Minneapolis lost a champion for cyclists when Jeremy Werst passed away on Saturday evening. If you caught a glimpse of a huge group of bikers rolling down the Greenway on Monday, know that was for him.
His family and friends know they lost an artist, a free thinker, a dreamer, and a man constantly at war with his own rocket-powered mind.
It was clear from the beginning that Jeremy was a little different. For one thing, he was smart. While growing up in Missoula, Montana, his parents advocated for a gifted and talented program at his school so he would be stimulated. He became a skilled violinist and took an interest in art. He especially loved the surreal, dreamlike world of Salvador Dali.
“That was the first time an artist made him feel like his brain wasn’t abnormal,” his sister Kim says. “He was on another level compared to the people around him.”
He joined his brother, Phil, in Minneapolis and got jobs working with computers and printing shops. Then, around 2002, Jeremy started getting into the biking scene. He joined a biking forum out of Chicago that had a small section for Twin Cities cyclists, and decided to start a Minneapolis site of its own.
That was the thing with Jeremy, Kim says – he was always bursting with ideas. So often she’d end conversations with him about a brand new plan or invention, only for him to look it up and find out it had already been patented.
But that site, MPLS Bike Love, would end up being making Werst a legend in the Twin Cities bike scene.
Bike Love was born in 2006, in a haze of Jameson and frustration with Jeremy’s printing job. In a 2010 interview with City Pages, he said he’d passed out while the files were uploading and awakened to find it already had its first few members.
The next few years were intense. Bike Love started with discussions about parts, brands, and routes, and progressed to planning large-group rides. It picked up momentum as thousands of members piled on, and it transformed from a love fest to a powerful lobbying force.
When four bikers died in a single month in 2008, Jeremy organized a memorial ride from St. Paul to Minneapolis, which turned into an army 300 strong. When a city construction project threatened to render the bike lanes on Hennepin and First Avenues practically invisible, Jeremy mounted a protest ride. He used the site to petition changes to another project on Bryant Avenue, and the City Council made them.
Bike Love was big. But Jeremy wanted it bigger. His dream was to one day run the site for a living, but it wasn’t happening fast enough. That was the spark, Kim says, that lit up a mental health breakdown that was years in the making.
All along, Jeremy had been self-medicating with cigarettes and alcohol, making himself sick, getting swept up in the website and neglecting his work. In 2010, Phillip and some close friends dropped by his apartment unannounced and found him in the middle of a manic episode. They called 911. Jeremy was involuntarily committed and diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Shortly after his release, he let go of Bike Love. It was too much. He told City Pages he’d gotten to a healthier place. Since then, he’s done volumes of volunteer work, using his prodigious talents as a web developer for other organizations in his galaxy of interests.
But in the last few years, Kim says, he was struggling again. He quit smoking and drinking, but he didn't feel any better. He’d waffle between alcohol, cigarettes, and his meds, experimenting with new treatments, trying to find the one thing that would make him happy.
Kim can’t help but wonder – along with the rest of Jeremy’s family – if things might have been different if he had better access to health care.
But in the end, she says, Jeremy was an alcoholic, and that’s what killed him. He was 43.
His family and friends set out to remember him in a way he would have wanted. Jeremy didn’t believe in an afterlife, Kim says – he was very no-nonsense about what would happen to his body after he died, and wouldn’t have wanted any talk about his soul or the hereafter at his memorial. But a while back, after she’d suffered a pretty nasty concussion on her bike, and during the semi-morbid conversation that followed, she’d asked him if he’d prefer to be buried back in Montana when the time came.
No, he’d said. Minneapolis had become his home.
On Monday, about 150 cyclists gathered in Powderhorn Park and took a ride together on the Greenway. They kept it short. Jeremy’s lungs and body had been weakened by years of smoking and accidents, and they wanted it to be a ride he could have participated in. They enjoyed a bright pink sunset, and a close friend brewed five gallons of Jeremy’s chai recipe, which he had often shared with friends as a nonalcoholic alternative when he was sober.
A more permanent memorial is in the works, Kim says. Those interested in contributing something simple – something that can be seen, say, by someone biking through Seward – should get in touch with the memorial bike ride’s Facebook page.