Tour de France puts Trek, tours on the map

The three-week Tour de France has begun, and that makes Trek Bicycle Corp. an especially appropriate place to visit.

It costs nothing to tour the nation’s biggest bicycle manufacturing company, best known for providing the road bikes that helped make Lance Armstrong a seven-time Tour de France winner.

Bike frames and wheels are made in Waterloo (Jefferson County). Drive trains and the final products come together about 45 minutes south, in Whitewater (Walworth County).

Trek, in South African language, means “long journey,” and the company has been on an amazing path since its work began in a barn near Waterloo in 1976. Its first road racing model came out in 1982, and Armstrong signed on with Trek in 1997, two years before winning his first Tour de France.

Carbon technology produces ultralight but strong bike frames that exceed aerospace standards for manufacturing. The same models on the Tour de France circuit today are sold to the public. At the low end of price are bikes for children. Prices range from about $300 to $10,000.

Manuela Christian and Waelti Robyr of Switzerland were on my tour of the company. “We are active bikers,” he said, to explain what brought them to Trek. Manuela worked as a nanny in Wisconsin 15 years ago; they had returned to the U.S. for a wedding.

Elementary school kids, also on the tour, were far from bored. They want to touch the bikes, see where Trek employees work, hear how the newest Trek road bike (an updated Madone, named after a hill in southern France) was kept a top-secret project before its unveiling in June.

We learn about, but don’t see, the rugged trails nearby that are used for bike testing. They are too dangerous to open to the public. Also off-limits are the test labs.

At the Waterloo headquarters is an atrium whose walls are filled with yellow jerseys and mounted bikes that Armstrong used in his seven Tour de France wins. The assortment includes the bike that he crashed during the 2003 race.

In the lobby is a summary of Trek company history, which includes key bike equipment.

Trek employees dress casually, are rewarded for bicycling to work, have their own exercise room with easily more than a dozen choices in apparatus. The fitness room is open 24/7, and employees also get free health screenings.

Free one-hour tours of Trek plant in Waterloo typically begin at 10 a.m. Wednesday and Friday, but call 920-478-4678 to make sure a tour is being given.

Tours of the Whitewater factory are by appointment on weekdays. Call 262-473-8735 at least five days before visiting.

Visitors must wear closed-toe shoes in order to enter the factory.

For more about Trek Bicycle Corp.:, 920-478-2191. The Waterloo headquarters is at 801 W. Madison St., which is Hwy. 19.

Trek doesn’t limit itself to simply selling bikes. An offshoot of the company designs vacation itineraries – ways to ride around parts of the world in a small group, at an athletic to leisurely pace.

Trek Travel destinations include Europe (especially Italy and France), New Zealand, Costa Rica, the Canadian Rockies and various U.S. locations (such as Hawaii, Vermont, California).

These excursions are not for the budget-minded, but they provide an up-close look at another landscape and/or culture. Riding terrain will depend upon the destination chosen. Groups are no larger than 20.

Support staff and tour guides are prepared to accommodate couples whose bike-riding skills and interests don’t match. So one can sweat up the Tour de France hills while the other begins shopping or wine tasting after just a mile or two of riding.

A six-day domestic trip averages $2,600. European trips range from $2,800 to $4,300. A 35-day trip across the United States, based on double occupancy, and leaving Sept. 17, costs $10,000.

Airfare to the destination is not included, but lodging, most meals – and use of a Trek bike – are a part of the deal. For more:, 866-464-8735.

Extended until September: “Designing the Ride,” an exhibit at The Eisner American Museum of Advertising and Design, Milwaukee, about how Trek makes bicycles, from designer sketches to marketing of the final product.

Most space is devoted to details about the LeMond road bike, Fat Possum mountain bike and Lime commuter bike.

It’s a way to learn about the company’s work philosophy, too. “From the beginning one of the project goals was ‘no BS.’ This meant no gimmicks, tricks or superfluous features on the bike,” the company explains, in the exhibit, to describe LeMond initiative and research.

For more:, 414-847-3290. The museum is at 208 N. Water St., in Milwaukee’s Third Ward downtown.