COON VALLEY, WIS. -- Chris Jackson grew up on a bike in Milwaukee and just kept pedaling until he climbed to the top of the cycling apparel industry.
Jackson, now 38, has built Mt. Borah Designs, named after the highest point in Idaho and located in tiny Coon Valley in Vernon County. Borah, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, has become one of the leading makers of apparel for cycling, Nordic skiing and other outdoor activities.
You can see Borah's jerseys and shorts on cyclists during Super Week in the Milwaukee area. You'll find them on cyclists at many of the big races around the country and world. Indonesia and Great Britain are just two places mentioned as markets in Borah's promotional literature.
Just last August, you also might have seen them at the "Tour de Crawford" in Texas. President George W. Bush and famed cyclist Lance Armstrong wore Borah jerseys on the bike tour of Bush's ranch.
"It was very rewarding," said Jackson. "The ladies who do our sewing especially were excited about it."
Neither Jackson nor others from Borah talked about it for weeks, at the request of the White House. When the order was placed for the 12 jerseys, the White House contact said the President could not be seen as "endorsing one company over another." Then, after months had passed, Jackson believed he could talk about it without giving away any national secrets.
"I have no idea how they tracked us down, but we got the call out of the blue," Jackson said of the order from the White House. "We turned it around in a couple weeks. We didn't say anything for a long time, but I think it's well after the fact now."
Borah has a story that goes beyond the Tour de Crawford. In the last two years, the company has experienced 60 percent growth each year and now produces 80,000 units per year between Mount Borah Designs, which sells through bike stores and other retail outlets, and custom sublimation apparel for cycling, runners, cross country and Nordic skiing and other markets.
"We projected 35 percent growth, which I thought was pretty aggressive, but we've had 60 percent," said Jackson. "I see almost unlimited markets for us to expand into over time, but we want to be tactful on how we grow."
Borah has grown in part through its reputation as a maker of quality products at reasonable prices and in part because of the sublimation process. The company uses a digital printing system and rotary heat press machine rather than the conventional silk screening process.
The sublimation process dyes the fabric with color and does not cover it with ink. The latter process makes it difficult for the fabric to "breathe."
"You want air and moisture to pass through," Jackson said of the fabric. "The person wearing the product is more comfortable and you don't get the peeling or flaking that comes with ink on the fabric."
The process also allows the company to turn around their products quicker and do smaller runs. Borah will produce as few as six jerseys. The average custom order is around 20.
In addition to more than 500 bike stores and outlets around the county, Quality Bicycle Products, the largest bicycle products distributor in the world, distributes Borah products. They also can be purchased through the company's web site at http://www.mtborah.com.
A large percentage of the customized sublimation business is with corporations and other groups that want apparel for specific cycling and other events. Jackson's company has made a lot of jerseys for MS benefit cycling events around the country.
Jackson went from Milwaukee to college at UW-La Crosse. After his graduation in 1992, Jackson sold copy machines in the Twin Cities for a short time and then became an independent sales representative for a variety of bicycle-related products.
Through that job, he got to know many retailers and others involved in the cycling industry. He saw a niche in apparel and started Mount Borah Designs in the Twin Cities in 1995, while still working as the rep.
The company's first product was a baggy bicycling short with padded Lycra shorts sewn inside, designed largely for mountain and over-the-road biking. Those remain Borah's bestseller today because they allow the comfortable ride of Lycra while also not looking out of place in public.
Jackson moved from the Twin Cities to La Crosse in 1997 and a year later to Coon Valley. "I knew the area well from my days in college," Jackson said. "I knew this was a great area to ride bikes with the bluffs and hills. We have great farm roads here where you can ride and hardly ever see a car. So, I thought it would be a great spot to locate the business."
The Midwest in general is a great place for cycling, Jackson said. "You have great terrain throughout the region," he said. "The Super Week competition in the Milwaukee area has become a first class event.
"We've also found Wisconsin a great place to do business in. You hear so much about how hard it is to find good help, but we have a dedicated team of employees. For somebody who grew up loving cycling, this could not have worked out better."