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.
This past summer I had a get together with friends to celebrate the release of my book The No-Drop Zone. All I’d had in mind was a chance to enjoy a beer or three with some friends and a sense of accomplishment—and relief—at having the book out. I wanted to feel that release of pent-up steam from the boiler.
What I didn’t anticipate was that a half-dozen friends became one dozen, then two. A copy of the book was passed around the table and people would grab me to tell me how amazed they were by the book. With three years of effort invested in the book I deserve to feel some amount of pride in its achievement, in my accomplishment. I struggle with that. Often times, in my head, I’m still the twentysomething long hair walking into my first graduate seminar. No matter what I know objectively of the skill I’ve honed, my parents instilled in me a need to remain modest about my work that can curtail any urge to thump my chest. I tell people it’s less my book than a tribute to the sport’s many sages who took me under their wing. It’s both the truth and a way to dodge something I struggle to do in-person: accept praise.
Next week, peloton‘s eighth issue will be released. It’s a photo annual featuring the work of eight incredibly talented shooters, and it is carried by a 15,000-word manifesto I wrote in a week spent in a near-meditative state. While it’s not a book, its breadth of vision and ambition for an emotional connection with the reader caused me to lay it all out there. I can’t say I’m not nervous about what the audience’s reaction will be. I’m amazed to receive this opportunity to go as hard and deep as possible—it feels like my race radio just crackled and my team director told me to put my head down and drill it. Two hundred kilometers later I’m rolling into the velodrome at Roubaix, all alone. That I got this chance owes to a sequence of events I’ve been thinking about ever since driving home from the bar following the book party.
The first was approaching Maurice Tierney of Dirt Rag at the NORBA National at Mount Snow in 1991 and asking him about the possibility of freelancing for his mountain bike magazine. He was immediately receptive and told me about the sort of material he’d love to see more of.
The second was a phone call to Richard Fries, the publisher of The Ride magazine. I’d done some writing for them, but my contact at the magazine said Richard would be overseeing all the freelancers and if I wanted to continue writing for them, I needed to contact him. I waited a few weeks and then—despite my fear of calling someone I didn’t know—picked up the phone. At the other end, after I introduced myself, Richard said in a bright voice, “Oh, I know that name.” So began our friendship.
The next was a phone call placed on a snowy March morning. I’d been trying to get an interview with Bicycle Guide, a magazine I thought was beyond cool. For reasons I couldn’t understand, they kept seeming to circle, but not interview me. So I picked up the phone at 9:00 am with the plan of leaving a message for the editor, Garrett Lai. After all, I was on the East Coast, he on the West. A deep voice answered. What the hell? I thought. He told me how he was working crazy hours because they were a man down. So I said, “You need work done. I want to do the work. You should hire me.” At least four more times in that conversation I told him point blank: hire me. Eventually he said, “Alright, let me talk to HR;” 24 hours later I had a plane ticket to Los Angeles. By the end of the day I had an offer.
In the wake of the demise of my magazine Asphalt, I was trying to imagine a way for me to re-enter the bike industry as a writer. I was depressed and wasn’t sure I could get arrested, even if I pepper-sprayed an entire preschool. One night I was trolling Craigslist when I ran across a listing for a publisher looking for someone to write a mountain biking guidebook to Los Angeles. Menasha Ridge Press’ acquisitions editor Russell Helms became a friend and confidant and six months later I was writing a road riding guide book to my adopted home. It was that relationship that led to the opportunity to write The No-Drop Zone.
Fast forward another year or so and one evening I send Brad Roe, the editor of Road Bike Action a query. I’d written a post for Belgium Knee Warmers but upon completion, I realized it really didn’t fit. I wanted it to receive a home and I wrote Brad with the hope that RBA‘s web site might provide an audience. His was an enthusiastic yes. Two months later he was in touch with an offer to write one of the more fun features I’ve ever penned, “Magic or Mutiny”, which you can find reprinted here.
For most, the lesson here is that it pays to get off your ass and network. That’s not my takeaway. I’m fundamentally introverted; reaching out to people I don’t know is painful and scary. At each turn these people received me enthusiastically, made me feel welcome and like I had something important to contribute. Had even one of those people been in the middle of a bad day and rebuffed me—the pretty girl who spurns the advances of the guy with romance in his eyes—I can say in all likelihood I wouldn’t be here writing this to you now.
To each of those men who entertained my approach, as skilled, daft, ill-prepared or urgent as I might have been, I’m here to say thank you. Maurice, Richard, Garrett, Russell and Brad: I’m grateful for the opportunities you gave me. I hope that you feel your efforts on my behalf were rewarded. I’ll never forget what you did for me.
We seem to be living in a world full of protests. From North Africa to the Middle East and clear into Greece, 2011 has been a year of the common man stepping forward to protest oppression, entrenched dictators, alleged democracies, failing economies and, in the case of Occupy Wall Street, the looting of the U.S. by a bunch of bankers.
I site these examples not to draw battle lines but to illustrate just how far-reaching that revolutionary spirit extends. There’s little that could possibly unite the average man on the street in Libya and the typical fast-food worker in the U.S.
