The first meeting of the Cascade Bicycle Club 40 years ago was convened by two brothers, Mike and Rick Quam, and took place in Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island, about seven miles from the REI flagship store where the club held its annual members' meeting a few weeks ago.
It's fairly easy to ride a bicycle from one place to the other, thanks in no small part to the culture of cycling cultivated by the club over the decades, as it grew from a gathering of 10 passionate enthusiasts into one of the largest, most politically active bicycle clubs in the country, with more than 13,000 members.
By the standards of any community organization, a very public rift that has developed recently over the leadership of the club and the firing of executive director Chuck Ayers is exceptional, but it's also perhaps inevitable for an organization of Cascade’s size and ambition.
Ayers’ firing, last month, did not surprise him but shocked his staff and those close to the club. It came after Ayers refused to fire the club's advocacy director, David Hiller, for a radical style punctuated by Hiller's statement that motorists who accidentally hit and kill bicyclists should be publicly hung by their toenails “until the buzzards peck their eyes out.”
Upon Ayers' firing, he was escorted out of the building he moved the club into 11 years ago. One week later, he was re-hired on an interim basis, to serve while the group's board searches for his replacement. The firing and the power struggle it has triggered could be interpreted as one sign of the growing pains that groups commonly endure.
“They’ve grown way beyond a bicycle club,” said former Cascade president Barbara Culp, now director of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington, an advocacy group started by a bunch of former Cascade members. “They probably shouldn’t call themselves a bicycle club anymore because they’re not.”
Although Cascade might be best known for its annual Seattle-to-Portland (STP) bicycle ride, it also devotes entire departments to education, advocacy, and politics. It holds classes, leads petition drives, and courts politicians. A board of 11 (it can have as few as nine and as many as 21) governs the organization, which operates on a $3.5 million annual budget and employs a staff of 24.
Cascade’s growth is indicative of the increasing power and relevance of all bicycle groups, said Jeffrey Miller, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Biking and Walking, a national coalition of which Cascade is a member. Helping the profile of such groups is their association with two particularly timely and passion-rousing issues: transportation and environmental conservation.
“The bicycle pedestrian movement has become much more influential than 15 years ago,” Miller said. “Cascade is really exemplary in terms of the amount of organization, how much sway it has, and involvement in its community. As a movement, our organizations have certainly been getting much more professional, much more engaged, and bicycling itself has certainly experienced a renaissance with movers and shakers. Bicycling is the new golf.”
Cascade has grown to represent a wide cross-section of the city, including large mainstream interests. The club’s Bike to Work Breakfast is attended by many elected officials and heads of major corporations, said Christopher Weiss, president of the board of directors, which fired then re-hired Ayers.
“That’s only one cross-section of the club, but it’s one that has a lot of support,” said Weiss, himself a member of the city establishment as a partner in the multi-state, corporate litigation firm, Stoel Rives.
The club also includes the same cross-section of bicyclists who take part in controversial "Critical Mass" bike rides, which have sometimes led to angry clashes between drivers and riders who intentionally block intersections as a show of solidarity. As Cascade has grown, so have its obligations to represent the interests of both its fringe and its center. Both Weiss and Ayers talk about the club as one big tent.
“The club is a grass-roots organization and that is not changing,” Weiss said. “There have been some suggestions that we’re heading in a more corporate direction. As our services grow, we will need even more employees working on our mission and vision, but that does not mean we’re moving toward a more corporate structure.”
Its current structure is a far cry, however, from the club’s humble beginnings.
Cascade’s 13,000 members make it the largest bicycle advocacy group on the West Coast; the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is No. 2 with 11,000 members. The Missoula, Mont.-based Adventure Cycling Association boasts 45,000 members, but it is a national club and typically does not take up issues and politics.
“It’s an interesting time,” said Jim Sayer, Adventure Cycling’s director. “Bike groups are growing and using different models. I think you’re going to see those growing pains as groups move forward.”
At Cascade, the mood in the office during the days between Ayers’ firing and re-hiring felt like “a hostile corporate takeover,” said one staff member who did not want to be identified.
“The board is out of touch,” said longtime member and volunteer Kenny Hamm, owner of the mobile bike repair service, The Bicycle Doctor. “They did not take into consideration the history of what Chuck and David have done for the club. They’ve done more for the bicycling community than anybody in the history of the club.”
While Hamm considers himself a "radical" as well as a friend to Ayers and the staff, he is not alone in his sentiments, many of which were voiced at the annual meeting by other members, who heckled Weiss and others who took the podium.
“The first half of the meeting went really well, then I think it went downhill from there,” said Ayers, who has a “gentleman’s agreement” with the board to serve as executive director for at least six more months, during which the board will conduct a national search for Ayers’ replacement, with, it says, input from staff and members.
“Right now morale is incredibly high,” Ayers said. “The staff is completely on task, on board, and doing the work they’re expected to do.” Still, he acknowledged, his dismissal last month caused wounds that have yet to heal.
“Some of the board members burned bridges with the staff,” Ayers said. “There’s a lot of distrust and a lack of confidence. We’re trying to build that back up… When they fired me … they made that decision in a vacuum. Mistrust seeped into that vacuum.”
