So last week the Wall Street Journal published a piece on the death of Lycra cycling clothing. As if the use of man-made fibers, clipless pedals and shaved legs was one elaborate fad. Or fraud. The Journal doesn’t mind wooing controversy, and this was one of those occasions. The piece, “Cycling’s Spandez Coup d’Etat,” is a piece of work I honestly would have thought was beneath the publication. Why? Well, it confuses correlation with causation in that there has been an increase of riders not wearing Lycra and Lance Armstrong has fallen from grace. However, Armstrong’s fall did not cause people to huck their Lycra in the trash can anymore than he caused the rise of the hipsters. Then there’s the fact that while the writer cites Rapha as one of the brands selling clothing that subscribes to this new ethos. Nevermind the fact that most of what Rapha sells is, uh, Lycra. Pesky details. Similarly, Giro’s New Road line is an intriguing take on what cycling clothing can be. But it hasn’t exactly achieved the sort of penetration that merits the suggestion that Lycra is on its way out. Ditto for Levi’s.
While Giro’s new line has taken some flack, it’s truly an innovative take on what cycling clothing can be. Will it replace my RKP kit? Um, no. Do I think I could find a place for it in my wardrobe? Absolutely. It’s the sort of stuff I could see me wearing for a coffee ride or for running a bunch of errands by bike, or when heading out for a ride with my son.
The reader relatively unfamiliar with cycling will probably miss the fact that the only magazine editor quoted—Mia Kohut of Momentum—works for a lovely but tiny publication well out of the mainstream of cycling. Why not talk to Bill Strickland or Peter Flax of Bicycling? Similarly, my friend Josh Horowitz of Broken Bones Bicycle Co. was quoted, rather than anyone from Trek, Specialized or Giant. Josh is a good guy and has a fun take on the bike biz, but if you want to talk to someone who is actually influencing the industry, you’d be well-served to talk to John Burke.
Let me be ultra-clear about this: Using the shallow end of the bell curve as a bellwether for a new norm is just shoddy journalism.
Did Armstrong’s fall make it less fashionable to wear Lycra cycling clothing? Well that begs the question of whether or not it was ever fashionable, to which I have to answer only maybe. There’s no doubt, though, that the water has receded from whatever high-water mark wearing cycling clothing reached in relative hipitude. But what reporter Kevin Helliker misses is the simple fact that for 90 percent of us, Armstrong was never the reason we wore Lycra. We wear it because it works. What would have served both cycling and the reader better is if he’d chased the real story, not the sensationalist BS of projecting the demise of Lycra (which he prefers to refer to as Spandex).
There is a real story here in how cycling’s numbers are growing, thanks almost entirely to the hipster fixie movement. And it is a movement; we can no longer call it a fad. I’ll admit that you’ll never find me riding a fixed-gear bike in traffic. Why? I want to survive a while yet. You’ll never find me wearing skinny jeans. Why? I’m not skinny. You’ll also never find me growing facial hair for ironic reasons. Why? I’m not funny enough.
That said, I dig anything that gets more of us—and by “us” I don’t mean the us of cyclists, but the us of homo sapiens—out there. And that’s really the bottom line: More cyclists is better for anyone who rides a bike. An increased presence means more facilities, greater awareness on the part of drivers (at least, the ones who aren’t drunk), and more cyclists mean more livable communities. So while Giro has taken some heat for their New Road line, I honestly welcome it. People will ride more and longer if they are comfortable. For new cyclists, the idea that the price of admission means looking like a shrink-wrapped pro bass fisherman is too high for most people who self-select as normal. What Giro is doing has the ability to gradually integrate less-casual cyclists into die-hards of the sport.
And while we’re on the subject of Giro taking heat, last week also saw the arrival of a new ad campaign by the folks who brought back the lace-up shoe. In response to criticisms that the new Air Attack helmet looks like a skateboard helmet, they went to a skatepark with a road bike, a photographer and, well, let’s call him an acrobat. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t think it does anything to further the stated mission of the helmet—improved aerodynamic performance while still protecting your head—but it shows that they have a sense of humor and can laugh at themselves. Far too many people and companies in the bike industry lack this ability, and while there’s no requirement that you need to laugh at yourself, Giro’s perspective is refreshing. This ability to sit back and look at something critically, objectively is at the heart of the New Road line of clothing. Little wonder that they are responsible for both.
