Ten Years After (I’d Love to Change the World)

Tell me where is sanity?
Tax the rich.
Feed the poor.
Til there are no rich no more.
I’d love to change the world but I don’t know what to do.
So I leave it up to you …

Alvin Lee

It took about twenty years to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

It took about six years for Tolstoy to write “War and Peace.”

It took about ten years to develop the theory of relativity.

It took between six and seven hundred years to write the Old Testament.

And it took somewhere around a decade for Chaucer to write the Canterbury Tales.

Today is the tenth anniversary of Cycling in the South Bay: 2,645 posts, 46,192 published comments, an estimated 1.3 million words, an average of .72 posts per day or one full post for 262 days out of each year. Compared with the other significant events listed above, well, there’s not really much comparison. But what you got is what you got …

My first post, on January 20, 2011, was about Andy Coggan, the famed exercise physiologist who developed the science behind training with power. I met Andy while we were both studying in Austin, and that first post was about his audacious win at the Texas state road race. I only wrote three posts that month. In fact, after a handful of posts in February, I wrote nothing again until August, after which time I began posting regularly, and have continued pretty regularly ever since.

Cycling in the South Bay, however, was preceded by another blog I wrote and deleted whose name I don’t recall but which was also about local cycling happenings. That blog was in turn preceded by a blog about doping in cycling, and before that I wrote a private email newsletter to a small group of friends ridiculing the weekly silliness that occurred on the roads of SoCal in the name of sporty bicycle riding.

That incendiary newsletter had as its antecedent the legendary cycling newsletter written by Roger Worthington under the pseudonym Max Kash Agro. Those inimitable publications written to glorify Team Labor Power are lost to the Internet, but Roger’s debut as a cycling scribe showed that glass smashing in the cycling world garners readers.

The precursor to those newsletters were the monthly typewritten newsletters of Jack Pritchard, penned for the Violet Crown Sports Association in Austin. Jack was funny, weird, witty, literate, and a keen observer of cycling through lenses distorted by acid, THC, and various other substances. It was Jack’s writing and offbeat style that I read in my 20s that stuck with me.

By the time that Cycling in the South Bay found its almost-invisible-niche-within-a-microscopic-crevasse on the Internet, I was sure that I wanted to write about cycling, but also sure I didn’t want to write about cycling. What I was even more sure about was that I didn’t want to do it every day. Gradually, however, that’s what it more or less became. With a wide range of posts in quality, quantity, and subject matter, what’s clear is that this blog has given me an outlet through thick and thin to have a conversation about people and life as reflected through bicycling.

Daily writing is hard regardless of the content or the length. But daily writing makes it easier to write daily, just like sitting on the couch leads to more couching and more activity generates more activity. Squeezing in a blog post between work, family, reading, bicycling, and social life has often been tough, but it’s always been worth it. The good words, the disparagement, the silence refracting back, the vociferous responses, all of these things have made writing this blog its own reward.

In 2011 there were a bunch of people with blogs that posted daily about cycling. In those days, a cycling blog was a publication written by a single person. Guys like Steve Tilford, Bike Snob, Dave Moulton, Drunk Cyclist, Fatty, Patrick Brady, and so many more were churning out relevant, readable stuff almost every day.

Ten years later there are hardly any true single-malt “blogs” left. The grind of daily publication has converted folks into managers of cycling web sites that focus on news, product reviews, and multiple, often anonymous writers. The driver for almost of all of them is advertising or some kind of direct connection to major media, such as BikeSnob’s relationship with Mariah Media, owner of Outside Magazine.

I hope you’ll correct me, but single-malt blogs with near-daily publication that have been around for more than a few years are rare. Todd Brown is on the money, every single day, and has been for nine years. BikeSnob remains the next most prolific, with 3-4 posts a week since 2007, sometimes less, and Dave Moulton has dropped down to once a week. Writing daily, or nearly daily, about cycling, is simply not sustainable, apparently. People not only run out of things to say, but having to say something daily, in print, puts a whole other level of difficulty on the matter. Burn out? More like flame out.

So on this tenth anniversary I thought I’d share with you some of the dirty undershorts of bike blogging, starting with why I do it. Short answer? I love to write, and the pain of writing daily is less than the pain of knowing that I skipped a day. I’m compelled. Why? No idea.

The writing itself isn’t as hard as it may look. I focus on things that I have actually seen and done, rather than scouring the news for things to riff off, although I’ve done my share of that. At the very beginning, Michael Marckx, who really encouraged me to persevere, described me as a “method writer.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“You do it then write about it.”

It was mostly true then, and it’s really true now. The South Bay has been filled with whacky racers, offbeat characters, and general nutballs since, like forever. Meeting them, riding with them, and viewing their antics up close has made the subject matter relatively easy to come by. Same goes for racing. I used to race a bunch, and things always seemed to happen that were unexpected.

But more than that, unlike a lot of cycling writers, I enjoy going out and doing non-cycling things and writing about them as well. Trips to Japan, China, Austria, Germany, sometimes with bike, sometimes without, were always fodder for the daily publication schedule. And transitioning into a commuter and bike tourist means that the opportunities are broader still.

As a mindset, in order to write a daily bike blog, you have to be willing to ask, “Why did that happen?” About everything … It often draws you into conflict with, well, everyone, but that’s the beauty of not being dependent on advertisers. If people don’t like what you think, it’s their problem, not your bottom line. And if they hate what you say but read it anyway, well, a reader is a reader.

