January 2019 marked 25 years of Chipps being a full-time bike journalist. Here, he pulls up some of the highlights of a quarter of a century that spans cantilever brakes to e-bikes and McRoy to Minnaar.
On 4th January 1994, I walked into the Trim Street offices of Future Publishing to start my first day as a full-time bicycle journalist with MTB Pro magazine. It’s a profession I’ve been in ever since – for the last 25 years.
Back then, and to a certain extent now, I didn’t have the slightest clue about what I was doing…
I know very few bike journos who actually set out to be one, with a clear vision from school to college to journo job. Virtually everyone just sort of falls into it and before you know it, you’re considered ‘old school’ and virtually unemployable in any other field. Once you’re in this game, it’s hard to leave. Especially when your work and social lives are so intertwined. And even more so when you realise how much tyres actually cost in a shop.
My entry to the bicycle journalist pantheon was just the same, with a series of chance meetings and events that got me where I am today.
You’re not listening.
The school careers officer said I should be a fashion photographer, or maybe an architect, but an ambivalence towards both fashion and numbers and a talent for (or at least a love of) ‘just writing’ saw me wanting to be an advertising copywriter. I went to college in London in the late ’80s and discovered mountain bikes after buying a cheap mountain bike to ride to college (and a copy of MBUK with Tim Davies riding an Orange on the cover). I soon started reading MBUK and MBi religiously, enthralled by this exciting new world.
There was no work for eager but inexperienced advertising copywriters in London, so I became a bicycle messenger in the West End (to this day one of the funnest jobs I’ve ever done). Did my first mountain bike race at Eastway. Bought some pink Onza bar ends from Edwardes in Camberwell – from a young Clive Gosling, who then sold me a better mountain bike (and who these days is a big cheese at Cannondale Sports Group – I told you that no one ever leaves…).
Ordered some onZa stickers from the importer, NTi (Nicol Trading International). They arrived with a typed price list.
Did more races, fell off on black ice on my way to one, which put me off the bike for six weeks. I used the time to write to mountain bike companies to see if they needed any brochure writing doing. Cannondale said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and Orange stayed northernly silent.
I wrote to NTi, importer of Onza, and some of the coolest brands, like Salsa, Bontrager, Merlin titanium and RockShox. I asked if they needed someone to write them a decent brochure. No reply.
I wrote to NTi again, sending them an awful poem about the joys of mountain biking. I threatened to send another terrible poem every day until they asked me round for a chat.
It only took one poem. The boss, Simon, asked me to come in to see him, saying that, while he had no need of a brochure writer, he did need someone to pack boxes and answer the phone.
I brought chocolate biscuits to the meeting. I started working that same afternoon.
Learning the ropes.
I spent two and half years at NTi in the early ’90s, which turned out to be an amazing crash course in the exciting new world of the mountain bike. I got to know frame builders like Dave Yates, Chas Roberts, Ross Shafer and Keith Bontrager, got to see the first Cane Creek threadless headset in the UK, the first USE suspension seatpost and the first RockShox Mag 20, all while packing thousands of onZa bar ends into boxes to send to shops. NTi carried many of the coolest and most cutting-edge products, so pro-racers, photographers and bike journalists would seek us out at races and shows. I met Steve Behr, Geoff Waugh, Brant Richards and John Stevenson (and a 12-year-old Doddy, the Saturday lad at the local bike shop).
And then I bumped into Nicky Crowther, Editor of Mountain Biker International, on a four-hour train journey to Exeter. She suggested that I have a go at writing the odd column for the magazine. I sent my first couple of efforts off (typewritten, of course, this was before emailing was common) and expected to get them back, red penned and with instructions to rewrite. Instead, they appeared in the next couple of issues of the magazine. I was dumbstruck, but happy with that. I now realise it’s far easier for a busy editor to fix anything that needs fixing and go to print, rather than to-and fro-ing with a distant author.
I also met American framebuilder, Greg Fuquay, who made beautifully TIG-welded mountain bikes in his one-man workshop in Suffolk. He also talked on the phone a lot. I suggested that maybe we could go into partnership – where I’d handle the phone and the orders and the marketing – and I’d lock him in a silent room to build frames and double his output. It seemed a good match, so I gave three months notice to Simon at NTi to give him time to replace me.
Unfortunately, after a couple of months, and with my replacement hired, Greg called to say that he didn’t think his small outfit could survive doubling in size to two people and he was going to have to call things off. I was committed to leaving my job and didn’t have anything to replace it. We decided to meet up in Thetford Forest that weekend at a bike race to talk about it.
At that bike race was John Stevenson from MBUK magazine. He heard about my predicament and told me that Paul Smith, the brilliant young technical writer at MTB Pro magazine, was leaving the Bath office to move back up North and do more freelance stuff from home. There was, therefore, an opening for a Technical Editor/Staff Writer in the office. Given that there weren’t many soon-to-be-unemployed people with the right skills and experience (basically ‘can spell and knows about bikes’), I had a good chance of getting the job.
A cursory interview, a quick ‘meet the team’ and I had a job offer, starting 4th January 1994. Which is about where we came in.
Nope. I’ve not got a clue.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that, although I felt like a clueless, small fish in the bike industry pond, the pond was also very small, and the waters were murky, to stretch a metaphor. The mountain bike ‘industry’ back then was still a collection of enthusiasts, mostly working in sheds and spare rooms. And, although I was making things up as I went along, so were most people.
The now-slick cycle of product launches and trade shows was in its early days then, with most launches and product news taking place at bike races or in a reasonably haphazard way (or not at all). In the pre-internet days of print magazines, there was a less urgent, slower and more considered pace to news and stories. Photos were shot on slide film and posted off to the developers and words were typed into a small Mac Classic black and white computer and handed to subeditors on floppy discs. Press releases arrived in the post – and if you wanted to meet up with someone, you phoned them.