Red Kite Prayer was started as a kind of protest, if I’m honest. The work I’d been doing for Belgium Knee Warmers had attracted a surprisingly large following, but I knew from my previous attempts at querying most of the publications that the pieces I was writing for BKW would never be run by any of the print magazines. What I was doing was mostly uncharted water. I believed that there was room for what I was writing and that there were bike companies that would see it as a viable advertising vehicle to reach readers. And that’s why I started RKP; Radio Freddy wanted to keep BKW true to its garage band roots, the great un-signed act.
I wanted a paycheck.
Most of my life has been spent at the shallow end of one bell curve or another. Cyclist. Writer. Masters degree. Apple owner—for 25 years. I’m almost never part of the 99 percent. That said, I understand the outrage at Wall Street, and why the protest Occupy Wall Street started. (For the record, Goldman Sachs advised Petersen in preparation for its sale to Emap and was directly responsible for Bicycle Guide being folded.) I’m not about to go live in a tent on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. I’ve got a family; besides, there’s no wifi there.
OWS is chaos. Most can’t really articulate what they want to change and feel so powerless to effect any change that they’ve taken to the streets. Folks, this is how revolutions start. The whole point to having government is to eliminate chaos. However, if you’re still not convinced that there is adequate reason for OWS, check out this article by Matt Taibbi over at Rolling Stone.
In the bike biz, we’ve had some chaos of our own. If you haven’t been following the drama at Competitor Group Inc. over the last year or so, on the order of three dozen people have either left or been fired from CGI’s titles—VeloNews, Inside Triathlon, Triathlete and Competitor. They are bleeding people faster than they can hire them.
For months I watched the departures with a kind of detached fascination. I couldn’t imagine what could be going on in Boulder to cause as many people to quit as were being fired. Then, last August, it was announced that CGI had laid-off (a really passive term for fired) Charles Pelkey and John Wilcockson.
The changes at VeloNews (okay, now Velo) have really pissed some people off. Check out what Richard Sachs had to say.
When it comes to bike racing journalism in the English language, Wilcockson and Pelkey are two of the very best. And Pelkey’s “The Explainer” column is routinely some of the best analysis in the bike biz.
Folks, I’m not a socialist, but I do think what Wall Street is doing to the rest of the U.S. is wrong. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” There’s a lot of change that I’d like to see happen in the world, but my sphere of influence isn’t all that great. So, I’ve decided to take the most significant stand I can.
I’ve hired Charles Pelkey to contribute to RKP.
Charles will continue to pen his “The Explainer” column, just now for us. I’ve decided to stand up and say that he’s a journalist of great talent and integrity and if his former employer won’t stand by him, then I will.
And if I had the cash, I’d hire Wilcockson, too. Who the hell fires their database?
I plan to be there for Charles as he recovers from his cancer—yeah, he’s recovering from breast cancer that was diagnosed in August—and for years to come. Initially, Charles will post every other week. He writes his column the day before his chemo treatment, which is the best he feels all week. After the chemo ends and as his strength returns, we will begin running work from him more frequently, with the goal of providing one piece from him per week, more when the opportunity presents. Watch for his work beginning next week.
This represents a significant investment for RKP as a business and me personally. One of my advertisers, when informed of the move, asked if this meant an easier workload for me and more time with the family. Amazingly, the answer is no. My workload won’t go down a whit. I’m not doing this to make my job easier, I’m doing it to make RKP better. In barest terms, this is a chance to stand up for quality.
The addition of Charles to RKP’s already terrific roster of contributors is certainly a protest against MBAs who focus on the bottom line above all other considerations. A spreadsheet isn’t what makes a company or a product great. The greater truth here is that I love his work and I believe by bringing him into our fold I increase the value of this blog to both you our readers and our advertisers. I aim to deliver a blog that is ultimately smarter and more diverse in its offerings than I, alone, could present. At the end of the day, RKP is simply a measure of content that I like to read, and I’m stubborn enough to believe my vision will resonate with readers around the world, so in that regard, maybe I am part of the 99 percent.
Some of you may have been aware that I’ve been working on a book about cycling. It’s called “The No Drop Zone: Everything You Need to Know About the Peloton, Your Bike and Riding Strong.” It’s being published by Menasha Ridge Press (with whom I did “Bicycling Los Angeles County” in 2007). “The No Drop Zone” will be coming out in May.
“The No Drop Zone” is a book aimed squarely at beginners, but has been written to contain nuggets of fun as well as the collective wisdom of the peloton. Even the most experienced among you will find something useful within its pages, I hope.
To promote the book, peloton magazine will be excerpting bits of it in a new section on their web site called “Wisdom.” Stop by and have a look; it might be your cup of tea or glass of wine, er, beer. It’ll be updated twice a week.
Rest assured, once the book is out, I’ll let you know about it. I’ll also be getting around a bit for some group rides disguised as speaking engagements.
And because custom frame builders are close to my heart, I’m pleased to announce that peloton has indulged me with a new column on its web site called “Artisans.”
