Something to Say, Part I
When Belgium Knee Warmers‘ Radio Freddy got in touch with me in the fall of ’06 his call and its contents were unexpected. “I’m starting a blog,” he said. “I’d like you to contribute.”
He wanted it to address his passions and to be a positive response to the sport. At the time, I couldn’t picture what he had in mind. The limitation was mine. Back then, cycling blogs mostly went something like this, “Yeah bro, we were like doing 25 in the Cat IV race and I was all like raaaar, and Dudenut was all gnarthrashed cuz he put his front wheel into a ref when he gave a victory salute in the second group. We spent all afternoon at the ER waiting for him. Sunday night we drank PBR and watched porn.”
Yawn. My conception of blogging was that it was so personal as to be codified and—worse—without insight. The lack of universality in experience made cycling blogs pointless, at least to me. It would be a few more months before I’d run across BSNYC and Fat Cyclist.
This wasn’t the first time Radio Freddy and I had considered a collaboration. I had attempted to recruit him to do advertising sales for my magazine Asphalt. While he was interested, his availability was modest.
Any opportunity for us to work together seemed doomed when Asphalt went under. Asphalt had been my dream, my life’s work and when my partner exited the operation she forced the magazine into a sort of bankruptcy. I’ll leave it at that as the ugliness of what transpired between us should remain private; I’ve nothing positive to say about the end of the magazine.
What I can tell you is that I was more than depressed. I wrote the post Thanksgiving II in reference to that chapter of my life. And whether the rest of the bike industry felt it or not, I believed I was persona non grata because I was the captain of the ship when it sank.
I hadn’t considered writing about cycling or how I might pursue it since Asphalt. It simply didn’t seem possible that I’d enjoy another opportunity to write about cycling. Even so, when Radio Freddy got in touch, I wasn’t sure that I had anything to say.
Let’s back up a sec. I began writing about cycling in 1991. I was interested to write about a sport in which I’d developed a consuming passion. And while I had this passion to write, I really didn’t have anything to say. Newbie writers frequently ask me where I get my ideas for the pieces I write. I’m more than familiar with their plight. The strange part is that I have no idea how to answer. Back then, I was casting about, looking for opportunities—subjects—to write. I had no idea how to share my passion. Despite this, I managed to get some bylines with Dirt Rag, The Ride and even VeloNews. Most of my stuff was pretty straight journalism.
I parlayed those limited credits into a gig with the magazine Bicycle Guide and moved to California, more specifically, Los Angeles, which my friend and former UMASS Cycling Team teammate, Bicycling contributing editor (and former Bicycle Guide contributing editor) Alan Coté pointed out was “the on-ramp to the apocalypse.” He stole that from a sit-com, but that didn’t make it less accurate. That I was willing to move there was a measure of my determination.
At Bicycle Guide I was assigned a broad range of stories. Bike reviews, newbie tip articles, first-person narratives, it was the perfect incubator for an ambitious writer. Despite the fact that I had already earned a Master’s in English, I consider that period another chapter in my education.
I love writing bike reviews and speaking with the different builders; they were stories that were far more interesting to write than race reports and rewarded creativity and determination. However, my greatest growth, what most inspired my ambition, were columns and those first-person narratives. Getting away from the office and putting myself in a landscape with a bike and writing about that adventure of the senses and the richness of the experience for both the exterior and interior was really everything I could have asked for as a writer. For me, it was heaven on earth. I realized that I had something to say.
When Bicycle Guide was shut down, it took only a couple of days for me to conceive of Asphalt, a magazine where presentation would match the quality of the experiences and equipment we presented. We had our hitches; there were color problems in the first issue and we ran almost as slow as another quarterly currently on the market, but readers and advertisers were signing up. When that went down the pipes, I figured my future in cycling had gone with it.
Ultimately, what drew me back in shouldn’t surprise me or anyone who’s ever read my work. It was a story. Specialized had inked a sponsorship deal with Quick Step and after only a few races on the Tarmac SL, Tom Boonen began appearing on a custom-made aluminum frame. Sure it was custom, but it wasn’t the flagship ride Specialized was featuring in all its ads. It was a PR black eye that had erupted on the Internet into a torrent of obscenity-laced insults aimed at the company for demeaning the finest Classics rider of the day with an aluminum ride.
