For Wheel & Sprocket CEO Chris Kegel, bikes were a vehicle to touch lives and make a difference in the community.
Biking wasn’t only 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 heat 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 CEO 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 CEO 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 CEO, 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. “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.”
“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.” ◆
Pamela Hill Nettleton is a writer and a journalism professor at Marquette University.