Dave Schlabowske

I have been asked a few times since I started this blog to tell the story of how I got into bicycling.  If you are bored hearing about me, this is your warning to change the channel now. No information about mode shares or Dutch bicycles will follow. Thanks to Linsey for scanning some old photos at the last minute.

Me and the boys on a patrol up the Rio Escondido in Nicaragua. I did not bother retouching the scratches on this old photo.

I was a professional photographer in my former life.  I did primarily editorial and news work.  My clients included wire services like United Press International and the Associated Press. I did regional work for national news magazines like Time and Newsweek (I was a “C” shooter, never in the “A” class doing glam cover shoots). I also shot for newspapers, both local and national.  I shot for a ton of trade and business magazines (guys in ties stuff).  I did some fun stuff for the likes of Milwaukee Magazine, Art Muscle and some other funky mags.  But what I enjoyed shooting most were personal documentary projects. These were all self funded trips to places like Nicaragua to work for a Sandinista newspaper, to the garbage dump in Guatemala City, photographing Wisconsin Native American Elders, etc. Most of my photographic heros shot Tri-X forMagnum Photo.

Me back when people used film, light tables and lupes. Photo courtesy of my old Minnesota Daily pal Geoff Hansen. Click on the photo to see his work (with chickens).

The business of photography changed dramatically from the time I started shooting in the mid-eighties to when I quit shooting (twice) and to the present.  It became harder and harder to make a living shooting news and almost every documentary shooter I knew had to supplement editorial stuff with advertising.  I was never into the “art” of photography, more the power of photography to improve social equity, so the advertising stuff was just not my thing.  I tried, and I tried to fake like I enjoyed it.  But I knew I was transparent when a model I was shooting for a Jim Beam project told me it did not look like I was having any fun.  That started me thinking that I needed to find another gig.

Where we going drinking after the game boys?

I shot for about 15 years and during that time I would work odd hours, traveled a lot, lived by a pager (remember those?) and often ended up going out with other photogs at night.  I was not an alcoholic, but I was smoking three packs of Vantage cigarettes a day and drinking a few beers and driving home almost every night.  Eventually I figured the odds of me hurting somebody were getting too high to ignore.  So I went to Wheel and Sprocket to by an inexpensive Trek 830 mountain bike with a rack on it so I could go out after shooting a job and bike home to my studio without killing anyone.

I really enjoyed my vampiric bicycle life.  I made a point to take odd routes, poke around the dark corners of Milwaukee and explore places I had never seen in a car. When friends found out I had a mountain bike they asked me to go with them to the “single track” Kettle Moraine. I had little idea what single track was and I would usually respond: ”Uh, you don’t understand, I have not put on a pair of shorts of any kind in about 15 years. That is not what this is about.”  Anyway, I kept rolling around from bar to bar and home again at night, cig hanging from my lower lip, camera bag on my rack.  People kept bugging me to go to the Kettles, and eventually I caved.

Me and my Triumph Herald photographed by a fountain in a cemetary. I did not see the connection back then.

Turned out I really liked mountain biking and I started doing it a lot on my own.  Before I knew it, I was lugging my big Motorola brick cell phone in my back jersey pocket (freelancers can’t miss a call) and riding in mtb trails in the Kettles 3-5 days a week. Eventually I realized I could not keep up my cigarette habit (as much as I loved those old “mod” Vantage soft packs) and ride like I wanted to.  So over time I tapered off and eventually broke my cigarette addiction.

I also stopped going out every night, so I could wake up early enough to hit the Kettles and still shoot a baseball or basketball game in the evening.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am no saint these days, but I haven’t bought a pack of smokes in more years than I can remember, and I only go out to a bar a once or twice a week instead of seven.

About the same time I began to make a conscious effort to reduce my driving for environmental reasons (reasons I learned in the woods of the Kettle Moraine), and dislike the amount of driving I had to do.  I specifically remember being stuck in traffic on my way to Chicago one day to shoot some guy in a tie and thinking about a BMW ad that bragged about the charcoal air filtration system that left the air inside your beemer fresh and clean.  I realized I was part of the problem not the solution, no matter how many meaningful documentaries I shot.  I remember thinking I wanted to be the kind of person I wanted to take photographs of, not a person taking photographs of people I admired.  So I quit, just like that (ask my wife).

Mine was white with purple decals. I added purple Onza bar ends and a rack.

I embraced the bike lifestyle as fully as I could.  I began racing. My resting heart rate was below 50. I bought a lugged Bridgestone XO-1(Hopp!). I went to work for Waterford Precision Cycles as a builder. Then I worked for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, and now I am the Milwaukee Bike Czar. I’m not sure I can truly say that Trek 830 Antelope with the 80s white splatter paint and purple anodized bar ends saved my life, but there is a pretty good chance I would have lung cancer or at least emphysema right now if I had continued to smoke three packs a day.

I don’t know where that Trek 830 is today, but I know I am a better person for having ridden it.

At 48 years of age, I walked a long and twisty road to get to the Christiania factory in Copenhagen.


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