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Pedal Pushers

The city's bike-rental king and an upstart tour operator have themselves a turf war.



On a recent Saturday afternoon Gold Coast residents, tourists, and shoppers caught an odd sight: a flotilla of blue Schwinn Cruisers, two dozen in all, heading up State Parkway north of Division. Bystanders huzzah'd and occasionally wondered aloud what was going on. Jeremy Lewno, a boyish-looking man in a white T-shirt, cargo shorts, and a black helmet, explained to the curious that the group was on a tour conducted by Bobby Chicago's Bike Hike, his fledgling company.

The group stopped for a moment next to Francis Cardinal George's residence. "The mansion has 19 chimneys, but only three are in use," said Bike Hike tour guide John McLaughlin. Next the cyclists pulled over at the Lincoln statue behind the Chicago Historical Society, where someone noticed an empty liquor bottle lodged in the crook of the Great Emancipator's arm. As Lewno shimmied up to retrieve it, the tourgoers gave him a round of applause.

Since Lewno launched Bike Hike a year ago he's been building his trade off tourists looking for similar up-close looks at the city. "If you take a walking tour, your feet give out," said human-resources supervisor Barbara Porter as she finished Lewno's Saturday-morning tour along with other members of her San Diego investment club. "If you're on a bus, the city goes by too quickly. With this, I saw a lot of cute little things I would have missed, and the seats on these bikes are so comfortable."

But Lewno says a local competitor has become a fly in his ointment: Josh Squire, the owner of Bike Chicago Rentals & Tours.

Squire started Bike Chicago in 1993, while he was still in college, with a rental stand at Oak Street Beach. Now in his 30s, he's the big kahuna of the local bike-rental industry. He leases more than 200 bicycles, plus roller skates, from stands at North Avenue, Navy Pier, and two other sites near the lake. When Millennium Park opens later this month, he'll be operating the city's 300-berth commuter bike station, which will provide lockers, showers, a repair shop, and rentals. Squire also offers free guided tours of the lakefront four times a day and sells private group tours of Grant Park, Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast, Hyde Park, and from the Baha'i Temple in Wilmette to downtown Chicago.

Lewno says that one day last summer, not long after he launched Bike Hike, Squire approached him in the park next to the old Water Tower, where Lewno's groups meet, and asked whether he had the proper insurance. When he said yes, Lewno claims, Squire offered him a job. Lewno didn't say no, at least not right away. "I was kind of making him believe there was a chance I would join his company so he would keep talking to me," he says. "I wanted to find out who was my competition."

Squire's employees would distribute flyers for Bike Chicago just as Lewno's customers were congregating near the pumping station. "Josh's people were there all the time," Lewno says, "but I befriended them. They said they felt sorry they had to do this."

Squire denies that he courted Lewno or hassled him. "I talked to the guy once or twice," he says. "I never offered him a job. Why would I? I don't need him. I actually offered to furnish him bikes that he might not have—tandems or kids' bikes—and I also raised the possibility of his referring straight rental customers to me." He accuses Lewno of aping his company's name and literature: the two-sided brochure Lewno distributed early this season used the same yellow paper as his and Lewno's company's name also contains the words Chicago and bike.

"I was told that Josh is really intense," says Lewno. "And he is. But he's a baby when it comes to competition."

Lewno (pronounced LEV-no), who's 28, grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where his father, Bob, operated Cosmopolitan Tours, a firm that organized group bus excursions, principally in North America. Jeremy had strained relations with his father as a teenager, but they learned to get along after Bob was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1994. Bob died two years later, and soon Jeremy, who'd just gotten a bachelor's degree in marketing from the University of Central Arizona, headed to Chicago, where a friend offered him a couch to sleep on while he looked for work. He knew he wanted to start his own business here eventually—he just wasn't sure what kind.

He went through a lot of other jobs: He became a personal trainer. He did a stint arranging group trips for Lampert Tours, a local travel agency. He sold kitchen remodeling door-to-door and hawked health-club memberships. He waited tables at Mongolian Barbeque in Lakeview and tended bar at O'Neil's Bar and Grill on East Ontario, where Bulls players and other celebrities went to relax. "Being from Arkansas, I'd see guys in big fancy overcoats, and my eyes started to bug out," he says.

The work he'd done for Lampert Tours gave him the idea to start a city bike tour. "At that job I was sending people out of Chicago," he says, "but I wanted to cater to the people coming to Chicago." He'd been on a bike tour years before, during a trip to Munich while he was in college. "I was all by myself then," he says. "The bike tour allowed me to have conversations with other people. It got everyone in a sociable mood. And I felt like I was part of the city—out in the open, riding through a lot of places that most people don't go, places that are not what most people get to see. I can't think of Europe and can't think of Munich without thinking of that bike tour."

