Garrett Lai, the writer and editor known for his leadership at Bicycle Guide, his feature writing for Bicycling and (less known to the cycling world) his work as a writer and columnist in the auto industry, has died.
He was the editor-in-chief at Bicycle Guide when I applied to become a staffer in the winter of 1996. We spoke on the phone a few times but I wasn’t getting the interview. Finally, unwilling to give up, I decided one morning to call his office and leave him a voicemail reiterating my interest in working for the magazine. It was 9:00 in the morning on the East Coast; I reasoned that by calling that early I wouldn’t be interrupting his day.
“Hello?” croaked a voice at the other end of the line.
He proceeded to tell me that because they were a man down, as he put it, and he still had a magazine with deadlines to meet, he’d taken to spending the night at his girlfriend’s (just a few miles from the office, unlike the 50 miles away his home in Costa Mesa was) so he could spend more time in the office.
That was my introduction to Garrett’s work ethic. He was first in and last out of the office. I’ve never worked for someone as tireless, as driven, with higher standards or more unyielding business ethics.
And that office? His desk was a yard sale of books, magazines, bike parts, assorted sheets of paper, journals and probably at least one classified Pentagon report. The overhead light was always off, though he kept one desk lamp on so he could edit in red pen.
Garrett had more sides to him than a round-cut diamond. He knew more about cars than most car guys I know. He’d worked for Road and Track and later worked as a ghost writer for Carol Shelby (srsly), penning a monthly column for him. He was a fine sprinter, a typewriter expert and a self-described, failed engineer. He once told me he was acing his English classes in college but failing his engineering ones, so he changed majors. To this day I don’t think that was the full story; I can’t imagine Garrett failing a class—in anything.
He loved the track and at one point in time turned times in the kilo to make him national caliber. But he didn’t race. Never bothered to race enough to upgrade from Category IV. His custom Serotta Csi featured half lugs, also known as bi-laminate joints, at either end of the top tube to accommodate enough top-tube slope for his peculiar fit: In fact, the top tube sloped 3cm down from the seat tube to the head tube, making it look like a geared track bike. He referred to himself as a knuckle-dragger, but in his usage it referred to the literal length of his arms.
His Porsche 911 sported a vanity plate that said, “Flog 4,” which was his father’s nod to his golfing foursome; Garrett inherited it upon his father’s passing. It suited Garrett in a way that most of us couldn’t have hoped to get away with. Even in his early 30s, Garrett could roll up in the silver 911, striking a dashing and dialed presence. I’d have looked like I snuck my dad’s car out. And because he was a performance junkie, he’d made a variety of modifications in order to wring a bit more performance, including once drilling a hole in the engine block by hand because he didn’t have a drill press. He was the sort of perfectionist who could pull off something like that.
As an editor, Garrett was exacting. I once completely re-wrote a 3000-word feature for him three different times. At the end of the experience he was amazed I wasn’t upset and I was amazed at all that I learned.
He’d have our copy editor print out our stories on the left and right columns of three-column layout, and leave the middle column blank. He would then mark up the copy, using that blank middle column to ask questions, fix grammar, challenge us and delete anything that didn’t keep the piece moving. I learned more in working with Garrett than I did from any other editor in my career.
If I’m met a more complicated, secretive and paranoid individual, I wasn’t paying attention. He was famously frustrating to the ad sales staff at Bicycle Guide for not sharing our editorial calendar until we were so near to the ad close date (date by which all materials needed to be in-hand) that it was of little use to our ad staff. He loved to repeat a quote from a former editor for The New Yorker that betrayed his complete lack of awareness that the magazine sold advertising. He was forever worried that other magazines might take his ideas and write their own versions of those stories.
While Garrett was intense and serious, he did have a side that was playful, and liked a good joke, not to mention a puckish prank. Once, I walked away from my office and left my email open and he went in and sent our copy editor a note saying I didn’t approve of her corrections. It didn’t take the two of us long to figure out what had happened. The grin on Garrett’s face was all-time.
We made a staff excursion to Mammoth Mountain for the World Cup mountain bike race because the expo there was so large it was a chance to interact with brands whose products we regularly reviewed. He saw a van belonging to the West Coast staff of Bicycling Magazine and stuck a Bicycle Guide sticker on the van’s frame, below the bumper, just where drivers behind the van would see it, but in a position that anyone walking up to the van would never notice.
For Christmas one year he gave Joe Lindsey and me wooden rubber band guns; a cube farm is a great place for a non-lethal battle. In the shot above, Garrett is next to me, with Joe on the right and Gary Boulanger, who was a frequent contributor to Bicycle Guide during that time, is between the two of them.
Garrett was the sort of guy who knew more than you about the thing you were allegedly an expert in. On the rare occasion I could teach him something I stood taller. Case in point: we were looking at the geometry of a touring bike and he remarked about the crazy long 45cm chainstays. I responded that, in fact, they weren’t long enough to use the bike for heavy touring. He challenged me and I backed up to the wall and began to mime a pedal stroke motion, but bumping my heels against the wall. He asked what the hell I was doing and I pointed out that without longer chainstays no one would be able to run big panniers in back without their heels rubbing the bags. And anyone with size 12 feet? Forget panniers altogether. I knew I’d impressed Garrett when he gave a deadpan, “Huh.”
Once, as I was working on an utterly exhaustive buyer’s guide to floor pumps, he sent me to the hardware store to buy some pipe, end caps and Teflon tape. We built a device to replicate the air volume of a 700C x 23mm bicycle tube and tire, and used it to measure everything from how many strokes a pump required to reach 120 psi, to how accurate the gauge was. Garrett had done the math on a notepad. This is the guy who told me he was flunking out of engineering.
He had a writer’s taste for literature and history. And he was proudly and irrevocably Californian, though he was just as proud of his Chinese heritage. He told me details about James Dean’s final meal and drive that I’ve not encountered elsewhere, and in Monterey pointed out to me haunts of John Steinbeck’s; it was he who recommended to me Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley.”
Subsequent to his time working for Petersen Publishing and Bicycle Guide, he went to work for Bicycling and ran an office in Costa Mesa for some years. From there he opened his own advertising agency, Perfect Pitch Creative, whose client list was a who’s who of esteemed bike brands. But that’s just a tiny slice of how he spent his time. This is a guy who knew more about typewriters than anyone I’ve ever met, and he even restored them for others.
Had his career arc remained in magazine publishing, I think he would be even more famous today; he had written a business plan for a magazine called Speed. The idea was that it would be devoted to all things fast—cars, bikes, planes—you name it. It was a genius idea and one I don’t know why we don’t see on the newsstand today.
Garrett had a refined sense of style, seemingly time-warped from the 1950s into modern-day California. With his slicked-back hair and style-oozing Ford Ranch wagon, he could have been the cool Asian kid in “Grease,” had there been one.
None of what I’ve written speaks to Garrett’s incredible generosity. See the typewriter restoration. When I was working to launch Asphalt, we met for several breakfasts and he gave me every bit of insight he could, including alerting me to the existence of The Surfer’s Journal.
Had I not been so headstrong about Asphalt, I could have worked with him a second time, at Bicycling; he offered me a job with him but I passed. Nearly 20 years on, I think that was a mistake. I knew less than I thought I did and could have learned much more from him.
Overt expressions of affection weren’t something I witnessed with Garrett; he was a handshake guy, but his formality could obscure his regard for those he took into his confidence. His card-catalogue-worthy memory recorded details about us that he could reference years later, a sly demonstration that he was always paying attention.
Godspeed my friend.