Those few among you who read Asphalt may remember the column “Torchbearers.” Readers of Bicycle Guide might recall the column “Hot Tubes.” “Artisans” picks up where those left off.
Each week peloton will post an interview (in two parts, as they are quite long) with a frame builder. Because the craft of frame building extends well beyond just those who build frames to painters, tool makers and more, I’m going to leave the definition a little loose. It won’t all be one-man shops, either.
Artisans will get some space in the print issues as well. Photos always look great on paper, so we’ll give these some space to breathe.
Sooner or later, I hope to turn “Artisans” into a gift book (i.e. coffee-table book). I’ll let you know how my progress goes on that front as well.
I hope you’ll drop by peloton.
In 2002 I got a loan from my father as well as one from my mom, emptied my 401k and sold four bikes. Totaled, it would have been a downpayment for a modest house, just not in LA. Why? Because I was stuck in my life.
I was one of the editors for a magazine called Bicycle Guide for a few years in the late ‘90s and was on assignment in France when the publisher pulled the plug. The magazine had weathered a few lousy years and seemed to be making a turnaround when they killed it, 10 months before Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France. After that, the whole road market experienced a turnaround even a Mini Cooper could admire.
Once home, I moped. The world didn’t make sense to me. The magazine had a readership of 100,000, give or take. There were advertisers. And the publisher had a bloated payroll filled with executives that fought over just how cheap to be. I figured a lean operation could unite the loyal readers with good content. And the lean operation could offer reasonable ad rates to reach those readers.
But in 1999, paper was passé. There was this thing called the Internet and people were willing to throw money at me to the tune of six figures for an operation that would have no identifiable revenue stream. A magazine? Was I out of my mind?
I told one potential investor: “I don’t want to cut paychecks for a year, I want to be cutting them ten years from now.” I should have taken the money and had fun running a cycling web site until the money ran out, but my moral compass wouldn’t let me. Damn magnetism.
I had dozens of meetings with potential investors that went nowhere, so finally I did the one thing everyone said not to do: I invested my own money.
Which brings us back to why. I was stuck in my life because I needed to take the best swing I could at this, and I felt like I hadn’t made every sacrifice I could to make this dream real. So I launched Asphalt Magazine with a partner and a handful of freelance contributors.
Plot spoiler: It failed. (Not that you didn’t already know that).
The fault rests with me. I wasn’t the right guy. I wasn’t a tough enough manager, wasn’t a slick enough salesman, wasn’t a guy who could run on two hours of sleep. I’ve got a garage full of magazines and no regrets. That said, my greatest shock came when I approached the industry for advertising. A number of companies told me point blank: We’re going to sit out the first year and see how you do.
Which brings me to peloton magazine. Brad Roe, Tim Schamber, Ben Edwards and Adam Reek are industry vets. Peloton magazine is not just the best independently produced magazine the bike industry has ever seen, it’s the best, period. I heard from any number of Asphalt readers who swore that my magazine was the best bike mag they’d ever seen. I’m telling you on no uncertain terms peloton is superior. From running on time to negotiating a killer distribution deal before a single magazine had been produced, they have delivered in every way you can.
But as a new publishing company, they need to prove that they can make it without the muscle of an entrenched publisher behind them. In short, they need subscribers. I can guarantee you that bike companies have told them what they told me, that they’d wait and see. Why they do this defies explanation. It’s like going to the polling place and not voting because you want to see if your guy actually gets elected.
Brad and Tim have given me more latitude as a writer and photographer than anyone has ever given me—except maybe myself. It’s an uncommon event in a writer’s life that you’re encouraged to rise to an occasion, to deliver the smartest, bravest work you can. To paraphrase Spock, my first, best, destiny is as a feature writer and columnist, and Brad is giving me rope enough to hang myself daily.
I believe peloton is an unusual magazine, one that comes along maybe once in a generation.
I’ve reviewed and recommended a great many items and experiences here at RKP. I’ve never requested anything of you, the readers. That you all read, which is proving to be an increasingly rare activity in this world, has been enough for which to be grateful.
To those of you who have already stepped up and purchased a subscription to peloton, thank you.
To those of you who have purchased a single copy of peloton on the newsstand and liked what you read, please subscribe.
To those of you who have yet to see an issue of peloton, if you like exciting content about your favorite sport and want to see stories of unusual origin, features that go unexpected places, take a chance on Brad’s brainchild.
Each new subscription tells the industry that you’re hungry for content beyond race results. Brad, Tim, Adam, Ben and the rest of the crew have stepped up for the cycling community in a big way. They’ve put previously secure jobs and their families on the line for this. Don’t wait. Don’t see. A subscription is a small risk in a dangerous world. One that will be rewarded with each new issue.
These guys burn with a holy light for cycling and after reading a copy, it’s my belief you won’t want anything so much as to go for a ride. And isn’t that what a bike mag should do for you?
The bicycle industry has lost a giant. Bill Fields, a man whose career changed the bicycle industry in the United States has died following a prolonged illness that began with West Nile Virus.
