KATE BRENNER/Herald photo

Thanks to Free Bikes, a program launched Thursday by University of Wisconsin School of Business graduate Matt Lerner, UW students can ride free, brand new bikes — with one condition: that they display various national and local company advertisements.

The program was the brainchild of Lerner and his cohort Stacy Knuth. The idea, dubbed “AdverCycling” at the time, won first place in the Steve Burrill Business Plan Competition in 2007.

According to Lerner, the 20 Huffy bikes available will be distributed by the end of today. Program participants must be UW students and provide a credit card in case the bike is damaged or lost. 

“We started advertising (the bikes) about a week ago. We put an ad on Craigslist and Facebook marketplace,” Lerner said. “We currently have a waiting list of about 15 people. We are hopeful [in the near future] we can provide anyone that wants a free bike with one.”

Currently the bicycles only advertise for Free Bikes because Lerner wants students to understand the concept of the program before any major company stamps its names on the bicycles.

“Even if I did have advertisers lined up, I probably would not put them on [the bikes] for at least two to four weeks into the program,” Lerner added. “It is kind of a random thing. This way, people can become familiar with Free Bikes. I want to stay away from putting one brand on there.”

Jack Nevin, chair of the marketing department in the School of Business, said he does not see “much of a pitch” in the program because the bicycles do not provide a large amount of room for the advertisements to be visible and effective.

“I am trying to look at it from a commercial point of view. I don’t know how much awareness it will create. Bikes have very little metal on them. Unless they create a big sign that flaps in the wind, who is going to see it?” Nevin said. “Will advertisers really pay enough money to justify the cost of the bike?”

Nevin added the inclement weather in Madison could be a stumbling block for advertisers who wish to get their ads out 365 days a year because the bikes can only be ridden for so many months.

Ripon College, a private liberal arts and sciences school in northeastern Wisconsin, also initiated a program to promote bicycling on campus, handing out 167 bikes to freshmen students Tuesday.

While the bicycles do not display advertisements, Cody Pinkston, director of media and public relations for Ripon College, said the school will keep its options open for the future.

According to Pinkston, freshmen signed a pledge agreeing not to bring a car to campus in exchange for a free Trek bicycle. Various alumni, trustees and friends of the college contributed to the fund to purchase the new bicycles.

“The green movement is certainly an impetus (for this program),” Pinkston said. “On the surface, it seems like anything that gets more people out of their cars and onto bikes cannot be too bad.”