I’ve yet to wear the new helmet, but I’ve been wearing a few of the New Road pieces, a Merino top and the bib shorts and baggy-ish outer short. The fit is good and it’s comfortable. How much more than that is necessary is up for discussion. I’ve had a fair number of friends who understood adventure and a good time, but they’d never ride a bike because in their minds putting on Lycra meant surrendering their manhood at the garage door. I wish stuff like this had been available 20 years ago. It would have made my job at bike shops more interesting, more successful. Had there been a middle ground clothing-wise, I think we could have turned more bike buyers into committed cyclists.
Ultimately, my willingness to welcome Giro’s New Road line, or Club Ride or any of the other forays into this territory comes back to a point I made earlier. Even if they never wear Lycra, more cyclists on the road is good for those of us who choose to wear it. We’re less “other” once we’re both cyclists. More cyclists means better awareness that we’re out there and more acceptance that we have a right to be out there.
It’s a term used to connote belonging to a particular population. It has been said that doping was endemic to grand tour riders of the 1990s and 2000s. It is also used to describe those publications that serve a particular niche, such as cycling publications. Finally, advertisers who are courted by these enthusiast magazines are also called endemics.
Accuracy notwithstanding, the term carries with it a certain connotation, one that suggests inbreeding. It is, however, a term that defines both the relationships and editorial scope of all cycling publications.
There has been a fair amount of criticism in our comments section, on Facebook and the various Internet fora about how the Lance problem was allowed to go for so long.
I finally got a bee in my bonnet when I encountered criticism of Bicycling’s former editor, Steve Madden, for the piece he wrote for the site he manages, Sports on Earth. A buddy wrote to me, “Please don’t ever, EVER forget that you cats serve the public first.”
On this point almost all of us can agree. Believe me, I can find any number of publishers and MBAs who will argue that publications are meant to serve their owners or their shareholders or even their advertisers. I call bullshit. It’s my firm belief that a publication (whether in paper or on the Internet) is meant to serve a readership, first and foremost. Without readers, the rest is academic. It’s not the chicken-or-egg question that some folks in publishing would have you think.
So while everyone can agree that a publication is meant to serve readers, we may differ on just what constitutes service. In my mind, the way you serve your readership is borne out in the publication you deliver. TIME is journalism at its best: diverse, analytical, probing. Sports Illustrated is consistently the best photography and writing being done in sports. Similarly, Outside is a sports magazine that runs incredible writing and photography, but it is different from SI in that its reader is the doer, not the watcher.
In other words, not all publications have the same orientation, the same duty. Yes, we all serve the reader, but we serve the reader in different ways. Bicycling has never been about investigative journalism. I liken it to People, but for the bike industry. And I mean that as no put-down; editor Peter Flax has a terribly difficult job—sure, it’s not brain surgery, but pulling together the disparate threads of that magazine is harder than most folks think. It’s not a job I want. To put a finer point on the distinction, my sense is that (and I write this with the admission that I haven’t sold them a piece since 1993) like People they surf trends, trying to drop in at the perfect moment, then riding them until they die out at the beach. Expecting solid investigative journalism into doping from Bicycling is rather like expecting them to cover your local industrial park crit. It’s just now what they do.
You may ask why they don’t do investigative journalism, and the answer is simple: They are endemic. You can look at any bike magazine around the world, apply the same test and get the same answer.
So how does advertising play on this? For an endemic magazine, there really is only one pool of advertisers: bike companies. Sure, every now and then Gatorade will throw you a bone, but the really big advertisers like Coca-Cola and GM (the non-endemics) don’t advertise in magazines with less than a half million readers, which is to say they don’t advertise in any bike magazines. Rodale, Bicycling’s publisher, is able to put together network deals where a company like Ford will appear in several (if not most) of Rodale’s titles because in aggregate they present a large and broad readership.
