I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Bicycling, the main cycling magazine in the States. I receive a copy every month, courtesy of the subscription my grandma bought for me as a birthday gift. I enjoy pulling the magazine from its plastic sleeve, checking out the cover design, leafing through the pages. It’s nice, in our increasingly digital world, to still hold something in your hands. The simple act of turning pages in a magazine and being greeted by whatever spread of color and text awaits you is one of life’s pleasures that might be extinct in a few decades.
But the content is where the issues begin. In short, it’s either really good or really bad, ranging from high-quality journalism and photography to shameless bike porn and gear reviews that read like paid endorsements. Each issue, there seem to be a couple really solid pieces of short or long-form storytelling. Recent examples include a look into Colombia’s epic rides, the story of a former racer riding across the U.S., a dying man’s final race, and an attempt at completing the Dirty Kanza amidst some difficult life events. I like reading these pieces. They’re inspirational, funny, clever, well-written, and often accompanied by gorgeous photos.
The other stuff though. Ugh. How many times can you describe a bike’s ride feel without repeating the cliche and basically meaningless characteristics of another carbon bike that is so similar there’s really no way you could tell the difference between the two? How many ways can you say “this isn’t a bike specifically for racing, or club rides, or gravel: it’s just a bike, and it’s damn fun”? How many $5,000 bikes can you say are must-have, to die for, or totally worth it?
I get it. We all looking at nice bikes. But c’mon. It’s a magazine, not a catalogue. If I want to look at bikes, I go on a company’s website. If I want reviews, I’ll look up a specific bike online and see what people say–they will likely be more honest than the reviews in Bicycling, which are 99% positive. Besides, what are the chances that a bike you’re considering buying will show up in the review section of Bicycling? Not great. (Maybe you’re a person who just buys the next hottest thing–maybe you love this part of the magazine. But I don’t.) One exception is the end-of-year reviews, where they highlight top bikes in various categories. Those can actually be helpful. Generally though, the random reviews month-to-month just seem like filler, and I wonder what they accomplish other than selling more bikes for those companies.
Same goes for kit, sunglasses, shoes, etc. Especially the really expensive stuff. A paragraph about why I should buy $400 shoes because of how super light and amazing they are is an advertisement, not journalism. The worst is the new section they’ve thrown in the back that is basically a two-page spread of items, seemingly chosen at random, with one-sentence descriptions and, in many cases, low-quality photos. Do the companies pay to have their stuff included here? If not, why the hell waste the space?
I think, in general, the magazine has improved since Leigh Flickinger took over as editor–the amount of quality pieces per issue seems to be increasing to the point where I can count on at least one or two good reads. But everything else is pretty forgettable. They’ve done away with the letters to the editor section, which I always liked reading, and Bill Strickland (who is a fantastic writer, actually) no longer shares his thoughts in the opening pages.
I understand that Bicycling is up against a bleak print media landscape, and the content reflects that. Perhaps I shouldn’t hope for any more than a few good stories each month. Not from a magazine in this industry, in this world.