When I recently read a press release that VeloNews was ‘merging’ with its sister magazine, Peloton, and would no longer exist in print format, I was startled by the strength of my emotional reaction.
I have neither read, at least in print format, nor written for VeloNews magazine for many years. So why did the news have such an impact? It took me a while to analyse this. When I had, I felt compelled to write this story, which is a quite lengthy, possibly self-indulgent look at an iconic cycling magazine that had a significant impact upon my life.
VeloNews magazine was first published as Northeast Cycling News in March 1972 by Barbara and Robert George. It was based in a small town called Brattleboro Vermont, in the northeast corner of the US.
That same month, on the opposite side of the planet, a kid turned 10, got his first bike after years of saving and started racing in the ‘local lads’ junior races – a dated, sexist name from a bygone era. The velodrome happened to be a short ride from his family home in suburban Adelaide.
Northeast Cycling News, which had a low-cost, black and white newspaper format in its early years, quickly gained a national and international following, making it logical to change its name in 1975 to VeloNews.
Meanwhile, for years, the kid would spend hours in the State Library in the city centre of Adelaide devouring every word and photo in dog-eared copies of Cycling Weekly (UK) magazine, which couldn’t be borrowed, so had to be read in the ancient, foreboding, timber shelved, high-ceilinged reading room. Cycling Weekly was later to be joined by Winning and VeloNews.
Of course, that kid was me. I can still remember making the momentous decision some years later to take out an airmail subscription to VeloNews. This was a serious investment when almost all my scarce money usually went on racing bike gear, especially tyres.
Needless to say, I read every edition from cover to cover.
It’s hard to remember what life was like pre-internet and kids of today would struggle to fathom it. Far from having every fact instantly at your fingertips, you didn’t know who had won Paris Roubaix or so many other races until your airmail magazine arrived. Cycling wasn’t on any of the four black and white TV channels that formed the entirety of your choice. It wasn’t reported about in the local daily newspaper. Airfares were far more expensive in real terms and very few people travelled overseas.
Magazines were our lifeline to a mystical world where the top cyclists could actually make a living from their chosen sport.
I was always magnetically drawn to the events section at the back of each VeloNews, where there were ads of all sizes from classifieds to full page, for dozens of races. Most ads strongly emphasised the eye-watering amounts of money on offer.
Events like the Tour of Sommerville, Nutley, Trexlertown Velodrome series, AppleLap in New York City and others were offering total prize pools of $20,000, $30,000 even $50,000. But the biggest of them all was Milwaukee Superweek, with around $100,000 total prize money for a seven-day race series.
Putting that into context, at that time you could buy a new three-bedroom home in the boring ’burbs of Adelaide for about $40,000.
Meanwhile, we were still true ‘amateurs’, racing in a separate rival league to the Australian ‘pros’. We couldn’t race for cash, staying ‘pure’ in the hope of one day riding the Commonwealth Games or Olympics, which only became open to pros from 1996.
But even Australian pros earned a relative pittance and they all had day jobs.
In that era, the US racing scene was more accessible to Australians than Europe, thanks to VeloNews, Americans sharing the English language and having more of a ‘new frontier’ culture in cycling, unlike Europe which was very traditional, team-based and a harder nut to crack. This was long before the Australian Institute of Sport started to give aspiring Aussie racers a vital stepping stone.
So in this pre-internet era, I joined with three cycle racing contemporaries – two from SA and one from NSW – to create an informal privateer team and try our luck in the biggest US races. We heavily relied on VeloNews to plan our itinerary, chasing those magical dollars.
This was 1981. Airfares were still very expensive and I’d spent 1980 studying ‘full time’ at university, i.e. trying not to fall asleep in lectures after training rides and having a great year of racing results. Therefore, I had no money. I knew that my mother in particular would not be at all impressed with my plans, so before telling her, I quit university and took the first of a string of menial jobs to save money for the trip. It was a pivotal life decision I have never regretted.
I won’t go into detail about that trip, other than to say it was a great experience, but the big money proved a bit harder to win than we hoped. It was my first exposure to disciplined pro team riding, making it especially hard for us Aussie privateers to beat the then-emerging 7-Eleven team which later became the first US team to ride the Tour de France.
Meanwhile, fired with enthusiasm, the next logical step was Europe. I spent 1982 back in Australia working full time to save money before heading off in 1983 to race for the US Creteil team based in the suburbs of Paris, where my next, unlikely encounter with VeloNews occurred.
That year the Tour de France prologue and first stage were held in the suburbs of Paris, very close to the apartment where I was living with no less than seven other riders from the team. It did have five bedrooms and two bathrooms, but there was a fairly constant aroma of sweat, tyre glue and chain oil.