Special interest magazine companies like Future had discovered that if you hired the young enthusiasts of those specialist subjects, whether it was bikes, guitars or needlepoint, you got writers with extensive and deep product knowledge, with the drive to make a brilliant publication about their chosen hobby. You also didn’t have to pay them very much; they didn’t care because they were doing what they loved.
And so the working environment was young and keen. We worked all hours to make the best magazines we could, because our friends and peers would be reading what we wrote. I don’t think I ever took my full holiday quota – and when I did, it was to travel to mountain bike events, or to go riding anyway.
Riders like Jason McRoy and Dave Hemming, or product designers like Adrian Carter and Pete Tomkins, were all good friends I’d see at events and all I really needed to do was to write about what I was already doing for fun. It only sunk home that I was part of a bigger thing when I went to the mountain bike World Champs in Vail, Colorado in 1994 in the company of Steve Behr and Steve Worland. We’d been to Interbike in Los Angeles and travelled on to the mountain town of Vail. The event sponsors, Diamondback, had sorted us out a suite that overlooked the start straight. My bed was four pillows wide. Walking into the marble lobby in my baggy shorts and seeing the likes of Gary Fisher in the lift only added to my impostor syndrome. However, I discovered then that if you act like you belong, and that you know what you’re doing, you can get away with a lot…
Slowly, though, I filled into my role. What a time to be involved in the sport! Product development and bike technology moved in giant leaps. The riders of the day had heroic status among fans (it took a good ten years before I could talk to John Tomac without gibbering) and the events were still huge draws for the crowds. In that pre-internet age, if you wanted to catch up on some mountain bike action (not to mention your friends) you went to the bike races. The sport hadn’t splintered into a hundred subdivisions then, so going to the Malverns, or the NEMBA or SAMS races would mean you’d see downhillers, cross-country racers, trials riders and good old ‘just riders’ alike.
Towards the end of the ’90s, the magazine I wrote for, by then called Mountain Bike World (which concentrated on the ‘why’ and not the ‘what’ of riding) was closed down to make room for another ‘What to buy’ magazine and I found myself out of a job. I freelanced for some of the bike mags and bike companies (I also helped Pat Adams put on the very first Mountain Mayhem 24-hour race, wrote a book for Clarks Shoes and started a singlespeed fanzine called The Outcast).
Then I got in with a dot-com company, keen to make a mark in the outdoor world and burning money at an impressive rate. I got a job as a writer and reviewer, but what struck me at the time was that however much money our website had, it was always rivalled in reach and newsgathering by gofar-mtb.com – a pokey website set up by some northern friends in a spare room. It turned out that it had initially been started as a reaction to the closure of my old magazine, Mountain Bike World, and so, when some of the founders, Mark, Carvel, Matt and Shaun, were approached by their readers to start a ‘real’ magazine, they came to me as someone who vaguely knew how to do it…
Crafting the Singletrack.
Singletrack Magazine and the singletrackworld.com website were launched on April Fool’s Day 2001, in the middle of the foot and mouth disease epidemic. Not an ideal business plan.
Singletrack was written and produced by three of us, with help from unpaid friends and financed by 500 people who paid us up front for a subscription, along with some ad revenue from companies keen to support us. However, we still had to pay the printer 100% up front.
We printed 10,000 copies, at roughly a pound a copy, and took them to the NEC Bike Show. We sold 248 in addition to the 500 who’d bought subscriptions. It took a long while to sell (or even give away) those early copies. Had we been good businessmen, we’d have looked at the numbers and our lack of wages and given up straight away. Unfortunately, we were idealistic dreamers and we didn’t want to let down our subscribers. I earned about £250 a month that year.
Slowly, slowly, we grew in numbers of readers and in the magazine’s reputation. We’d done the first three issues remotely, from home, only coming together for the last fortnight of magazine production. I was still living near Bath. When we decided we should get an office, I suggested Bristol and was told: “You’re the only single guy without a mortgage, you’re moving up north!”
The numbers continued to grow. Our website continued to attract mountain bikers who wanted a forum to call their own and we regularly outgunned (and eventually outlasted) some well-funded media outlets many times our size. We still couldn’t afford to pay contributors, and I was still living above the office.
Eventually I moved from above the office and we slowly recruited more hands to help us out. Many of those characters still work in the bicycle world and I hope they didn’t mind Singletrack derailing them from potentially prosperous careers elsewhere. We moved from our basement flat office to a canal lock-side cottage and eventually to the (slightly more) impressive offices we now occupy, complete with ten staff.
Don’t go changing.
In my mind, I’m no different to that nervous mountain biker on that first morning at work. I still write about what I’m doing and about things I like and I’m still waiting to be unmasked as a fraud, with no right to be here.
However, in that quarter century, the knowledge has seeped in through constant exposure and repetition. I’ve done my 10,000 hours of magazine editing now. I’ve subconsciously learned to glance over a writer’s work and to spot what needs fixing, or rewriting, or setting in stone. I can hear a story pitch and know how it’ll come out in print, and I can take the odd decent photo now and again.
I’m still an average mountain bike rider in a fantastic job. Of course, it’s not always fantastic (but who’d want to see pictures of those bits?) and I realise that most of the dull aspects of my job are like any other dull job. The only difference is that the good bits of my job are amazing.
This life that chose me has taken me to some incredible places and I’ve met some incredible people – both in and outside of the bike industry – all through a shared interest in muddy old pushbikes. And as long as people like you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.