The way I tell the story, my love of magazines, of periodic publications, began with Skateboarder Magazine in 1977, but that’s not actually true. I can trace it further back, to Boy’s Life, to which I enjoyed from my time in Cub Scouts all the way to Eagle Scout a week before my 18th birthday. (That may tell you something about me and deadlines.) Prior, even, to that, my mother bought me a subscription to Dynamite Magazine in first grade. I even recall a few features from Dynamite. There was an interview with Jimmy Walker, then the star of the hit show, “What’s Happening.” He told the story of his iconic interjection, “Dy-no-mite!” how it came to be.
I couldn’t have articulated the thought then, but what I enjoyed about all three of those magazines was the way they fostered culture by being timely and focusing conversation in a way TV couldn’t.
I took that love of magazines and moved it from Skateboarder into music rags such as Rolling Stone, Modern Drummer and Musician. I then pivoted one more time—into bike magazines which is where we find ourselves now.
Inspired by a teacher who called poetry a “one-man religion,” I moved to New England to pursue an MFA in creative writing. Just one problem. Universities were shrinking in the early 1990s, so I needed to figure out a game plan other than teaching. As it happened, I was riding bikes, working in a bike shop and reading bike magazines. Considering all I thought I knew about cycling, I figured why not go into magazine publishing and write about bikes?
Following a solid stint freelancing for everyone from Bicycling to VeloNews, I got the call up to the big time when I landed a job with Bicycle Guide that required me to move from heaven (Northampton, Mass.) to the on-ramp to the apocalypse (Los Angeles).
It was while I was on staff at Bicycle Guide that I began to bump up against the ways commercial influences could bend what a magazine presented to readers. After that magazine was shut down by its parent, I began dreaming up a new bike magazine.
In my mind were two magazines I’d been exposed to: Inside Motocross and The Surfer’s Journal. Inside Motocross was printed on glossy paper so thick you couldn’t shine a light through it, and I’ve received postcards that weren’t as stiff as its cover. It was a passion product by photographer Fran Kuhn and AXO, and it shut down after only a handful of issues (four, if memory serves) because another publisher couldn’t stand the idea of someone producing a classier magazine than theirs. Kuhn told me in 1997 that he was informed by AXO that the competing publisher had threatened as long as AXO produced IM they would do product shootouts each month and AXO’s products would come in last.
AXO didn’t produce another issue after that meeting.
Steve and Debbie Pezman went $750,000 in the hole starting The Surfer’s Journal. They had previously worked for Surfer and saw an opportunity to produce a higher-quality surfing magazine focused on the soul of the surfer rather than the cash in his board shorts. They printed 3000 copies of their first issue and sold just six ad pages—a practice that continues—including the back cover to Patagonia; Steve Pezman and Yvon Chouinard are surf buds.
What set The Surfer’s Journal apart was that the bulk of its revenue came from readers. So far as I could tell, the advertising paid for the print run, but the readership is what floated the operation. Pezman was kind to me and spent hours on the phone with me as I worked to launch cycling’s first super-premium magazine, Asphalt.
As I was preparing to launch Asphalt, I was also studying the magazine industry. One idea came up repeatedly: A belief that the issue of which constituency is more important to a magazine—the readers or the advertisers—is a chicken-or-egg question.
I have always found that idea preposterous. If all a magazine has at its inception is advertisers, that’s just a circular. A magazine is nothing without an audience. There must be someone a writer imagines reading their prose, a soul they want to reach, someone they want to connect with.
Bicycle Guide was mothballed because of a lack of ad revenue, but the magazine had a robust subscriber list with the highest renewal rate among the 40+ magazines that Petersen Publishing printed. I figured, why not give loyal readers something to sink their teeth into, something worth spending real money on. If the most loyal stakeholders of a magazine are its readers, then ask them to bear the brunt of the cost and reward them with better paper, fewer ad pages and none of those blow-in cards—in other words, make it worth buying.
