In 2008, Radio Freddy arranged for the two of us to meet Brad Roe, then the editor of Hi-Torque’s Road Bike Action. While Radio Freddy was in town for the Tour of California, we met Brad and took a tour of the offices that had produced countless issues of magazines we did a better job of memorizing than the algebra texts found in our book bags during our school days.
From that one meeting a relationship with Brad and RBA grew. I’d admired the work those guys were doing and the chance to begin freelancing for them was a dream come true. I began freelancing for VeloNews once again, following a more than 10-year hiatus. And when Paved was launched, I was thrilled to hear from Joe Parkin requesting a contribution.
That I chose to launch Red Kite Prayer is an event I believe some BKW readers misunderstood. Comments in response to my post announcing RKP got snarky and suggested I was disloyal to Radio Freddy and I wasn’t showing proper appreciation for the “sponsorship” I received. Just what that sponsorship was, I’ll never know.
I really hadn’t wanted to turn my back on BKW and it wasn’t a slight to Radio Freddy. Facts were facts, though. His day job was busy and he didn’t have the time to put into a blog that I did. And it wasn’t really practical for me to assume the helm of a ship that wasn’t mine. He encouraged me to launch a new blog and even suggested he’d contribute to it, turning the tables in an unusual twist. For me, it came down to a matter of practicality: To make a living as a freelancer, I needed to make something off of all my work, whether it came from T-shirt sales, advertising or (preferably) both. RKP hasn’t made me rich, nor do I expect it to, but it’s added an important additional revenue stream (to use a technical term) to my business model. Ahem.
When Brad left RBA I was equal parts surprised and depressed. I loved working with him and feared that a terrific relationship was going to go down the drain. I knew we’d stay in touch, but I feared we’d never work together again. It’s not often you work with an editor who challenges you and then gives you enough leash to go do good work. Mere months later he decided he missed publishing and announced a new road bike magazine, peloton. When he called to ask me to be a part of the magazine and even offered me a column I didn’t need time to think before saying yes.
Unfortunately, once I began freelancing for peloton, my days at Road Bike Action were numbered, even though the writing I did for the two couldn’t have been more different. I’d never have written the analysis pieces or columns that have appeared in peloton for Road Bike Action. Conversely, the overview features that I typically did for RBA would never suffice for peloton. I really enjoyed the diversity. However, Hi-Torque hasn’t taken kindly to having an ex-employee (Brad) start a new magazine. Getting caught in the middle was zero fun, but then no one ever enjoys being collateral damage. For a period of time I put the Swiss Cross up as my profile pic on Facebook. That didn’t seem to phase anyone, so when RBA’s ad sales director pulled me aside at Interbike and told me, “You can’t freelance for four magazines,” I responded, “I’m not; I’m freelancing for three.” I added, “Look, I’m a freelancer, which means I’m a hooker. If you want me to spend the night, marry me.”
I admit, I was impressed when they offered me a full-time position. They offered to create a special status for me, so that while they didn’t want to see most of their editors more than four or five times in a month, they expressed a strong desire to have me in the office all five days a week. I’d have the opportunity to brainstorm ideas on the hour-and-a-half drive each way to and from work and I’d be liberated of the need to care for my year-old son on a daily basis. Though the allure of the position was strong—especially because their urgency was so great they never put an offer in writing—I realized that as a lowly blogger publishing a new piece five days a week probably hadn’t prepared me for the rigor of their publication schedule. I decided the best thing I could do was allow them to hire someone more qualified.
It used to be that in working as staff for a magazine you exchanged the freedom to freelance for a steady paycheck. It was a Faustian trade, I tell you. Today, though, we have a much better arrangement, thanks to 1099s. The good news in this is writers like me who are unencumbered by the strictures of employment used to face a dizzying array of possible homes for our freelance work. It was utterly confusing to get up each morning and wonder who I should pitch for which story. That needless task has been solved for me, though. The more my name has become associated with peloton, the less other magazines have been willing to work with me. I’m pretty introverted, so having the phone ring less with offers of work has lifted a tremendous burden from me.
Of course, I still query other magazines from time to time, but I really do it just to keep appearances up. I really don’t want my name getting around too much; that might get confusing for readers.
Though my involvement with peloton has been strictly freelance, the assignments I’ve tackled have been some of the most challenging and rewarding of my entire career. The chance to have my analysis of greats like Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi and Claudio Chiappucci appear alongside never-before-seen photos from some of the finest photographers in the biz puts a smile on my face while helping to pay the rent. Life is good.