Ayers has led the club since 1997 and has overseen much of its growth; as a result, he has the loyalty of many members and the staff. Weiss declined to discuss the reasons for Ayers’ dismissal, calling them a “personnel matter,” but conceded that “there is some healing that needs to go on.”
Ayers was more forthcoming about his differences with the board. As with most rifts, public and personal, this one is complex but seems to boil down to his style and approach as the head of the club. The board is “looking for a more politically correct attitude,” Ayers said. “They think we could be more effective in our politics and coalition building if we weren’t out there making off-the-wall comments.”
He was, more or less, referring to the comments made by Hiller, whom Ayers hired in 2003. The board took exception after Hiller, in a January article by Eli Sanders in The Stranger, said this about motorists who hit and kill bicyclists: “I’d love to hang these people up by their toenails at the edge of town and paint ‘killer’ across their chest and let them hang there until the buzzards peck their eyes out.”
Ayers said he received only one complaint from a member about the comment.
“That doesn’t mean I condone it or that David feels good about it,” he said, “but it is much less damaging to our image than the board felt.”
He added: “What we have done together far outweighs the negative repercussions of the comments (Hiller) made. The board would disagree."
Hiller, who considers Sanders a friend, intended the comment to be taken as sarcasm and hyperbole. Hiller declined to comment on rift between the board and the staff except to say the “staff are still at their desks working hard for our members and constituents. Between budgets, elections, and other critical work, we are striving to put the distractions of the last few weeks aside and get back to the business of creating more and safer places to ride.”
Cascade is perhaps best known for its rides, not just big ones like the STP and the Chilly Hilly but hundreds of smaller, daily rides coordinated by volunteers. Shortly after Ayers took over, the club established its Cascade Bicycle Club Education Foundation as a separate charity. The club also formed BikePAC as its political arm so that it could court the favor of politicians and participate in political campaigns. A few weeks ago, Cascade hosted Rep. Jay Inslee in a fundraiser for BikePAC, which also endorses political candidates.
“To have all that under one roof is a huge advantage,” said Ayers.
Its complexity is the club’s strength, but also makes it beholden to a wider set of interests than other clubs. Its most vocal members might be long-haired free spirits, but the organization also must manage affiliations with very mainstream, conventional concerns. (Using just the board as an example, in addition to Weiss’ position at Stoel Rives, board vice president Peter Morgan is an executive at Group Health; treasurer Dave White works for King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks.)
“Cascade is an anomaly in the biking world,” said Rob Sadowsky, newly named executive director of Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), more of a pure advocacy group. “In some ways they have parlayed this large constituency into a membership base that asks for improvements and policy changes. Some of us would love to have more than 10,000 members, but it may present some conflicting missions… How much are they about riding, how much are they about advocacy? How do you split priorities, and what is the role of board?”
Sadowsky's hiring represented a change in leadership not unlike the one underway at Cascade. BTA, too, has grown from a folksy, local organization into a sophisticated, political entity. Tom Miller, the chief of staff to Portland Mayor Sam Adams, is a former member of the BTA board and an avid cyclist; Adams’ transportation director, Catherine Ciarlo, is a former executive director of the BTA.
Ex-director Scott Bricker, who had been with the BTA for 11 years, was fired about a year ago and replaced by Sadowsky. Now acting director of America Walks, a national coalition, Bricker said he has no hard feelings, and he acknowledged that Sadowsky's long history with nonprofits will serve the BTA well.
“When I started we were a real scrappy organization,” Bricker said. “We moved to an organization that was not just a rally, burn-the-bra organization, or one that showed up in yellow jackets and blinky lights. We were in wool coats and ties; we were at the table. With that comes power and with that comes responsibility.”
Who will shepherd Cascade in the long term is unclear. Ayers credited “membership outcry” with getting the board to temporarily reinstate him and at least “re-think the process.” Ayers said the board has no plans to fire Hiller or any other members of the staff, but he admitted Hiller is “worried about his job, if and when I leave.” It is conceivable that Ayers’ popularity will keep him in place, although Weiss reiterated that replacing him is in the “best interests” of the club; Ayers said he will abide by his agreement to step down some time after March.
“Traditionally, the board was made up of dedicated volunteers, people who came up through the ranks of volunteering, the STP, or maybe advocacy education,” Ayers said. “We found we weren’t doing a good job of expressing what skills we needed at the board level; we just had activists running for the board. That changed when we added lawyers, CPAs, people connected to the environmental or public health community. What we left off, much to my chagrin now, were people who knew the history of Cascade, the staff of Cascade. We floated away from that.
“We have a board that is very dedicated and puts a lot of hours in, but they don’t have a historical knowledge of the club, a sense of the culture of the club, and that has hurt the board and hurt the club. I think the board has swung the pendulum too far… That has created a lot of misunderstanding and angst…and among the membership a sense of feeling somewhat disenfranchised.”
What Ayers and Weiss agree on is the mission of the club, even if they disagree on its methods.
“The club wants to bring cycling into the mainstream of our communities,” Weiss said. “We want to ride with traffic; we don’t want to interrupt it or take over traffic. That might mean road diets, that might mean bike lanes and sharrows. That’s going to create friction points between cyclists and motorists. Cycling is part of the solution; it’s not the solution.”