By Tour time in July, I was already starting to feel homesick and disillusioned. The racing was hard – that was no surprise. But the extent and relative openness of drug-taking, both within my team apartment and more generally, was a bridge too far for me. At one particular stage race that included the Russian national team. In my opinion, Blind Freddy could see that guys with legs that made mine look like toothpicks were on a government-supervised program of steroids, not yet detectible via drug testing.
I knew my childhood dream was coming to an end.
I already had some experience in writing for and publishing bike magazines, even though this was six years before I founded Bicycling Australia. On the eve of the Tour prologue, I felt inexorably drawn to visit the media room which was already a hive of activity.
There was not much security in these pre 9/11 days. I was able to walk straight into the huge press room where journalists were working, pre laptops and mobile phones, on long rows of desks.
I saw someone who looked like he had a friendly face and asked in my very poor French, ‘Parlez-vous Anglais?’
‘I am English.’
The reply in a cultured English accent turned out to belong to John Wilcockson, one of the English-speaking world’s best known cycling journalists. At that time, John was, from memory, European correspondent for VeloNews.
We started by chatting about the imminent Tour, and the up-and-coming Aussie pioneer Phil Anderson’s chances (he ended up 9th overall that year).
I was keen to share my revelations and disillusionment about the drug taking, but I got the distinct impression that John was not interested in discussing the topic.
Three weeks later, Tour debutant Laurent Fignon, who came up through the ranks via US Creteil which was a ‘farm team’ for Renault Gitane, triumphed for the first of his two career Tour wins. Fignon died from cancer at age 50, talking and writing openly before his early death about his cycling drug taking, with never-to-be-answered speculation that it may have been a cause.
It was interesting that, years later, John was portrayed in The Program, a movie about the Lance Armstrong doping saga, as one of a group of journalists that would not allow the ‘part time’ cycling and more mainstream journalist David Walsh to ride in their shared media car for fear of damaging their relationships with the peloton.
David Walsh was an Irish journalist who wrote for the UK’s Sunday Times newspaper. He courageously started writing about doping in cycling from 1998. After Lance finally lost his court case against US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) on 24th August 2012 and publicly admitted to systematic doping, Walsh was vindicated. He won 2012 Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards.
‘True story’ movies are notoriously ‘flexible’ with factual details, so I’m not making any allegations against John. But if VeloNews was part of the conspiracy of silence through the years, then so was Bicycling Australia and myself as the publisher. We had multiple instances over the years of direct conversations and ‘confessions’ from cyclists and coaches that we chose not to publish, for the sake of ongoing access to riders, advertising from sponsors, copy sales and for the general fear of being ostracised.
We were all happy to ride the gravy train when Lance was a global superstar. VeloNews, Bicycling Australia and all the other road cycling magazines of the era directly profited as a result.
But a happier outcome from our chance meeting in that media hall in 1983 was an exchange of addresses and an invitation to do some freelancing for VeloNews. Not that much was newsworthy from Australia, mainly Olympic team preparations and the like.
I might have my years confused, but I think this era was when I was interacting with Tim Blumenthal who was at one time editor of VeloNews and later had a long and distinguished career leading and growing IMBA then People for Bikes.
Fast forward to 1989. My wife and I started Bicycling Australia just one year after a young Felix Magowan, along with John and one or two investors, acquired VeloNews.
Felix and I had several similarities – we were both bespectacled, Anglo ex bicycle racers of the same age who had tried racing in Europe but hadn’t made the grade of the pro ranks.
Given my respect for VeloNews and its impact for most of my life, I would make a point of seeking out Felix at international trade shows such as Interbike and keeping in touch.
Fast forward to 1994 and the World MTB championships were being held in Vail, Colorado, not far up the Rocky Mountains road from the VeloNews headquarters in Boulder. VeloNews was the official media sponsor that year.
These were the early boom years of MTB. At that time, Felix thought he could run MTB and road content in the same magazine – something we also tried to emulate for years and failed to successfully do in Bicycling Australia, until we finally split off Mountain Biking Australia as a separate magazine.
I did not normally travel halfway around the world for a mountain bike race, but Cadel Evans was just starting his long stint as a columnist for us. He was equal favourite to become Junior Cross Country World Champion, as was his future career arch-rival, Frenchman Miguel Martinez. In addition to reporting on the overall event, I wanted to be there to support Cadel.
VeloNews graciously hosted me, helping with local travel and accommodation. The race itself was unforgettable. After just one lap, Martinez burst back into the village first, closely followed by Cadel and then silence for over a minute, a massive margin so early in the race, until the rest of the pack raced through in single file. That remained the order until the finish.
Meanwhile, our business relationship with VeloNews began to deepen. When the World Mountain Bike Championships were held in Cairns, VeloNews was again a sponsor and it co-produced the official program with us.
We repeated that trick for the cycling events at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but I’m not sure how ‘official’ that program was.
I was particularly interested in two VeloNews brand extensions: VeloGear (for merchandise sales) and VeloPress, under which a brilliant team led by Ted Costantino published a wide range of excellent cycling books.
