Zen and the art of bicycle riding

by Steve Watson in November 2009
Share on Facebook, Twitter or Copy Link
The Ride Journal cover detail

Earlier this month I sent out the cycling magazine The Ride Journal. It’s a truly remarkable magazine made all the more so by the fact that its founders don’t make any money from it – they give away all their profits to charity. But can such a dense, well made magazine really run on love alone? I asked editor Philip Diprose.

The magazine is clearly a labour of love – I was thinking maybe you could tell me a bit about how it started?
No problem. It started from a group of us on a cycling weekend talking about what was out there and deciding that it didn’t really speak to us. Certain magazines covered certain things well, but nothing really spoke of the soul of cycling and nothing really captured the passion that we felt.

And also as we looked around everything seemed to be very neatly pigeon holed, so if you were into road riding you’d read this and down hilling you’d read this and BMX you’d read this, and we’d got to a point in our cycling lives where we were doing bits of everything. If the weather was good we wanted to do a road ride, or if the weather was bad we wanted to do some cyclocross or some mountain biking, and we were all commuting more than anything else. To say we were all-round cyclists makes it sound as though we were any good at what we were doing, but we had a love for all types of bikes, be they fixed gear or BMX or free ride or whatever, so we looked at what was out there and decided that we wanted to do something that was slightly better than the rest of the magazines.

You’re saying ‘we’ – I know that it’s you and your brother and there’s somebody else isn’t there?
Yes – there were four to start with, but with one of us life commitments sort of got in the way, so it’s kind of my brother and I and a friend of ours who helps out with the website and the illustrations for the drop cap letters. So yeah, it was wondering if we could do better than what was out there, and then when we started talking to people about it they thought that it was actually quite a good idea as well and we wondered why somebody hadn’t done something like this before.

The vision that I had, which is slowly coming to fruition, is that it should be international as well. To start with we had to rely on people that we knew, so the first issue was quite UK-centric because of that, but since then because we’ve had something we can actually show to people, it’s managed to grow and become more international. It’s also worth saying that without the internet we’d have been absolutely scuppered, because through people’s blogs and websites word of mouth has managed to spread our word far better than we could, and we can hit an international audience and people can order copies online from wherever they are in the world, and it’s talked about by people in ways that we’d never have been able to get the word out there.

I had a bloke contact me just this week asking if I had any copies of issue one that I could sell him, and he’d been contacting all sorts of bike shops and obscure places looking for it. There’s clearly a real market for what you’re doing.
If I had a quid for every time I was asked for a copy of issue one! The bizarre thing is that at the end of each issue it seems to die down but then it starts up again. There are a few copies of issue one starting to appear every now and then on eBay, but we’re hoping for hugely inflated eBay prices at some point! The trouble is that it’s never quite enough to make a reprint worthwhile, because if we reprinted we’d have to do at least 1,000 and that would be a bit more hard work. And also I like the fact that everyone that has got issue one feels a bit special. And the first 1,000 were numbered as well, so the people who have got numbered issues are the extra special ones.

There’s clearly a huge interest in the magazine – are you making any money from it?
In a word, no, largely due to the fact that because of the number of contributors we’ve got, we thought that if we did divide the profits and pay them for the work they’re doing, what they got paid would be more of an insult than an actual payment. So in a fit of benevolence we thought that instead of paying ourselves as well, we’d do all of our work for free and at the end of each issue we take a little bit of the money to keep the journal going, and then take the rest of the money and spread it between various charities, which change with each issue. So no, we’re not the best of business models because we give away what we make at the end of it.

So it really is a labour of love?
Yes. Completely.

And are you planning to carry on in that vein?
I don’t know if we will ever be able to do it where we could afford to pay the contributors what the quality of their work is worth, because we’ve had so many amazing people getting in touch and donating their work for free. At the moment we’re just thinking about keeping it going the way that it is, but we have been approached by a number of people that would change the way the magazine gets out there and we’re very precious because it’s our baby, but we’re also thinking that this might be a way to get it seen by more people. So watch this space!

So is that an external publisher?
More distribution than publishing, but we’ve had some interested parties. Unfortunately it’s not like someone approaching Google and offering them millions of pounds for their invention, at which point we’d completely sell out, take the money and run. We need to discuss all this further with them, but if they’re on the same wavelength as us it could be a good thing. It’s never going to be up there on the same level as the big selling bike magazines – at the moment we’re only 3,500 copies for this run, which is a drop in the ocean for most magazines – but we’re slowly growing and we intend to keep a very tight rein on what happens with it in the future.