Lewno began his formal planning in spring 2002. He researched what city license he would need (general business) and shopped for liability and personal-injury insurance. No local carrier would back him. "I had to go to a company in California, a headache of a firm," he says. "They have no customer service—they never get back to you, ever—and the premium isn't cheap." Kozy's Cyclery sold him 25 Schwinn Cruisers at a fair price, and he arranged to stow them at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

To alert the city of his intentions and find out if he'd neglected any legal steps, Lewno arranged a meeting with Burt Natarus, alderman for the 42nd ward, where he wanted to base his tours. "Talk about a naive kid," Lewno says. "I went in there with this whole presentation—I thought I might need a bunch of stuff. I just wanted to look legit. I had a business plan, pictures of my bikes, and a little map of the routes we were going to be going on. None of that was shown. He just started giving me names and numbers of people I needed to be in touch with and said, 'Write down these names and numbers,' and I said OK." After that, "I met with Burt Natarus about five times to get his approval and guidance," says Lewno. "He got tired of seeing me, but if this wasn't important to him, it sure was to me."

With a $10,000 loan from his mother, Lewno opened Bobby Chicago's Bike Hike, named for his father, in May 2003. Lewno arranged to meet his customers by the Water Tower, saddle them up at the MCA, and then lead them on three-hour tours of the Gold Coast, Old Town, and Lincoln Park. Each bike has a name affixed to its frame—Gertrude, say, or Tom. "Dick has been the money name," says Lewno. "A husband will ask his wife, 'Who are you riding?' She'll say, 'I'm riding Dick.' It always gets a response."

During the trips Lewno and McLaughlin, an avid biker who's written a book about the history of the city's Irish population, impart nuggets of historical fact and frequent exclamations. "Look at these quiet streets, and we have them all to ourselves!" says Lewno as he leads groups through Old Town, where stops include a onetime bordello (now an expensive house) and Saint Michael's Church. There's a respite for food at the North Star Eatery in Lincoln Park and a break to take photos at Oak Street Beach.

Upon launching, Lewno had a brochure made, "and I went out to meet the hotel concierges," he says. "The concierges are busy people, and my goal was to stand out. I went up to them in my T-shirt and said, 'Hi, I'm Bobby Chicago.' The reaction was mixed. I know they thought, Who is this kid?"

He had better luck once he dropped the handle and started introducing himself as Jeremy. "Oh, he's so adorable," says Andrea Behrstock, a Doubletree Guest Suites concierge who sent Lewno clientele. Todd Nelson, a concierge at the Peninsula Hotel, found that Bike Hike filled a void. "Our guests are looking for 'soft adventure,'" Nelson says. "A little exercise—but not too much—and a little information."

"I like Jeremy's concept, so why not send people over?" says Carlos Molina, chief concierge at Le Meridien. "Of course, I also send people to Bike Chicago."

Right now a big bone of contention between the two companies is that prime Water Tower real estate. "Who gave him the right to use the Water Tower site?" asks Squire. "Years ago we wanted to locate there, but the city said no, because it's a congested area, with all the buses and carriages, and they didn't want us to block the sidewalk. So Jeremy decides to show up with his tours. That never went out to bid. No one approved that area."

In fact there's nothing wrong with Lewno's having tour patrons gather at the Water Tower, according to Tom LaPorte, a spokesman for the city Department of Water Management, which has jurisdiction over the locale. But this year Squire and Lewno each asked the city for a license to set up a bike operation at the Chicago Waterworks Visitors Center, across Michigan Avenue from Lewno's current gathering point. The city said no to both of them. "There are space limitations inside and out," says Dorothy Coyle, director of the Chicago Office of Tourism.

Lewno has switched his brochures from yellow to white, but he's not about to change his company's name. And he sees the two businesses as different—Squire promotes bike rentals, "which is different from what I do," he says. He allows that Squire also offers tours. "My problem is that Josh only started promoting those tours after I opened up," Lewno says.

"Jeremy's competing, and that's fine," says Squire. "It's hard enough to make it in this racket. It's a short season, it rains half of June, and 9/11 hasn't helped. So maybe Jeremy isn't doing well. Maybe he's jealous. He's targeted me, for whatever reason, to gain market share. I think about helping people, not destroying them, but this guy is thinking about destroying me. He probably thinks about me all night, about how to screw Josh and Bike Chicago."

"Oh, give me a break—that's ridiculous," responds Lewno. "We can both run bike tours in Chicago."

Lewno has purchased another 25 bikes, which he parks at the Drake and other hotels that are friendly to him. Should he need them for a tour, he fetches them; otherwise the hotels can rent them to lodgers. He's about to launch a new tour of the south side, and he's thinking of holding winter bike excursions, outfitting riders in quilted coveralls against the cold. For now he's holding on to a lucrative job waiting tables at Fogo de Chao, the Brazilian restaurant on North LaSalle. But he anticipates that Bobby Chicago's Bike Hike may break even this year.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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