So what’s the point of this story? First, it’s to say thanks (again) to Radio Freddy for giving me a chance to reinvent myself as a writer. That I’ve carved out a niche for myself as an author in the bike industry is both incredibly rare and something that came about as a direct result of my involvement in BKW. What has also been truly gratifying are the people who have come forward to tell me how much they enjoyed BKW and even some instances where other writers have noted how it influenced their desire to write or what to write about. That there are other blogs out there that owe some of their inspiration to BKW is something I’d never have guessed would happen.
But I’m not the only person who re-entered the bike biz due to BKW. Radio Freddy is back among us. I guess this sport is a bit like some viruses—once in your system it’s there for good. His re-entry has created an opportunity for us to collaborate again, though our involvement will be found at another web address.
To find out his real identity and see what he’s up to, pick up Issue 10 of peloton.
Image: Brad Roe
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.
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.
It’s hard to say where the urge to write develops. There are probably as many motivations as there are writers. In the beginning there is a desire to connect with an audience. That currency, the connection any writer forges with his audience, is the paycheck that gets him started. It certainly did for me.
No matter what the subject matter is, sharing something true with another person is a powerful experience. Initially, when I began writing for myself, I wrote songs. I soon moved to poetry when I saw the incredible power of the confessional poets and the surreal majesty and heart-rending tragedy of poets like James Tate and Mark Strand. When I saw what could be achieved in such tightly wound passages I was hooked.
And while seeing someone’s reaction to my work was good enough to get me started, for any writer who persists, there comes a point when the doing is the paycheck. It’s no different than with cycling. We all want to win races, and the image of us thrusting our arms Godward can infect dreams lit by sun or moon. However, at some point you either learn to love the training itself, or you move on to poker or golf or whatever.
Writing, like cycling, is a love of the craft itself.
But writing has an advantage to bike racing. When I post a new piece, it’s like hitting the final kilometer and each positive comment is like a spot on the podium. I can’t say how many positive notes constitute a win, but at some point I feel as if I threw my bike at just the right moment.
The funny thing is that while the reinforcement that comes from a positive comment spurs me to want to write more and to repeat the experience, the comments of the naysayers, those who think I am a chain minus a master link, are the ones that spur me. Those comments have the power to make me dig deeper into my thoughts.
That I’ve found in cycling a vein rich enough to continue to mine year after year amazes me more than I can describe. In this regard, I must acknowledge Radio Freddy and Belgium Knee Warmers. It was in writing for BKW that I discovered an opportunity to take a magazine form—the column—and use it as a vehicle for analyzing my own thoughts on everything from doping to the well of motivation that keeps us riding day after day.
Radio Freddy gave me a very long leash on which to roam. Leaving BKW was a tough choice, but by the time I made that choice, I had developed my own vision for what a cycling blog could do and what I had to offer.
BKW celebrates three years today with a new skin and a renewed commitment by Radio Freddy. It’s great to see and it’s nice to know that RKP will have a sister site out there doing great work. We’ve discussed some cross-pollination. Watch for some joint posts in the future.
As I mentioned, leaving BKW wasn’t easy, but I had ideas of my own, and it’s not cool to take a bike out for a test ride and come back 100 miles later. I agonized about being the only voice in RKP. Fortunately, I got a lot of encouragement from some smart people.
Bill McGann, formerly of Torelli and these days of Bike Race Info, said to me, “You only need one good voice. You’ve got a good voice.” And while I trust Bill like I trust handmade tubulars in a corner (which is to say “all in”), I made the decision to actively court contributors. I’m pleased to call Da Robot a regular contributor. And with contributions from Bill and Rick Vosper (both of whom were working in the industry while I was still in grade school) I can say I’m both lucky and honored.
But that’s the point here; I’m lucky to have a passionate readership, even if sometimes you think I’m Amy Winehouse-crazy. In my mind, the only way you’ll keep coming back is if I give my very best and that, in part, means giving you more than just me.
A lot has happened since I wrote the last Thanksgiving post, but the two big ones are launching this blog and the birth of my son. I’m incredibly grateful for him and the love he has brought my wife and me.
You, the readers have played a special part in this. It’s because of your consistent reading that I have advertisers and those advertisers help me to be able to work from home and care for him during the day. It’s a delicate balance, but one that I anticipate will get a little easier as I become more experienced as a father.
So I am writing now to declare my thanks for you, dear readers. You give me the freedom to follow my many whims as a writer and the ability to share more time with my son than I’d manage in any other working situation.