Fields’ career outside the bike industry was significant enough for one lifetime. He worked for Hewlett Packard and later for aerospace contractor TRW. However it was when he set up a publisher’s rep firm to sell advertising that he made his first mark on the bike industry. Clients included Bicycling and VeloNews back when neither was particularly sophisticated at ad sales.
He joined Hester Communications, the publisher of Bicycle Dealer Showcase which was—until the rise of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News—the trade publication of record for the U.S. bike industry (there were others, but BDS was the only magazine worth reading back then). Hester also produced the Long Beach trade show, which predated Interbike’s Anaheim show.
The mark that Fields made that more of you will remember was a magazine called Bicycle Guide. Fields launched that in 1983 only to leave it less than 10 years later to begin consulting to the bike biz. He was particularly active consulting to big bike companies and anyone trying to grow their business.
Less known about Fields was that he also offered headhunting services for the bike industry; that may be the truest indicator of the man’s depth of relationships. No matter what role you needed filled, Fields had a resume in his files that was just what you were looking for.
For my part I was always just a little behind him. I began freelancing for BDS in 1993, years after he had departed, and joined the staff of Bicycle Guide in 1996, again, long after Elvis had left the building. However, I was one of many who benefitted from his headhunting services, primarily as a huntee, but on one occasion as a hunter. If Bill Fields introduced you to someone, it was because you needed to know that person. He was as pleasant as a rose, as interested as a reporter, discrete as a spy and better connected than a smuggler. He was the sort of guy you looked forward to calling.
He leaves his wife, Jennifer Fawcett, three children and four grandchildren.
This past week the Federal Trade Commission announced a revision to rules regarding testimonials and endorsements. It’s the first revision to the rules since 1980 and the first rule change to expressly address bloggers.
The media has largely portrayed this as aimed at mommy bloggers who endorse a product after receiving a truckload of it and celebrity Twitterers who rave about shoes, cell phones, fashions and other consumers goods without letting on if the Tweet was an honest fan statement or if it was a quid pro quo trade of item for endorsement.
My personal perception is that the further into the mainstream you move the more glowing the endorsements tend to be and the less likely they are to have come without some sort of palm-greasing. (I once satirized this on BKW by calling a pair of socks “the greatest socks ever in the history of the world.” You can read the review here.)
As I’m a blogger, this new rule revision applies to me as well. It’s as good an opportunity as I’m likely to get to offer some insight into how I do things.
A boss I had some years back (Garrett Lai at Bicycle Guide) told me there was only one promise he ever made or that I would ever make while on his staff. He told every manufacturer he dealt with: “I can’t promise a good review, but I can promise that if it doesn’t arrive here, I can’t review it.” I’ve stuck to that promise and it has served me well.
There are people in the bike industry who work on the principle that everything can be boiled down to a transaction. Theirs is a simple quid pro quo world: They buy an ad and believe it entitles them to a good review. Some of them don’t even think they need to send the product to get the review, a photo and press release should be enough to get the job done, right? After all, the positive outcome is a foregone conclusion. I tend to avoid these folks the way I avoid high-interest credit cards.
The flip side is that some magazines base their opinion on your ad budget. Buy a page and the review is pretty darn good. Buy a page a month all year long and you’ve got one terrific bike. There’s a site that charges companies to review a bike. Once the review is complete, they get a video to post on their site. Isn’t that the very definition of quid pro quo?
While you may be suspicious of how other media outlets conduct their business, your concern in reading Red Kite Prayer pertains to how I do business. So here it is in fairly simple terms.
When I write about a product, the review comes about in one of three ways:
1) I wanted to try it out based on what I’ve seen.
2) The company contacted me and asked me to give my honest opinion.
3) You readers suggested something and I decided to follow up.
When I write the review, the conclusions are based on one thing alone:
1) I write as honest an appraisal as I can in the hope that I’ll make the truest, most accurate statements about the product to be found.
No matter how a review starts, they each end the same way, with something I believe to be true. There have been times when I’ve realized I’ve overlooked something (I once neglected to mention how much I hated the sound of a freehub on a set of wheels), but I try to include everything I think is relevant to the reader, good, bad or indifferent. If I think the product is overwhelmingly bad or have reason to think the item (not the product) is defective and not representative of the production run, I’ll contact the manufacturer and start a dialog.
But what about those products I reviewed and liked? Am I compensated? The short answer is no. I’ve never made a deal to say something nice about a product in exchange for cash or product. I’ve been quoted on occasion (and I can’t say that I haven’t liked it), but I’ve never said something nice expressly for the purpose of wowing readers.
Were I to say something mythically positive, a mammoth compliment for a world-changing product, but something I didn’t believe, seeing my words quoted would pain me. That would be an opportunity to say something true I had lost. Getting at the truth of a product, an experience, a person, has always been my drive. If I miss the opportunity to say something true … well, that was just lousy writing and I haven’t pursued this craft for so long to do the job “half-assed,” as my father would say.