I’d spent enough time writing about bike companies to know that there was more to the story at Specialized.
So I called them.
I began talking with PR beacon Nic Sims and told him straight up they were being murdered on blogs and forums and none of the magazines were helping them by setting the story straight. I admitted that BKW was a small blog, but maybe if we got the story right, others might pick it up.
Naturally, he talked to me. He told me that the aluminum bike was simply a tester, that they wanted to make sure they got Boonen’s fit exactly right before cutting a mold for him. That whole measure twice, cut once thing.
The post was fun enough that I did a follow-up and came up with a few others for Radio Freddy. The readership went from tiny to small to noticeable—i.e. more than a 1000 unique viewers per day—in a matter of months.
I’d chosen a nom de plume to publish under for a simple reason; I was afraid that my name could be a liability. Suddenly, I began to see the alias in a new light. It was a chance to see if we could build a following just on the quality of the work. Rather than try to trade on our bike industry experience, our knowledge of cycling would either inform our writing and appeal to readers, or it wouldn’t. There’d be no baggage of history.
In the summer of 2007 I was getting ready for the Markleeville Death Ride and had adopted a super-model diet in my quest to get back to my old race weight. One day I was thinking about how hungry I was and about how eloquent Lance Armstrong had been on the subject of weight loss. I recall him saying something to the effect of, ‘It’s simply a matter of suffering.’
I dashed off a post called “The Lance Feeling” in less than a half hour. That one post marked a turning point for me. It helped me conceive of blogging as a chance to write an editor’s column over and over and over. Without the constriction of a monthly, bi-monthly or even quarterly publication schedule or the need to address issue themes, I could muse on any subject that itched my fancy. And I could do it whenever the urge struck.
Ohmigod, this blogging thing has possibilities.
What unfolded on BKW over the next year is one of those occurrences in publishing that comes along maybe once or twice in a career.
Radio Freddy and I shared a common background in bicycle retailing. We’d spent serious time in the trenches. Additionally, we’d both turned wrenches for riders whose bikes had to work right. Him at a prominent Chicago pro shop and me, for a spell, for the US National Team’s juniors. Our time in shops had also taught us a love for routine and working in a consistent fashion. We both had a love of working efficiently, of knowing the über tricks and watching for the moves of the elders. We were fundamentally students of the sport.
Radio Freddy’s posts conveyed hard-won wisdom of the ages, techniques that were less tips than meditations on quality. An interplay began in our posts. While we could discuss the fact that it was happening when we spoke on the phone, neither of us had the ability to explain how it was happening. It’s hard, even now, to look back and put my finger on why one post of his sparked me to write a particular one of mine, but there was a kind of gestalt relationship.
The way the readership grew during this time was all the confirmation we needed that the chemistry was palpable. It was rare that I’d ever have chosen a subject that Radio Freddy selected, but his choices influenced mine and vice versa.
The way our ideas dovetailed could fire me up like few things ever have. One night, as my girlfriend (now wife) was watching TV, I wrote three different posts. They all ran.
It was around this time that I landed a gig to write a guidebook on Los Angeles. I was reinventing myself. Next came an op-ed I wrote for the LA Times that suggested the UCI should enact and truth and reconciliation commission to get to the bottom of cycling’s doping woes. I’ve heard many people take credit for the idea, but I can tell you my piece was the first into print and was read by some two million people. A friend gave the piece to the powers-that-be at the UCI. I hear there’s a price on my head. It’s not much, but you might be able to take your sweetie to dinner on it.
I’d never have written that piece had I not been composing analysis pieces about Floyd Landis’ CAS appeal. Say what you want about the particular breed of crazy Landis keeps in his pocket, his defense team did their work brilliantly and the outcome of that case was a travesty.
Where were we?
The LA Times piece led to offers for copywriting work for several industry companies, among them Felt.
I was back in.