I’ve found the challenge not so much writing daily, but not falling into a routine. Everything even remotely connected to a bicycle is fair game. Most bike bloggers have a bent that becomes a format of some sort such as racing, community, advocacy, but most often GEAR AND CLOTHES. Eventually they get tired penning the same things about the same themes and shift over to the web site, multi-contributor, advertising format. Readers often want predictability, especially if they’re subscribing, but predictability is the kryptonite of creativity.

Another thing that matters greatly is summed up in that old adage, “The difference between you today and you last year is the people you’ve met, the books you’ve read, and the places you’ve been.” Books not related to cycling are an incredible stimulus to write, so much so that it’s almost a litmus test for whether or not you’re a writer. Good books fire me up and infuse me with energy to go forth and write. Great books make me want to reach for the stars.

And of course things have changed. In 2011 I was 47 and riding full throttle. Today I’m 57 and waiting for Amazon to drop off a case of ATP. In 2011 I was married and raising kids. Today I’m separated and my kids are all grown, as in “graduated from college and fully employed in lawful occupations.” In 2011 I was about to drop off into another ravine of alcoholism. Today I no longer drink. In 2011 I raced. Today I tour. In 2011 I spent all my leisure time riding. Today I spend much of it memorizing and reciting Chaucer, about five hours daily in fact. In 2011 I drove a car. Today I’m carless.

This blog has changed, too. Writing when fueled by alcohol gave my writing a wilder edge, a willingness to say things that, under the influence of, say, water, I might not have said. It’s also less and less about cycling in the South Bay, and hardly at all about racing in any iteration. People still want to hear about the characters and the machinations in the SoCal cycling scene, but I no longer want to be the purveyor of that especial brand of titillating gossip. Well, not as much as I used to … Then I was racing, or preparing for racing, and writing about it. Today I’m commuting, touring, and living car-free, and writing about that. It’s a big shift.

With 2,645 posts, I have some favorites. With regard to advocacy, the writing I did about Palos Verdes Estates and its fomenting of an anti-cycling ethos remains some of the most solid writing I’ve done, as it dealt with the racist history of the city, the use of the police force to keep “outsiders” off of public roads, and the attempts of terrible people like Robert Chapman to intimidate and harass those in the cycling community.

I’ve written some things that still make me giggle, like this post about a bike for sale, this response to an email from Hair correcting me about an NPR sprint finish, this most memorable race report, and various other bits of bike silliness. I’ve written some good stuff about doping, from my prediction that Lance was going to confess to my analysis of Chris Froome’s doping, and have given some of the local cheats a bit of publicity they’d rather have done without.

The advocacy I’ve written about and engaged in couldn’t have happened without my blog. Now it’s a matter of course to take the lane on PCH, but I and a handful of other riders including Gary Cziko and Tara Unversagt were the people who actually did it, and then backed it up with meetings with the sheriff’s department and CHP. I still remember Greg Seyranian, president of Big Orange, saying we were “crazy” and telling his club riders not to join as we rolled out. Big Orange is now one of the biggest, loudest, and most effective advocates for lane control on PCH. I’m pretty sure they haven’t put my star on their walk of fame.

Same goes for the die-ins that we staged in Palos Verdes, as well as the incredible unity that the South Bay cycling community showed at city council hearings to advocate for an ultimately losing effort to incorporate bicycles into the city’s transportation planning, despite the deaths of two cyclists on the hill in a single year. We lost the battle, but perhaps not the war–PV drivers seem to be a lot more considerate of cyclists than they used to be.

In a much smaller vein, my continual harping on cyclists getting maximum uniderinsured/uninsured motorist insurance has made a difference in the lives of a few folks. It’s not glamorous, but it is the kind of writing that has made a huge difference in a few very tragic circumstances.

Likewise, some of the most effective writing I’ve done has been working with Gary Cziko to get the word out about using Savvy Cycling techniques to ride safely and confidently in traffic. Those posts were often tethered to seminars that Gary put on to help people learn how to thrive in even the worst urban traffic. I’m confident that they averted collisions for some people, saved lives, and made riding a lot more enjoyable for many others.

My non-use of a helmet has garnered me lots of criticism from people who don’t want to discuss the issue and prefer to knee-jerk. But I still stand by my basic proposition, which is that what we need are competent cyclists, laws that don’t reward cagers for killing bikers, radically reduced car speeds, and incorporation of bikes into transportation planning much more than we need imaginary “silver bullet” head coverings.

Of course there are a lot of things I’ve written that evoke shudders and cringes. But in 2,645 posts and 1.3 million words, they can’t all be memorable. And rather than curate, I prefer leaving the chaff in there along with the wheat, if there is any.

But going forward? Well, as Yogi Berra said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” I plan to continue my basic approach of “method writing” and carry it with me into this next phase of exploration by bike, living by bike, rediscovering life by bike. There won’t be any more drunken funnies, but there will hopefully still be some funnies. I was relieved that on my rides to Canada, back to LA, and to Houston I was always able, no matter how bitter the weather, how long the ride, or how destroyed I felt, to still crank out a story, a report, an update with pictures.

If I’ve changed as a writer in ten years, it has been simply: I used to write for free, now I am paid to do it. The $2.99/month subscriptions that I solicit, however small they may be, motivate me to do better, to work harder, to give people something that is worth what they pay. It’s a humble kind of professionalism, but in many ways the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.

Here’s hoping I don’t get fired, at least not anytime soon.