What about schwag? It’s true that some products don’t get returned. Every bike I’ve ever reviewed was returned. When I’ve reviewed something I’ve always done so with the expectation that it would be returned. For some companies, they find value in knowing I want to keep riding it. In this age of carbon fiber handlebars, stems, seats and seatposts, that price tag isn’t exactly cheap. For more expensive stuff, I’ve often asked what to put on the check should I want to keep it. Otherwise, there’s always the UPS call tag.
For some publications, there’s been an expectation that everything stays. I saw one San Fernando Valley-based magazine’s waiver that they would test a bicycle to the point of failure, that it wouldn’t be in working condition to be returned and consequently would wind up in the dumpster. I have my doubts about the actual fate of many of those bikes; I know some wound up being sold (by staffers) on Craigslist. Plenty of guys at plenty of magazines have kept bikes.
Do we really need the Federal Trade Commission to help us judge what’s ethical? I hope not. Could the fear of a fine cause some blogs to conduct business a little differently? I hope so. Is the potential of action on their part enough to increase your faith in the job I do? I doubt it. By now, you’ve already developed a pretty good sense about what I have to say. I try to be transparent in what I write. Yes, I have my preferences; I do like bikes that are stable at speed. I like a frame that doesn’t feel dead. And all things being equal, I’d prefer the part that is lighter. That said, I try to be up front about my preferences in order to give you a point from which to triangulate.
There are few absolutes in cycling, so if you know I like light stuff that gives great road feel and you don’t mind something kind of wooden feeling and a little heavier in order to save, say, $2000, then you can evaluate my statement on a relative basis. I think it’s helpful if we’re all clear that my 10 might be your seven and vice versa.
The FTC thinks that schwag is a dirty little secret. Dirty, maybe; secret, no. The secret has been out for some time, and while not all of us do the math the same way, some of us do think there is an ethical limit to what can linger in our garages, permanent-like. The real issue is the quid pro quo. What I can tell you is this: When you read a review in RKP, it has been written with no agenda and the recommendations have been made from a sincere desire to say something accurate, something true. You’ll never see a statement made for the sole purpose of stroking the manufacturer just so I can have something for free.
In shooting industry folk for my last post, I shot so many images, I couldn’t fit them all into a single post, so I’ve decided to do another and do so knowing that I will have omitted some terrific people. They are what, for me, make the trip to Vegas something I look forward to each year.
Above is Ted Costantino, the founding editor of Bicycle Guide. It was his guidance of the magazine that inspired in me a desire to write about cycling; his editors were good enough to light aspiration in me. All of the magazines showed me that being a bike magazine editor was cool, but BG made me want to write about cycling with real literary flair. Today Ted is the publisher of Velo Press and I periodically send him book proposals. I’ve wanted to work for this guy since the 1980s; I’ll find a way to do it some day.
Carson Stanwood taught me the value of a good PR guy. Part comic, part encyclopedia, part hale goodfellow and part dedicated rider, Carson is one of those guys who just gets it. He’s never pitched me on something as unnecessary as a hernia; his accounts have always been an A-list of companies I can’t know too much about. In 1997 he gave me a T-shirt commemorating Interbike with the slogan, “Help, I’m talking and I can’t shut up!” It’s still in rotation.
Chris King’s head of marketing, Chris Distefano (left) and co-worker Abby (whose last name I didn’t get, at right), caught here doing the hangover ride to Lake Mead and back. If there’s a magnetic north pole to cool somewhere in the universe, Chris is there with a bike sporting a product you’re dying to ride.
I began reading Richard Cunningham’s work at Mountain Bike Action before I ever scored a byline. I’ve long envied his creativity in frame design and prose; a combination you won’t find in too many places.
Brad Roe, right, is the editor for Road Bike Action and the man who invited me to contribute to their editorial efforts. Jonathan Edwards, left, is a doctor and one of the contributing editors to the magazine. Brad has overseen the magazine’s evolution from being written by a single editor to one that brings readers a number of voices. He’s receptive to new ideas and has a light touch as an editor; it’s a killer combination.
Ben Delaney, at left, and Sean Watkins, right, are both very fast Cat. 1 racers. As it happens, they are both employed by Competitor Group, where Ben is the editor of VeloNews and Sean helps to oversee advertising sales for the entire group of magazines (which also includes Inside Triathlon and Triathlete). I met Ben when he was a staff editor for Bicycle Retailer and Industry News and he later freelanced for me at Asphalt. He’s everything you’d want in a contributor: good, easy going and on-time. I imagine he’s even better as a boss. Before joining the staff of Triathlete, Sean was an ad sales guy for Winning, Bicycle Guide and Triathlete when they were owned by another publisher, and he’s been fast for, well, he was a member of the Skittles team and called Lance Armstrong teammate.
Steve Frothingham is another former Bicycle Retailer guy who now works for VeloNews as their online editor. I contribute from time to time and Steve’s an easy guy to work with. In between his Bicycle Retailer days and joining VeloNews, Steve got a masters’ in journalism and spent some serious time in the trenches working for the Associated Press.
