY AF­TER KEGEL’S CAN­CER DI­AG­NO­SIS IN SEPTEM­BER 2016

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