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Continued: Pedaling past adversity

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 5, 2008 - 4:16 PM

Sean Virnig was already a biking nut when, at 16, he fell ill with an unusual and poorly understood disease that attacked his nervous system, paralyzing him for four months.

Virnig, now 34, wasn't sure if he'd ever pedal a bicycle again. He was still learning to walk when, one cold February afternoon five months after he got out of the hospital, he threw a leg over his brother's bike outside their school in Faribault and took one of the shortest -- yet most memorable - rides of his life.

"That was when I realized I was going to recover completely," he said.

"Even today, I feel more natural riding than walking."

Virnig's bout with Guillain-Barré syndrome intensified his passion for cycling, and it's an experience the Northfield resident and school administrator mentions on the website of the bike company he is launching. But one thing he doesn't play up on RawlandCycles.com is the unrelated physical condition that affects nearly every aspect of his life: Sean has been deaf since birth.

'Living a life to its fullest'

Virnig's obsession with bikes started when he was 5 and his father gave him a maroon Huffy for his birthday. Growing up, he honed his skills on a BMX track he built in the woods behind his family's Mendota Heights home and got his first job at a local Schwinn dealer.

"Cycling's pretty much my identity -- I don't just go out to exercise, you know," said Virnig, who writes or talks through an interpreter with people who don't understand American Sign Language. Riding "encompasses pretty much what I know about living a life to its fullest -- the challenges, the preparation, the exhaustion."

Since Virnig and his family moved to Northfield five years ago, he's logged more than 15,000 miles, sometimes riding 70 or 100 miles on weekend mornings. Landmarks around Northfield -- a valley and a college -- inspired names for both of the bike models Rawland Cycles introduced at an industry show last fall, the Sogn and the Olaf.

Virnig had dreamed of starting his own business for years, and even chose the name "Rawland," a derivation of his mother's Norwegian name, well before he perfected the rider-friendly designs of his bike models.

But it wasn't until a year ago that he took the plunge with the help of his wife, Anna, who is also deaf. "At first, I was apprehensive," said Virnig, who built a successful career at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault, which he attended along with his siblings, parents and much of his extended family. Currently on leave from his job as director of education, Virnig is pursuing a Ph.D. in educational policy and administration at the University of Minnesota.

He worried that the business world would be less welcoming, "But I was wrong." Like many business owners, he and Anna depend so heavily on the Internet, Blackberries and other technology to communicate with retailers and customers that some of them still don't know they're deaf.

"I couldn't imagine how it would be if we had to go out and approach individuals in person," he said.

Family heirlooms

The company expects its first shipment of bike parts this spring. Virnig expects to do most business online, with many customers ordering the $650 framesets for assembly at local bike shops. A complete Rawland bicycle could cost anywhere from $1,200 to several thousand dollars, depending on its other parts, he said.

"We're not out to make a huge amount of cash," Virnig said. "We're just out to share the message and share how bicycles should be."

Both models -- one a fixed gear, the other a traditional geared bike -- combine aesthetic details such as delicately molded Viking sea serpents with built-to-last steel components and practical features such as forks designed to accommodate a wide range of tires and frames that let riders position handlebars high enough that they don't hunch over. They're "family heirlooms," and a response to what Virnig sees as the "disposable" bikes that flood today's market.

Even if he and Anna merely break even on the $75,000 investment they've made in the company, he said, "I feel like I have achieved more with Rawland in a year than I have with any other jobs or career I've had."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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    FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT SEAN VIRNIG'S BICYCLES, GO TO WWW.RAWLANDCYCLES.COM OR E-MAIL SEAN@RAWLANDCYCLES.COM.

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