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Saris Gala: Low-Key Fundraiser Raises Thousands for Cycling in Wisconsin

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The Saris Gala has become known not only within the state of Wisconsin but throughout the bicycling industry nationwide as the single biggest one-day fundraiser for bicycling and bike transportation community advocacy, having raised over a quarter of a million dollars to help build bike paths, provide bicycles to low-income youth, teach cyclists how to ride safely on mixed-use streets, and initiate other bicycling-related transportation projects. On the eve of the 2011 Saris Gala Focal Flame Photography writer Robyn M. Perrin took a look back at the 2010 event. Amanda White, Associate Director of the Bicycle Federation with Wisconsin, shared the story of how the Gala came to be. Highlights from 2010 included remarks by the celebrity guest Phil Liggett, the internationally renowned cycling commentator whose animated voiceovers of the Tour de France and other grand tours have made him known as “The Voice of Cycling”. 

When you think of a gala fundraiser, images of cocktail dresses and petite appetizers on serving trays might come to mind. But for the annual Saris Gala, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Saris Gala, you see, is held in a warehouse. The Saris Cycling Group warehouse, to be specific, which is adjacent to the plant in which bicycle racks and storage systems, trainers, and power meters are manufactured. Owned by Chris and Sara Fortune (the company name was chosen as a blending of their own first names), Saris Cycling Group is passionate about advocating for bicycling and helping to create safe places for people to bike.

“Chris Fortune started the Saris Gala 7 years ago,” said Amanda White, Associate Director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, during a 2010 interview. Wanting to do something unique to support bicycling in Wisconsin, Fortune held a party in the Saris facilities. The first Gala was a low-key affair with pizza and beer shared by bicycling enthusiasts in the city. Since then, it has grown tremendously. “Chris has been very, very dedicated to supporting bicycling through the Saris Gala,” said White. “He not only opens the company headquarters to the party, but also dedicates quite a lot of his staff to the planning of the event. His daughter, Heather, took on a lot of the planning.”

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With time and dedication, the Saris Gala has become the biggest single-day bicycling fundraising event in the nation and has hosted cycling celebrities of international stature. Over 650 people attended the 2010 Gala, which raised over $95,000 – including $20,000 that was critically needed for a dollar-for-dollar challenge grant to fund Safe Routes to Schools. Funds were raised not only from the main event – which included a costume party in keeping with the Halloween theme – but also from a silent auction, a live auction, and a VIP dinner hosted by the Fortunes.

The 2010 Gala celebrity guest Phil Liggett shared stories of running into Jonathan “Jock” Boyer on a train headed to the Commonwealth Games. Boyer had begun coaching the first-ever professional cycling team from Rwanda, and Boyer had recruited promising athletes from the streets. Few if any had ever ridden a bicycle before. From this story, Liggett regaled the audience with stories about Lance Armstrong during the Tour de France, the lifestyle of commentators on the road, and anecdotes about celebrity cycling fans from Cameron Diaz to Robin Williams. But Ligget’s passion for the sport of cycling was exemplified not by his tales of interacting with celebrities and professional athletes but by explaining the sport to his elderly neighbor, Peggy. Nearly blind but yet continuing to enjoy playing as an amateur golfer, she confessed that she didn’t understand the intrigue of pro cycling. “I realized that if I could convince Peggy to like cycling, I could convince the world to like cycling…and she ended up watching [and listening to] cycling coverage all the time, right up until the day she died.”

The bicycling community tends to eschew formality and, true to form, attendees were clad in either wild costume or polarfleece. The chill of the October evening was warmed by conversation and much laughter. "It's absolutely one of my favorite events of the year,” said attendee and bicycling fitting expert Craig Watson. “I mean, it's just a party in a warehouse. And at the end of the evening, you walk away realizing that a few hundred people came together and raised tens of thousands of dollars to support cycling in Wisconsin."

Focal Flame Photography is proud to serve as the official event photographer for the 2011 Saris Gala featuring Jim Ochowicz and members from the 1986 7-Eleven Tour de France Cycling Team. Please join us for an incredible evening with the first U.S. team to ever enter the Tour de France. All event photos from the Gala will be available for purchase at focalflamestore.com, with 50% of proceeds going to the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

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