I got to know “A Dog in a Hat” author Joe Parkin in the fall of ’95 when he was racing for Diamond Back and he and teammie Gunnar Shogren spent the season racing ‘cross in New England. I already knew who he was from his days as a roadie in Europe and racing domestically for Coors Light. When I joined the staff of Bicycle Guide, I stayed in touch with Joe and he always had a ready quote for me. My trip to Interbike is incomplete without saying hi, and it’s nice to see his book has met with such success. He’s promised to carve out some time to contribute to Red Kite Prayer.
Matt Pacocha impressed the folks at VeloNews well enough to make the leap from pro mountain bike racer and freelancer to staff technical writer. It’s a good thing, too. He’s still super-fast and writes some very clear prose.
Dominique Rollin, left, of the Cervelo Test Team made the jump from domestic racing to Europe and did quite well in his first year. Len Pettyjohn, right, is the former director of Coors Light and is with a new venture now, called Centurion Cycling. Len will be producing a series of Gran Fondo rides in ’10 that will be both epic and fun. I’ve been quoting him in articles for more than 10 years.
Dave Letteiri once interviewed me for a position as a mechanic for the Chevrolet/L.A. Sheriffs cycling team. Most of the interview focused on my ability to keep cool if I was being yelled at by an amped-up rider. Since then, Dave’s career has been devoted to Fastrack Bicycles in Santa Barbara where he is an integral part of the cycling scene. His shop looks a bit like a bomb went off, but has some priceless cycling memorabilia that makes it a must-visit for anyone passing through the town.
Derin and Kurt Stockton ought to be legendary for their exploits. Kurt is a former US Pro champion (1990) and Derin raced in Europe for Tulip, among other teams. When I joined the staff of Bicycle Guide, Derin was a contributing editor and did some extraordinary work. Since then he has raced pro downhill and these days is a strength and conditioning coach for pro motocrossers in Temecula, Calif. Kurt has stayed close to the road world and has managed several teams and has plans to announce something new in the near future.
Jim Stevenson is from my neck of the woods, but got out of the South before I did. The number of mutual friends we have in Tennessee and Missisippi are enough to make you think we are fraternity brothers, and in a way I guess we are. Since his departure he has worked for Centurion/Diamondback, GT, Felt and now Bianchi, where he is national sales manager. If there is one guy’s brain in the industry I’d love to download, he’d be at the top of the list.
Nic Sims is Specialized’s media relations guy for the bike industry. You’ve probably seen him on Versus talking up the latest in Specialized technologies. He’s witty, passionate and has the energy of a five year old on Red Bull. He was one of the first guys I talked to in the industry to really understand the power of blogs as a new form of media.
Josh Rebol is one of the instructors for Specialized’s SBCU. Prior to joining Specialized, he was was at Hazard’s in Santa Barbara where all he did fits all day, every day. When I have a question about fit, he’s one of the first guys I go to.
That’s Robin Thurston, one of the biggest-picture thinkers I’ve encountered in the bike industry. He’s the visionary behind Map My Ride. His business acumen is formidable and he paid serious dues racing in Europe before thinking about how GPS could change our interaction with our world. This guy is one to watch.
Assos’ Larry Kohn and Kim Schramer. They are bringing Assos the level of recognition the line deserves and are among a short list of lines that have really seen the value in the bicycle studio concept. Larry was a big fan of Belgium Knee Warmers and stepped up right away to support Red Kite Prayer.
Of all the cycling clothing companies to see the value of offering both custom clothing to teams and a collection for those who want something fresh looking without the crush of manufacturers’ logos that some team jerseys are, I don’t think anyone has done a better job of it than Gary Vasconi and the crew at Capo Forma. Gary eats, drinks and sleeps the roadie life and gets it like only a true roadie can.
Brian Worthy is the U.S. representative for one of the world’s best custom clothing lines: Vermarc. The Belgian line sponsors one team: Quick Step. However, if you look around a bit, you’ll see a lot of PROs wearing their stuff—their teams just buy it. Why? It’s that good.
Michael Foley and Ken DeCesari are two of the men behind the incredible growth of Sock Guy. Foley was the man behind the launch of Bike magazine and was with Bicycle Guide before that. He’s well-connected and seems always to know what’s happening even before it has happened. I’ve learned loads from that guy.
J.P. Partland is an old friend who has contributed to every magazine I’ve worked for in the industry. These days, one of his primary gigs is writing the incredible detailed copy for the Competitive Cyclist site, along with honch Brendan Quirk. He lives in New York City and can be found at the races most weekends in the PRO/1/2 field.
Chad Nordwall is the man behind Above Category bicycle studio in Mill Valley, Calif., which is probably the only community in America to sport two incredible bicycle studios (the other being Studio Velo). Above Category is likely to become an object lesson in how to present cycling in a more professional manner and the competition between the two shops will make each even better.
My apologies to the dozens of other friends I didn’t see or just plain forgot to shoot when I saw you on the floor.
As much as I love going to Interbike to see new bikes and parts each year, I need to be honest and say I’m far more excited to see friends both old and new. One of the things that has kept me in the bike industry for more than 20 years is friendship. I’ve had the good fortune to make friends with a great many people in the bike industry and each year my trip to the show is often my one guaranteed annual chance to see these great people.
