Paul Lebelle and Adam Burkowske were like most kids and spent their childhood on bikes.
Memories of cruising around the neighborhoods and local parks come all too easily for them, but both of their families also had active military backgrounds and with the country's increasing involvement in the Middle East and Afghanistan, they began to recognize a problem.
There were a lot of kids who belonged to military families who did not have this luxury. Thus Bike Free was born; a 5,000 mile non-profit, fund-raising bike ride across, up and down the United States which will ultimately deliver 1,000 bicycles and helmets to children of our deployed military personnel by Christmas time.
When I met up with Paul to talk about his first month on the bike he was running two hours behind. While Milwaukee has lately been enjoying its fair share of daily warm, sunny weather, his trip up from Chicago last night was marked with severe thunderstorms. Nevertheless, he was still in good spirits.
OnMilwaukee.com: So why did you specifically decide to benefit military children?
Paul Lebelle: Well, of all the kids who could use a bike at the moment we figured the children of our military could use the fun and joy that comes with a bike. About the same time Adam and I came up with the idea of Bike Free it was about the same time that President Obama was calling for more troops to be deployed in Afghanistan. A lot of those troops have been deployed three, four, sometimes even five times. That's a lot. In the history of American warfare no troops have ever been deployed that frequently.
OMC: It's gotta be hard to see your parents get on that plane once, let alone multiple times.
PL: We can only imagine how the kids must be feeling. It's a lot of stress to be putting on a kid and nobody asked these kids if it was okay that their mom and dad were risking their lives.
OMC: Did you have any experience with family in the military?
PL: Both of my grandfathers were in the military. One of my grandfathers was in the naval academy; he served in World War II. My other grandfather's brother was in Iwo Jima, stormed the beaches and actually died in Iwo Jima and received the purple heart. I've also got a couple of uncles who've served in Vietnam. Adam's brother is now in the Navy and his farther and uncle served in Vietnam. That's what I remember, but he actually has a larger military lineage than myself.
OMC: Why did you decide to ride in support of this cause?
PL: We really just love to ride our bicycles. We thought it would be a good way to spread the word as we roll through towns to let people know what we're doing and just show them how much fun we're having!
OMC: And you're still having fun after how many miles?
PL: At this point we've gone nine hundred and...some odd miles, just under a thousand. We're going to be doing just over five thousand total, if not more.
OMC: How have your experiences been over the last month?
PL: I can't really pick out any one experience because there's been so many of them. The amount of hospitality and generosity that we've received out on the road has absolutely floored me.
There was one occasion when we were rolling through Ohio when we hit a road where we couldn't pass anymore. We had to turn on back and take a new route so we stopped at a church to fill up our water bottles. One of the ladies saw our bikes and asked if we needed a place to stay for the night.
Her daughter and son-in-law apparently hosted touring cyclists all the time and she said they would love to have us. We thought it was just going to be a place to pitch tents, but within minutes they were whipping up a meal of spaghetti with meat sauce and fresh green beans from their garden. She baked us brownies that night too! We had a nice bed to sleep in, a hot shower.
The gentleman asked us if we needed any supplies and we said that yeah so he took us out there. He was getting groceries for himself so we offered to buy the food for him and he said "No, no. You put your stuff with mine. I got your supplies." So he bought us about a hundred dollars of new supplies. He bought Adam a new tent. They were just very, very generous.
And that's only one example; I could tell you a dozen stories of the generosity we've received.
OMC: The bicycle seems to be the chosen method of championing a cause, whether it be for the arts, cancer, or kids. Why do you think that is?
PL: There are a lot of good draws to it. There is something very liberating about the bike. Something very empowering. You're a free man. You can pick up and go wherever you want and do whatever you want and you feel good riding your bike. It's hard to feel bad when you're on your bike. It's a fun experience. That sort of joy helps to foster all these good causes and help them to grow.
OMC: I always thought it was more of a suffering for the cause. You put yourself out there as a means of putting yourself in another person's shoes.
PL: There is the pain and sacrifice that you have to do. I mean Adam and I both had to quit our jobs. We saved up money eating rice and beans and tuna fish sandwiches, penny pinching the whole way so that we could do this. That is definitely another way to look at it, but the aching muscles at the end of the night? It's not that bad knowing that you're doing it for such a wonderful cause and bring joy and happiness to another person's life. That makes it all worth while.
OMC: So what kind of bike are you riding?
PL: It's a Cannondale T2. I'm really enjoying it. It's about four pounds lighter than the steel bikes I was looking at, like the Surly Longhaul Truckers. They're great bikes and very, very comfortable, but since we're going five thousand miles, the one to two mile an hour difference we can achieve just by having a lighter bike, ya know that's ten or fifteen miles a day extra that we can cover much more quickly.
OMC: How did you decide to stop in Milwaukee?
PL: It seems like there's a really good bike scene in Wisconsin in general. Milwaukee is more of a blue collar town so we thought you might have more service members out fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan right now. We really just want to spread the word to a lot of people; we've got interviews on CBS, Fox, The Journal Sentinel and of course you guys. We want to get to the major cities, because once we get through South Dakota and Wyoming and Montana we're not going to be getting to the larger cities until we hit the west coast and go to Seattle and then all the way down.
OMC: What do you think of our fair city so far?
PL: I'm loving Milwaukee. It feels like Baltimore's cousin.
OMC: That's good, right?
PL: Baltimore is a great town and so far my experiences in Milwaukee have been marvelous.
Jason McDowell grew up in central Iowa and moved to Milwaukee in 2000 to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
In 2006 he began working with OnMilwaukee as an advertising designer, but has since taken on a variety of rolls as the Creative Director, tackling all kinds of design problems, from digital to print, advertising to branding, icons to programming.
In 2016 he picked up the 414 Digital Star of the Year award.
Most other times he can be found racing bicycles, playing board games, or petting dogs.