By Jesse Marx
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By CP Staff
In 2007, Werst was certain that his excessive smoking and drinking was killing him. He was throwing up blood regularly. He checked into detox for an addiction to alcohol.
The program took, but getting sober wasn't enough to quiet Werst's stormy head. He still had trouble holding down a steady job. He found occasional work, but nothing sustainable.
Then Werst had a moment of clarity: He would find a way to monetize Bike Love.
Werst became a salesmen. He set up meetings with all the major cycling organizations in town—the Midtown Greenway, the Minneapolis Bicycling Coalition—and lobbied for sponsorships.
Werst's proposal was a full-scale upgrade to Bike Love. Users would have a personalized profile page, similar to Facebook, that would direct them to specific news and discussion topics tailored to their preferences.
Bicycling advocates in different cities could purchase the concept and replicate it. By Werst's math, if he got the sponsors he needed, the Minneapolis site alone could generate more than $300,000 every year.
"So each city would then end up generating about that much," says Werst.
The most promising source of funding seemed to be Transit for Livable Communities, a state- and federally funded bicycling advocacy group. TLC had just been awarded $22.5 million from Congress. Steve Clark, TLC's walking and bicycling program manager, was already an admirer.
"I kept hearing about Mpls Bike Love," Clark recalls. "If you really want to find out about what's happening in the Minneapolis biking community, that's where you go. I thought it was pretty cool."
Werst met with Clark several times to discuss how TLC could help fund Bike Love. Clark says he wanted to find a way to make it work, but the grant came with too many strings attached.
"We couldn't figure out a way to make it happen and still allow it to be the great instrument that it is," says Clark. "It just seems like there would be too many constraints."
The string of rejections weighed heavily on Werst and added to his anxiety.
"I would get very, very invested and very agitated and very up, and then I would just crash," says Werst. "It was getting further and higher each time."
Werst turned to the forum users for donations. By now he had more than 4,000 members and, considering the long hours he was putting in, he thought it was about time they started kicking in.
Some thought it was a reasonable request.
"It's his forum, his blood, his sweat, his tears," says Tad Salyards, a daily user. "I don't hold it against him whatsoever."
Others weren't so amenable. As forum members discovered the money was going to pay Werst's living expenses—not server bills and site maintenance, as some presumed—they started asking questions.
"I was sort of like, 'Are we paying for you not being able to make rent?'" remembers Stuart Raymond, a University of Minnesota employee who donated $40 to Werst. "It got pretty heated. It was an ugly time in the history of Bike Love."
On May 31, Werst's brother Phillip and some close friends showed up at his apartment unannounced. They asked him what he'd been doing.
In response, Werst showed them the video he was editing. It begins with Werst wearing a mask and identifying himself a bicycle terrorist. He claimed to hold the power to change the world with eight letters.
"It was eight letters, and it wasn't even saying what the eight letters were," says Werst. "It was B-I-K-E-L-O-V-E and B-I-K-E-H-A-T-E. And basically, just like, eight blank spaces would be enough for me to create a video that would convince Ray Lahood and Senator Oberstar and possibly Obama to come out and see what was going wrong in the No. 1 bike city in the United States."
He went on to claim that his bike was a symbol that represented the entire Twin Cities bike culture. If he locked his bike up at a construction site, that meant the project had been vetoed and could not move forward.
After only a few minutes of watching, Phillip called 911.
Minneapolis police officers were at Werst's door by 4 p.m. At first, he refused to cooperate. He wanted to stay inside, for everyone to leave him alone and allow him to sleep.
"I just wanted to go back inside of my house and mellow out," Werst says. "I was hauled away in handcuffs, shot full of a bunch of drugs."
Werst was committed involuntarily to the psychiatric wing of a Hennepin County Medical Center. Doctors diagnosed him with bipolar disorder.
Shortly after the hospital released Werst, he knew what he had to do. On September 4, Werst put Bike Love up for sale on eBay with a starting bid of $10,000.
Knowing that this would be controversial, Werst set up a camera in his living room and recorded a message to forum members.
"I read a comment last night to the effect of 'Will the drama ever cease?'" Werst says on the video. "This is why I'm selling the forum, because the drama will never, ever cease for me."
Werst went on to read a passage from a medical book that described the daily struggle of living with bipolar disorder. He couldn't bear the responsibility of running the website on top of it.