At Felix’s invitation, I made another trip to Boulder and spent a few days interrogating the managers and staff of both VeloGear and VeloPress, before returning to create BAGear and BAPress.
Not only was this with his blessing, we also became the Australian distributor of VeloPress and shared VeloGear production runs and costs on all sorts of products including cycling sculptures, jewellery, Christmas cards. This was during the years before internet mail order really took off, but we’d be selling up to $3,000 per day in peak times, more than half of which was VeloPress or VeloGear based, so it was an important aspect of our business.
On a couple of occasions during this era, Felix actually requested to buy our company, as did others. My answer was always a flat ‘no’, naively thinking that this was my lifelong vocation. But our relationship with VeloNews always remained positive. On one occasion, I took a free ride in their media car to follow the Tour of Flanders Classic in Belgium, another memorable experience.
It seemed like shades of Forrest Gump. Velo News influence kept popping up at key moments of my life. That movie comes to mind because the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, named after the movie, has a restaurant in the heart of the famous Cannery Row at Monterey, California.
I’d like to embellish the story and say we ate there on this occasion, but it was actually a small restaurant right next door. It was around 2012. I was speaking at the Bicycle Leadership Conference which preceded the Sea Otter Classic, held during the following days, just inland at the famous Laguna Seca motor racing circuit.
It was a social dinner for a small group of acquaintances: me, Felix, Erich Reiss who co-founded the Eurobike Show and his colleague Peggy Lee, who was the Asian sales manager for Eurobike. I also can’t exactly recall the stage of the transaction, but Felix revealed that after many years, he was selling VeloNews and buying Space News – as the name suggests, this is the trade magazine for the space industry.
I remember strongly questioning why he’d want to leave his lifelong love of cycling to run some boring trade magazine for rocket scientists. Although with the benefit of hindsight, now that Messrs Musk, Bezos, Branson and others have decided to get into the space market, I suspect this media title, which he still owns, has been a wise investment.
Most importantly, this dinner meeting planted the seed thought that when it comes to business, it was perfectly okay to sell the baby you founded. The following year, we decided to sell Bicycling Australia and its related assets, a process that successfully proceeded in stages over the subsequent few years.
There’s just one final twist to our intertwined saga, which takes us to the present day.
Back in the late 1990s-early 2000s era, the Milan Bike Show was still one of the major global bicycle trade events. The organisers used to pay our airfares and accommodation to attend each year. Their hospitality was classic Italian … dinners, media lunches at Lake Como – it’s hard to resist the media gravy train!
In 2000, I became aware of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation charity for young people, then called Teen Challenge, now One80TC. My wife and I wanted to do something to support this charity but had no idea what.
At the Milan Show, the organisers were particularly keen for me to go outside and see the finish of some sort of bike ride. I was busy meeting exhibitors, photographing new products and really didn’t want to but, only because they were such generous hosts, reluctantly decided to go out and see what I thought might be a few touring cyclists meandering in.
Outside I found a stage, music and suddenly a police escort, blaring horns followed by perhaps 1,000 cyclists pouring into the courtyard, most wearing the event jersey. It turned out they’d organised a five-day ride from Rome to Milan for a small group of cyclists, who were joined by a much larger group on the outskirts of Milan for the final ride to the show.
I was totally unaware that Felix Magowan was one of the small group that did the five-day ride. I wouldn’t have recognised him amongst the throng of matching-jerseyed cyclists, but he saw me taking pictures from the stage and called out excitedly, “Phil, that ride was fantastic! You should do this in Australia!”.
That moment was the seed that became the Bicycling Australia Challenge. We were already running the Bicycling Australia Show, alternating between Melbourne and Sydney. The 2001 show would be in Sydney, so we organised a 10-day ride from Melbourne to Sydney via Thredbo for an eventual 98 participants, then a final-day mass participation ride within Sydney from Sutherland to Rosehill, finishing at the show.
The entire event was a major fundraiser for One80TC and has continued to this day, now with a different route, format and name after we handed over ownership to the charity, some years later.
From day one, we contracted a bicycle tour specialist, All Trails Bicycle Tours, to develop the route and manage all logistical aspects of the Melbourne to Sydney ride. Other routes followed in subsequent years, but this was the first.
Now, decades on, the founders Phil and Susan McDonald have retired, but All Trails is still in business and it’s running just one ride in 2022, using the same Melbourne to Sydney route. It just happens to coincide with my 60th birthday.
After 50 years, VeloNews is ending as a print magazine.
After 50 years, this will also be the last major ride for the kid who started racing aged 10 on the other side of the world, and who owes a debt of gratitude to VeloNews.
Phil’s ‘60 or Bust!’ charity ride is raising funds for World Bicycle Relief and We Ride Australia. If you’d like to support Phil as he rides for these charities, please visit our sponsor page here.
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