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Riding Toward the Fold


Many, if not most people who remain interested in cycling for more than a summer end up subscribing to one of the various bicycling-oriented magazines for a year or so.  These glossy publications, usually monthly issues, cover all the latest gear, the biggest races, and the most current fashion in the bike world. You will often see a riders in your area that look like they just finished reading the magazine and ran out to ride - wearing the same jerseys, the same shoes, the same glasses and riding the same bikes you saw on this months cover.

Or, was that on the cover of the previous issue?  Or last year?

The truth of the matter is that the current crop of magazines look so similar from issue to issue that it's hard to know if a new issue arrived, or your house mate simply cleaned last year's issues from under the sofa.

The format is very predictable.  The cover will almost always feature a male rider, riding to the left, toward the fold (shaved legs and all), on a spiffy new bike, wearing a jersey emblazoned with the name of sponsors the rider "wishes" would pay him to ride.

Vary rarely will the rider be coming head on, or going to the right.  Maybe two issues a year.  Very very rarely will the rider be female.  Very rarely.  Maybe one issue every two years, unless she just medaled in the Olympics or something.

Close up shot of the latest shifter? Someone out in the park for a ride, or commuting to work? A troop of boy scouts on bikes?  Never happen! Not on the cover.

If you over look the cover photo, (and you will miss precious little if you do), and try to find one of the articles mentioned in huge flashy letters on the front, you will be tormented with several minutes of searching.  It seems like you can never really find the articles mentioned on the front of these magazines, almost as if the front covers are placed at random on each issue. 

But have faith, if you read every word you might actually find a couple column inches dealing, tangentially, with almost everything mentioned on the cover.  Most of the time. Not always. I remember one issue where I searched in vain for the article and wrote an Email to the editor asking what page it was on only to be told it wasn't done in time to meet the deadline.  The cover was.  Go figure.

After reading these magazines for a while you begin to think you've seen the same article before.  If you are a poor housekeeper, or live near a library, you can probably dig through prior issues and find a similar article almost two years to-the-day prior to any given general article in this month's issue.

It's an open secret (as the Russians are fond of saying), that these publications recycle articles.  That's not all bad, for a couple of very good reasons: 

  • The search for "grist for the mill", new articles, uncovered topics, or novel story lines is an increasingly fruitless quest. It's all been said before.

  • The magazines have figured out that the average subscription duration is two years.  After that the reader moves on, and a new crop of subscribers takes over. (Two years of shaved legs is all most guys can stand.)  The new crop is hungry for the same novice material covered two years ago.  Hence, the two-year cycle.

Further, you will notice a high incidence of two magazines covering the same topic the same month.  I'm not talking about news items here, just the general topics, like bike maintenance, the latest bike food fad, the same repeated "training" articles.  (Training for what?  Who do they think their readers are - the US Olympic team?).  It's like they have spies in each others' offices, leaking stories to one another. There isn't enough room in the market for one such publication, let along 3 of 4.

The sad truth of these magazines is that if you read a year's worth of these magazines you've read everything they have to say.  They could just as well put up a web site, cover all the usual topics, create a good index, and save the trees.

Sooner or later you realize these publications do not exist to serve you, the reader, but rather, to serve the bike industry.  The advertising that they carry (boy do they ever carry advertising) is not incidental to the articles; it's exactly the other way around.  The advertising is the raison d'etre of these publications.

You, the subscriber are, incidental. You matter only in gross numbers.  The larger the distribution, the more they can charge for the ads.  The more they charge for the ads, the less the subscription fees matter.  So why don't they just Give the magazine away?  People won't generally take free advertising.  But for some reason if you print $3.50 on the cover but sell it for 49 cents per issue, people believe it's a good deal.  For about two years anyway.

Something is lost in all the "unbiased" product reviews of bikes and indistinguishable jerseys.  Something is missing in the coverage of yet another bike race that you didn't get to see. What's lost is the simple joy and practicality of riding a bike.

Writers will wax eloquent as they try to impress you with their climbing ability in the guise of putting the next gee-whiz frame "through its paces" (whatever that shop worn phrase means).  But they rarely touch upon how fun it was.  They never mention the porcupine they stopped to watch eating clover beside the road, or the ease of finding a parking spot next to the restaurant where they stopped for lunch.

It's not about riding bikes. It's about selling bikes.

And that's fine.  As long as you know the game plan.  You might even pick up a tip on bike maintenance along the way.  But you will have to wait, on average 1 year for the subject to come up.  (You can find it on the Internet in about 30 seconds.) 

Don't get me wrong, I buy one of these magazines once a year or so, and occasionally browse them in the news stands.  I do it just to see the latest gizmo, or the slick new frames.  True to form, each time I encounter yet another re-hash of that "training" article I first read in 1983. 

I don't really expect to find an article on obeying the rules of the road, proper lane positioning when approaching a left turn, how to determine if a driver is about to pull out in front of you, or simply being predictable in traffic.

I don't expect to see articles on how to clean the bike after a commute home in the rain (they never ride in the rain), or how do deal with riding in snow.  (I once asked one editor why they never wrote about winter cycling.  His excuse: the magazine was published in southern California where they don't get winter!  Maybe they never get riders going to the right on the left coast either.)

As long as you understand that these magazines are there to serve a market rather than serving the reader your expectations will be about right.

But most bike stores will let you browse for free, and the big mail order places will send you a catalog for a year if you buy six bucks worth of inner tubes from them.  There are far cheaper ways to get your monthly quota of advertising.  And riding a bike is more interesting than reading about riding a bike.

Bicycling is timeless.

We wish bicycling magazines had greater depth, broader coverage, and less repetition.  But we understand the difficulties of coming up with new monthly articles. This is especially so with a subject as timeless as cycling. 

After a few years of cycling, most bike riders come to understand virtually everything they will ever need to know about bikes. Bikes are fairly simple machines. 

And most come to realize bicycling is not about next years bike, or the latest craze in gear clusters.

Bicycling is about the moment, the road, and the ride.  

It's getting from point A to point B.  It's suddenly finding yourself 30 miles from home - farther than you can walk in a day - and having absolute confidence you will be home for dinner, under your own power, in a couple hours.

We at Bicycling Life don't pretend to keep up to date on the latest gizmo for our bikes, the latest training regimes,  and the subject of fashion hasn't reared its head to date.  Therefore, we seldom spend much time with the current bike magazine fare.

From where we stand, we can find out more reliable information about equipment at the Local Bike Store.  We can find more timely race results on any number of web sites.

And from where we stand, at the edge of the road, we actually see people riding toward the right, away from the fold, and they are not all males, and yes, sometimes it rains.




John Andersen



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