A Trek through Time – The History of Trek Bicycles Posted on the Trek Dealer Site, Feburary 2002
Waterloo has secured a new sense of significance in French history. Over the past three years, the cycling world learned that Waterloo, Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycles was now the home of a Tour de France winning bicycle frame. Lance Armstrong’s inspirational victories have catapulted the Midwestern bicycle manufacturer into the spotlight by making it the first American bike frame to win the world's most prestigious bicycle race.
The road to the Tour de France win was a long and challenging one. It is a tale best told through the experiences of those who transformed the company from a five-person operation housed in a barn in Wisconsin 25 years ago, to a globally oriented company with distribution in 65 countries and over 1500 employees worldwide.
The vision of the company arose out of a meeting between Richard Burke, a former accountant with a knack for investments and Bevel Hogg, an owner of a Midwestern chain of bicycle stores. Burke had spent 15 years sharpening his business skills with a burgeoning appliance distributor, Roth Corporation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Hogg had grown tired of the retail business, but his heart remained with bicycles. Burke’s passion for outdoor recreation and entrepreneurial spirit drew him to the bicycle market.
The year was 1975. Amidst a US energy crisis that aided a resurgence of the bicycle market, the timing was right. “Schwinn dominated the specialty retail market at the time, which is where most bikes were sold,” said Burke. “But the mid-to-high end business was going to Japanese-made bicycles. We saw an opportunity to sell an American-made product in that category.” Burke convinced Roth Corporation to fund the venture with $100,000 in seed money, and Hogg provided the insight into the bicycle industry.
The duo chose to headquarter their new business in rural Waterloo, halfway between Burke’s suburban Milwaukee home and Hogg’s home in Madison. A humble, 7000-sq. foot barn, formerly a carpet warehouse, would serve as the launching pad for the company. After a hot debate, a name was selected one evening in a bar just outside of Waterloo. Hogg suggested Kestrel, and Burke Intrepid. They settled on Trek, a word derived from Hogg’s native South Africa that was memorable and would later have global appeal. In 1976, Trek Bicycles was incorporated.
The five-man company began hand-building steel, touring framesets. Using proprietary cast lugs; Trek frames adopted a European brazing style with an American flare. “You could tell it was a Trek frame without the paint on it,” said early frame engineer Tim Issac. “The company provided the designers with the tooling infrastructure and right materials to let us create. Trek was dominated by free spirits and I think it showed in our product.” Selling for roughly $275 per frameset, the brand quickly obtained cult status.
Now that the company had successfully distinguished itself from the competition, it needed a distribution channel to reach its customers. Trek’s charter dealer was Penn Cycle, outside of nearby Minneapolis, Minnesota. Owner Elmer Sorenson recalled his first encounter with Trek. “One cold, winter, snowy, miserable February day some guy in an old rusty car drove up,” said Sorenson. “It was Bevel with a frame over each shoulder.”
“Road bikes were 75% of our business, and we were having some trouble with consistency of the Italian lines and a Californian line we were carrying. There was a need for a lightweight, advanced bike and Trek came through with it. And we liked the fact they were made in the USA."
Word of mouth spread and the company quickly gained market share from Japanese and European competitors. Trek’s most successful salesman at the time, Tom French, soon took leave to follow his girlfriend west. By coincidence, the Trek dealer base began spreading from Madison, Wisconsin to San Francisco, California. In just three years, sales had grown to over