The upshot is that bike magazines have a far cozier relationship with their advertisers than is helpful. Write something truly negative about a bike company, and they’ll pull their ads. Without the Cokes, the Chevys, the Oreos bolstering your advertising to weather the storm, many publishers simply choose not to write anything critical. At all. So cowed are most endemic publishers (and this is true for magazines outside the bike industry as well), they won’t even mention obvious flaws in a product they are reviewing, which is truly a reader disservice, but it helps illustrate the confusion some publishers experience as to just whom they serve.
L’Equipe led the charge on exposing Armstrong, and if you recall, there was quite a bit of resistance to what they had to say, stateside. Sometimes, investigative journalism is a thankless task. Woodward and Bernstein came under heavy fire as they reported Watergate. Nearly lost their jobs at one point. It takes more than integrity to report true investigative journalism. It takes cojones cut from billet titanium and an army of lawyers on retainer.
Which brings us to the other, maybe greater, truth to why none of the endemic bike mags in the U.S. led the charge against Armstrong—lawsuits. Forget for a moment that bailing advertisers could cripple a magazine for a while.The real issue is the opposition any magazine would have faced had they tried to indict Armstrong and co.
Let’s suppose for a second that Madden had commissioned a Bicycling contributor with the impartiality of Solomon and the dogged determination of Sisyphus to chase Armstrong, and he uncovered everything contained in USADA’s report. The first lawsuit would have come from Armstrong himself. The second would have come from Bruyneel. The third would have come from Tailwind Sports. The fourth would have come from the UCI. The fifth would likely have come from USADA itself and for good measure, USA Cycling might have contributed a sixth lawsuit.
There’s not a bike magazine on the planet with the kind of reserves to make that defense worthwhile. There’s not a story a bike magazine can run that’s worth as much as the value of the publication itself. Forget the fallout over publishing that piece for a moment and let’s go to the internal fight that would have taken place to try to put that piece in the magazine. I believe the publisher during most of Madden’s tenure was Chris Lambiase. I can’t promise that Lambiase would have vetoed the story, but I can assure you I’ve worked for plenty of publishers who would have.
How about yet another scenario? Let’s pretend that Bicycling did run that story. It’s possible to run extraordinary allegations, allegations that go against everything the public believes about someone, allegations so at odds with what the public wants to see they just choose not to believe it. Just ask David Walsh and Pierre Ballester, the authors of “L.A. Confidentiel.” As RKP contributor Charles Pelkey noted in his most recent Explainer column, Walsh and Ballester wrote a book that covers most of the allegations against Armstrong contained in USADA’s report. Only they did it in 2004.
This points to another fundamental truth: For a long time there was a tide against the truth where Armstrong was concerned. Most people really didn’t want to know the truth. They wanted to believe in Santa Claus.
Any number of magazines reported on the broad strokes of “L.A. Confidential” and the public didn’t just turn deaf ears to the song, they covered their ears and changed the station. Heck, USADA could have begun an investigation then, but didn’t. It’s fair to ask why. If you want to be upset about inaction, press USADA for why they didn’t charge before Armstrong won his seventh.
What I’m driving at is the reality that real investigative journalism is the domain of non-endemic publications. It takes newspapers like The Times and l’Equipe to have both the staff necessary to allow someone to chase a story of this magnitude and the resources necessary to defend against the blowback when they publish a truly negative story. The corollary to this is the UCI’s lawsuit against Paul Kimmage and the fact they didn’t name any of the publications that ran Kimmage’s work (though NYVelocity would have been an easy target).
Which brings us to cycling’s incredible Catch-22. Cycling is a small sport here in the U.S. It receives the attention of big media as often as the fat kid gets the cute girl on a date—almost never. Unless the sport grows, drawing more eyeballs, it will never command the attention of non-endemic publishers here in the U.S. And unless cycling can get clear of doping scandals, it won’t ever grow again like it did during Armstrong’s reign.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International