Above is Brad Devaney, an engineer with Litespeed. Brad and I met in 1989 while working for the Peddler Bike Shop in Memphis, Tennessee. The Peddler crew was a tight-knit, collegial bunch and we frequently rode together. Of the mechanics I worked with, Brad was clearly the most resourceful and mechanically adept. A few years ago I bumped into Brad and asked him about one of our old coworkers, a triathlete named Corey; Brad and Corey were tight. It was there on the show floor that Brad told me Corey had been hit by a car while on a ride and killed. The show floor was a rotten place to hear the news, but there was no one I’d rather have delivered it.
I ment Alan Coté when I joined the UMASS cycling team in the fall of 1989. Alan was very fast and one of the only guys on the team who knew how to wrench on a bike. We spent a portion of one summer working at Bicycle World Too in Amherst before he moved to Boulder to be with his girlfriend (now wife) Megan. Today, Alan is a contributing editor to Bicycling and has been writing about cycling for longer than I have. He got his start freelancing for VeloNews and worked his way up to Bicycle Guide. It was as a result of Alan’s help that I got my foot in the door at Bicycle Guide. He questioned my sanity when I expressed my willingness to leave Northampton for Los Angeles—”Pat, isn’t Los Angeles the on-ramp to the apocalypse?”—to which I responded, “Dude, I’ve been to Mississippi.”
Jeff Winnick is an independent sales rep in New England. His lines have changed over the years, but he’s the same warm, straightforward and honest guy I met while working at Northampton Bicycle in 1990. I took Jeff to lunch one day to ask his advice on how to move from retailing into the industry side of the biz. He was generous with his time and knowledge, still is.
If you’ve ever raced a bike in New England, chances are Merlyn Townley wrenched on your bike in a neutral pit at some point. Merlyn and I met at the Olympic Training Center in 1992 when we were there to get our mechanics’ licenses. He was a delight to share a room with then and we worked together at many events over the next few years. Merlyn always impressed me with his utterly tireless enthusiasm for working on bikes. He is one of the only mechanics I can say reminds me of the great Bill Woodul. Today Merlyn has an upstart OEM wheel building business based in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Devin Walton called me up in May of 1994 to work neutral support for Shimano at the 1994 World Cup mountain bike event at Mt. Snow, Vermont. Over the weekend I worked on more bikes than I typically saw during a week at a shop. Devin’s professionalism filled me with a new respect for Shimano and the talent they assembled. Today, Devin is still with Shimano and has one of the company’s most coveted posts: media relations guy. He handles all media relations as well as some pretty heavy lifting on the PR side.
One of the other mechanics on hand for that June 1994 weekend was this guy, Mike Conlan. Mike was the first bike mechanic I ever saw don latex gloves for grimy work. A real pro and a very nice guy. Today, Mike is the manager of Outdoor Sports Center in Wilton, Conn. His instincts are as sharp as ever and he is a guy whose opinion I always ask when it comes to retailing trends.
I met Larry Theobald in Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1991. He was working for Breaking Away Tours in the summer and riding with us in the spring and fall. His wife, Heather, was finishing her doctorate at UMASS and I rode with her from time to time. In the winters, I’d frequently see him at one of the cross-country ski areas up in the Berkshires. These days Larry and Heather have a tour company called Cycle Italia that is known for excellent rides, great accommodations and even better food.
Butch Balzano may be the only mechanic in New England who is even better known than Merlyn Townley. I worked a few races with Butch in the early ’90s and thought him so competent as to make me superfluous. He has been providing race support through Campagnolo, Shimano and now SRAM for more than 20 years. He’s as easy going a guy as there is, and one of the few guys I can say for whom a 12-second wheel change is routine.
Richard Fries became known to me as a Cat. 1 who started a magazine called The Ride. I began freelancing for The Ride with its second issue and gradually became more involved in the magazine, eventually writing a column called Shop Talk. It was funny to write for a magazine whose publisher would frequently feature in headlines (I recall many along the lines of “Fries Wins Again in Marlborough”). Richard and his wife, Deb, published The Ride for more than 10 years; it was easily the best regional I ever saw published. Along the way a funny thing happened: Richard’s son, Grant was born and became old enough to ride his own bicycle, and Richard got concerned about where Grant could ride. Today, Richard is one of the nation’s most ardent and effective voices for bicycle advocacy, working with a variety of organizations, including Bikes Belong. Oh, and if you ever need to know anything about the Civil War, he’s faster with the facts than Wikipedia.
The man in the Reynolds booth is another former Northamptonite, Jonathan Geran. Jonathan’s easy way has seen him in sales for Merlin, Parlee, McLean Quality Composites and now Reynolds. The one thing we try not to do when we see each other is to discuss the mountain biking we used to enjoy in western Mass.
Chris Carmichael called on me to help the Junior National Team with several races in 1993. He was easy to work for and had the ability to tell each rider exactly what they needed to hear right before a race. I remember thinking it was no wonder he was head coach for the U.S. National Team. In the years since, Chris has been generous in giving me quotes for many articles and a book.