Of course. You mention that you’ve got lots of really talented contributors on the magazine, but do you find that the opposite is true as well? Because lots of your contributors aren’t actually writers, so do you have to do a lot of work editing stories?
I’m having to discover tact that I don’t usually have. There are some people who, although they might not be technically the best writers, you can read the personality and the passion in what they’re saying, and I think that sometimes you can have somebody whose grammar and all the rest of it is very precise, but what they’re saying might not speak to the soul, so I think there’s a balance to be found. If you look at the writers we have you can tell that a lot of them aren’t professional writers, but I think that if you get the passion that’s in the story and if it speaks to you as a tale, that transcends the grammar. And also we’ve got an incredibly good subeditor who has managed to beat some works into very readable pieces.

You use the phrase “speaking from the soul” and you referred earlier to the soul of cycling – it seems to me that there are lots of stories in the magazine about pain, healing and the spirituality of cycling. Where does that come from?
I think there’s a noble suffering to some of the riding you do as a cyclist. And I think that in a lot of other publications, some may hint towards it but mainly they veer towards the new technology, the latest carbon fibre and all that. And I think that it’s a very singular sport – you might be riding with a lot of other people, but the actual experience you get from cycling is something that only you will get. Even in a large group of people, everyone will take something slightly different from it.

I think it’s very easy for people to relate to that solitary experience. And without wanting to come across too hippy or Zen about it, there is a sort of spiritual element to it, and just the channelling of energy and the release of energy and the fact that it can take you to so many places; it could be the absolute focus of somebody riding in a BMX race that’s over in two minutes or it could be the rider out on a training ride for five hours. Although it’s a very different experience that they’re getting, people reading about it can relate to that and they can put their own feeling into those stories. That probably doesn’t answer the question at all!

No I think you’re right. I don’t even own a bike and I get totally drawn in by the strength of the passion in the magazine. I love the story by the cyclist’s wife too – it’s good to get the outsider’s view.
The strange thing is that people tell us we’re very much the non-cyclist’s cycling magazine. And we appear to be the cycling widow’s favourite magazine as well. I say widow because although there are a lot of obsessed female cyclists out there, I think with a lot of things, be it record collecting or train spotting, the male obsessive gene seems to kick in slightly harder. So we pander to that while acknowledging that it’s not necessarily a very healthy thing to have. And I think that with the design of it and the fact that we want it to look as strong as possible, means that it has a crossover potential that a lot of other cycling magazines don’t have.

Are you working on the next issue at the moment?
Tentatively. I’m currently replying to emails from people asking if they can get hold of issue one, and every individual order that comes through I have to process and stick all the details on a spreadsheet – in the last week I’ve typed up almost 600 names on Excel spreadsheets – so that’s my evenings taken care of! I’m using up as many Brownie points as I’ve got with my wife, who very kindly lets me spend my evenings typing up names and addresses while she sits there disapprovingly because I don’t spend any time with her! And she’s just saying now that she only watches Eastenders so I can get a bit of time on the computer.

Okay, so one last question before you get back to the spreadsheets. You’ve just had your new issue come out – are you happy with it, are there any bits that niggle you?
I’m always pleased. I think this is the strongest one we’ve done so far, and the time that I stop thinking that the latest one is the strongest one is probably the time that we should stop doing it. There’s always things where there are people we wanted to get who slipped by the wayside that hopefully we might get for issue four, but the fact that we’re balancing it all with day jobs means it’s never an easy thing to bear, and by the end of making each issue I’m vaguely sick of looking at it. But then as soon as it comes back from the printers and as soon as we start to hear that people are liking it, it invigorates my love for it again. It’s sort of like an energy bar, and once I get enough positive emails from people I start thinking, ‘yeah! Issue four could be even better than this!’

Issue four is definitely going to happen, and I’ve actually got some of the pieces in for it, which has never happened on previous issues. But because we want to keep it special and we want to keep people looking forward to the next issue coming out, we’re not going to rush it. We’re looking at somewhere in the region of late spring for it coming out, but we’re not being any more specific than that. The joy of not being tied to a print company!

Close Icon

Join our magazine club! Subscribe to Stack and every month we'll pick a different independent title and deliver it to your door. You never know what you'll get next...

Subscribe now