My judgment was rewarded in the most disappointing fashion possible when several bike companies we pursued for advertising told me that they’d wait out the first year or two to see if we survived. Hello? That’s like a drowning swimmer crying out for a life preserver and having the person holding said preserver of life say, “Well, show me that you can swim and then I’ll throw it to you.”
And if I thought the business climate then was difficult, I wasn’t prepared for what has transpired since then. Paper is expensive in a way that makes the economics of a magazine essentially impossible without tens of thousands of un-discounted subscriptions. Thanks to the rise of WordPress, anyone with an opinion can launch a web site, so the number of companies clamoring for the finite advertising funds of a bike manufacturer has gone up a good ten-fold and the fight for those dollars has become a free-for-all.
Compounding this fight for a tiny piece pie is the reality that bike companies are expressing a rising desire to control their narrative, so they are producing more content of their own in the form of blogs and videos, and many have enlisted PR agencies to help them in that quest. This has created friction with some publishers who feel that the PR agencies are being fed dollars that ought to be going to the magazines in the form of advertising. I never saw the need to get adversarial, not to mention the reality that those dollars belong to the bike company until they are spent, so it’s kinda their call how they get spent.
Besides, a good PR agency can make my job easier by pinning down hard-to-reach executives or engineers.
I’ve spent the last 22 years of my career swimming upstream, angling idealistically at a product that would serve a culture in something approaching real time, talking to readers about their passions, validating what can sometimes be one of the most private and intimate parts of their lives. The move to the Internet gave us an even more immediate way to reach our audience and presented smaller publications a way to survive as paper became unaffordable.
When I launched Red Kite Prayer in 2009, it was meant to feed a tiny niche, not exclusive, but dedicated; it was created to reward the lifers, no matter how old that life. I never intended it to be all-purpose. What I’ve wanted to say has grown. Some might say matured. I care less about what kind of bike and what kind of ride we write about than I do the overall mission, the desire to affirm that cycling gives us so much more than a fun way to burn calories.
The time has come for something new, something with a broader mission, something that aims to speak to any cyclist out there, to welcome all who like to pedal. That’s why The Cycling Independent.
It’s my belief that cyclists are ready for a media outlet that accepts no advertising and is thus free of commercial influence. Mistrust of large institutions (including publishing companies, or maybe especially publishing companies) is a common theme. Our desire is to present you, dear reader, with a site free of affiliate sales, paid placements and the rest, to treat you with the respect that I have always believed you deserve. Hopefully, you’ll want to do the same for us.
Subscriptions are entirely voluntary. There is no paywall. Subscribers will accrue benefits like some premium content available only to them, and access to other bonuses as we dream them up.
When I began reaching out to people to ask them to be a part of this, nearly everyone asked me the same question: What do you want to see from me? It’s a fair question, but it supposes that I’m a composer with parts for the first violins, the french horns and the cellos. In fact, I’m a lot more like a songwriter who walks into rehearsal with a really great riff but not a finished song. My response to everyone I talk to is the same: I want your passion. I trust your passion. Give me your passion and we will build an amazing publication together.
Instrumental in this is our editor-in-chief, Mike Cushionbury. Cush’s work at Dirt Rag showed that he had a vision like a fusion chef; he was matching eccentric personalities with brilliant writing, loners with patient photographers, rabble rousers with misfits. There was never a scenario in which he wasn’t my first call.
The “independent” part of The Cycling Independent is a crucial point for us. Independence frees us of commercial influence and grants even more latitude in creativity. But it also serves to herald that we aren’t part of a big corporation like Condé Nast, that every dollar you spend is going to the collection of names appearing in bylines.
To pull a another metaphor from my life as a musician, I’ve assembled a band of people who play well together, who give each other room and support each other. They get time to shine, as well, because as the leader of this operation, I can think of no better way to convey my respect than to let them chase their own creativity. This is a band I feel lucky to be a part of.
I hope you’ll support us. Give us your faith, and we will give you our very best.
The Cycling Independent