Mpls Bike Love creator Jeremy Werst's vicious cycle
Jeremy Werst can't pinpoint exactly where he lost his mind.
On a November afternoon, he sits in front of a computer in the living room of his one-bedroom Powderhorn Park apartment, nervously shaking his leg against the base of an office chair.
"I know that I was very, very worked up," says Werst, glancing off distractedly. "I know that I was exceptionally manic, that everything was falling apart for me, that the world did not make any sense."
Werst is the founder of Mpls Bike Love, an online forum where cyclists gather to discuss all things related to the bicycling culture of the Twin Cities. In just four years, the site accumulated more than 4,300 members, many of whom check the site several times daily.
Somewhere in the site's short history, Bike Love became more than just a forum for discussion. It became a lobbying force capable of convening protests and flooding the phones of the City Council. It became a means for the city's diverse culture of cyclists to connect.
This February, when Bicycling Magazine's Steve Friedman named Minneapolis the best city for bicyclists in the country, Bike Love was among the deciding factors. "In my mind, that is why it's so great," says Friedman.
But as Bike Love's popularity rose over the years, so did Werst's anxiety. Werst's mania came to overwhelm his daily life until he could no longer hold down a job.
At a time when he had the ear of politicians, he sold his own bike just to make rent.
This past summer, his manic thoughts and obsession with the site climaxed, resulting in him being hauled away in handcuffs.
"I didn't really recognize the depth of what it was doing to me."
In 2005, Werst worked the third shift at a printing shop in downtown Minneapolis. The job afforded him a few minutes every hour to steal away from the printing machines and surf the internet. On those occasions, he would invariably peruse the fixed-gear subset of Bikeforums.net, a national forum for bicyclists.
Werst had problems with the Bikeforums site. For one, moderators heavily censored the content. The site also limited conversation to the subject of fixed-gears.
By the summer of 2006, Werst had started picking up more responsibilities at the printing shop, working with new computer software. He was happy for the added workload, until the day his boss called him into his office to explain that the raise would be for far less than what Werst had expected.
"I was like, 'Okay, fuck you guys," remembers Werst. "'I'm going to take my week's vacation now,' and I walked out the door."
Werst biked back to his apartment and spent the next few days drinking. Whiskey was Werst's medication of choice in those days—Jameson, specifically. He downed a few 1.75 liter jugs every week.
Somewhere in the haze, Werst decided he would use his newfound free time to build a website that would be an alternative to the bike forums he and his friends spent so much time visiting.
The site would be simple. It would have a place for general discussion, a place to give tips on different kinds of rides, a place to buy and sell equipment, a place to post pictures of nice bikes—a.k.a. "bike porn." Basically, it would be a place for Werst and his friends to hang out online.
He had even thought of a name, an homage to the collection of short independent biking films: From Portland with Bike Love.
"I was like, 'Okay, I could do that in my sleep,'" remembers Werst. "So I basically did do it in my sleep. I passed out while the files were uploading."
When he awoke, he was surprised to see that the site already had its first members.
Werst was quick to take advantage of his sudden audience.
When four bikers died in a single month, he rallied hundreds for a group ride to commemorate them. When a city construction project made the bike lanes on Hennepin and First Avenues almost invisible, he organized a protest ride. He used the site to petition for changes to a project on Bryant Avenue; the City Council ultimately kicked it back to a review board, which solved the problems Werst had identified.
"There are elements of the bike community that don't easily engage with the system, don't really engage with government," explains City Councilmember Robert Lilligren. "With the internet, you can kind of engage without having to be part of the city administration, to be part of government. And I think the bike community here does that very, very well, and I think Bike Love is really big part of that."
As the forum grew in popularity, Werst grew increasingly obsessed with it.
Bike Love replaced meals. It replaced sleeping. He became convinced his work would change the world.
"I felt like I was given a mission," says Werst. "It was something that was going to get us to stop driving automobiles; it was something that was going to be the catalyst for change in bringing us into a new environmental utopia."
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.
"I no longer feel like I can be trusted having the keys to the megaphone," Werst concluded. "It's true I could keep running the forum for free, for nothing, forever. But I don't want to do that."
When Bike Love hit eBay, it quickly caught the attention of Ben McCoy, the co-founder of Bicycle Theory, a Minneapolis-based graphic design and web development firm that serves a nationwide client base.
"The planets sort of aligned, as they say," explains Bjorn Christianson, a staff member and close friend of Werst's.
Bicycle Theory purchased Bike Love in late September. Due to the terms of the agreement, McCoy can't say how much they paid for it. Christianson and McCoy say they have some ideas in mind for the forum, but all are too premature at this point to mention. They hope to a find a way to make the forum financially sustainable without drowning the content in advertisements.
But for the most part, they just want to continue to let the site evolve naturally. Being a marketing firm, they have no interest in pushing a political agenda with the forum like Werst did.
"While we fully support bike advocacy, that's not really what we want to do with it," says Christianson.
When the conversation shifts to the topic of his future, Werst leans back and relaxes. He stops shaking his foot against the chair.
Werst is in a transition period. He is now receiving treatment for his condition, and he's in a much better place mentally than he has been in years. He hardly even looks at Bike Love.
Between selling the site and occasional freelance work from his new web design business, he has earned enough money to live on for now. But he fears that if he doesn't find something sustainable soon, he may have to move back to his hometown of Missoula, Montana.
Though Bike Love is behind him, Werst still rides his bike every day. He has not budged on what became the central message of the site.
"Bicycles can totally change everything about our world," says Werst. "If there was one thing that was going to fix most of our problems, it would be getting rid of cars and bicycling more, just because of the way that it changes people's perceptions."
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