Derreck Bernard was one of the first people I met when I joined the staff of Bicycle Guide. He was part of the ad sales staff and was as nice and easy going a guy as you’d want to work with. He helped change my perception of the high-pressure ad sales guy. Since Petersen’s sale and re-sale, Derreck joined the staff of Hi-Torque Publications, where he sells ads for Mountain Bike Action, Road Bike Action and BMX Plus! Thanks to my freelance work for Road Bike Action, even though we don’t work together directly, its fun to think of him as a coworker again.
Carol and Bill McGann are the former owners of Torelli Imports. Bill and Carol are an incredible team and really collaborate on everything; their affection and respect for each other is something to envy. Bill still works for the company some, so I still get to see them in the Torelli booth each year. He is one of the rare guys on the manufacturing side of the business who really taught me a lot about the industry, rather than just his line. He’s got an incredibly expansive view (he’s an armchair historian which may help explain his ability to see the bigger picture) of the bike industry and has helped me see trends as they develop. He’s also one helluva travel companion and the week I spent with him in Italy will go down as one of the finest weeks of my whole life.
Heading towards the first small hill of our first day, I was talking with new team member Tony Cruz. As we caught up on each other’s lives since racing against each other as juniors, I had to excuse myself for not answering his questions. I apologized, in a ragged voice, that after reaching the top of the hill I would resume our conversation. He played down the fact that while I was suffering, the team was climbing at a casual 20 mph! A hole in the pace line opened and he excused himself as he closed the gap. This left Bill and me to wallow in lactic acid as we shook our heads at how calmly these guys flew over the undulating Spanish countryside.
The big news for the Postal Service this year is the signing of Roberto Heras to the team. He was 2001’s mountain revelation in the Tour de France and winner of the Vuelta a Espana, Heras brought much needed strength to help Lance in the mountains of the Tour that year.
The magnitude of Heras’ signing did not hit me until we were rolling through a town early on during a training ride. The whole team went under a pedestrian overpass just as about 100 children crossed the bridge. Dressed in school uniforms and matching backpacks, the children went wild as they stopped in their tracks to watch us pass beneath them. Screaming and yelling out, “Andale-Roberto Heras, Lance Armstrong, Arriba, Arriba!” Bill and I looked at each other dumbfounded by the children’s enthusiasm as the team didn’t miss a beat tearing through traffic and into a large roundabout in downtown Carpe at a mellow 25 mph.
Bill and I were absolutely wasted after only three days of riding with the team. We awoke to aching, dead-tired muscles on the fourth day of camp. Lying motionless, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the other to attempt getting out of bed, Bill broke the silence, “Isn’t it amazing how much more fit these guys are? They are on a whole ‘nother planet. Did you see how Cedric and Benoit just coasted through those little towns, looking sideways at each other and chatting as if we were standing still? If people tried that on the club rides or even in the Cat. II races, bodies would be everywhere!” I nodded my head then winced; even my neck was sore from being in the drops for so long the previous day.
“And going up the hills,” Bill went on, “Heras and Rubiera just kept talking and cruising along like it was no big deal. Did you see that? I think that was right before you got dropped.”
I remembered the moment vividly. I cracked and slowed down before grabbing onto the team car. Dirk DeMol was driving and leaned over the passenger seat, to say to me, “We were wondering who would come off first? Your friend, he looks like a sprinter, but you … you surprised us. We thought you would be the climber!” As my lungs failed to adequately get oxygen to my muscles, or brain for that matter, I had no response. My 5’-8” frame and 150 lb. body seemed fit for a part time racer, but riding alongside the best pro cyclists in the world, I looked and felt like a chunk.
Over the top of one particular mountain, Bill had been gripping the car’s door and chatting with Alan the head mechanic when George Hincapie slipped back to grab some food and full bottles. Wanting to stay out of the way and feeling revived from the respite of the car, Bill let go and rode in the car’s draft.
As Hincapie came alongside the car, we were heading into the descent and the team was riding at around 30mph through some tight turns. He, in a word, was smooth. Every move I saw this guy make over the course of a week was like water. He flowed. From waiting for the elevator after dinner, to hopping off his bike at the end of a seven-hour ride, Hincapie was as graceful as Gene Kelly.
So the car heads into the first turn, a pretty tight one, and Hincapie has his left arm in the window and his right hand on the brake hood. He’s not gripping the hood, just resting his hand on it. He grabs some bottles but is not yet finished when he’s interrupted by the winding road. Staying glued to the car—and without a single unnecessary movement—he slides right through the tight right bend at about a sixty-degree angle, all the while his elbow still rests in the doorframe. Then he puts some food wrapped in foil into his jersey pocket, stands up out of the saddle, and bridges the gap from the car, not just to the back of the group, but all the way to the front, so as to lead the charge down the mountain.
“It’s hard enough just hanging onto the car going straight, much less a stunt like that,” Steve Swartzendruber, the Trek representative to the team, pointed out at dinner after Bill told us the story.