I’ll never forget the first time I saw a copy of Rouleur. I picked it up and had a flick through. It seemed to be about cycle racing, but it was hard to tell. None of the articles had stand-firsts (those intro paragraphs that tell you roughly what you’re going to get over the next few pages), they just launched straight into some long-form writing. The photos rarely gave you any clue, either. In an 18-page piece about Shimano there was not one single photograph of a Shimano product, or even a bicycle. There was a factory, a huge fish, some telegraph poles, men in overalls and hard-hats, and a pick-up truck.
The writing was as long or as short as it needed to be, and most of the photography seemed to be in the style of Paul Graham. I was in the middle of a part-time photography degree at the time, and Rouleur struck me as being visually striking, but utterly bonkers from a publishing perspective. My fellow photography students loved it, my fellow cyclists hated it.
And that’s the thing with Rouleur…it’s a real Marmite product. Most people love it or hate it, but very few fall anywhere in the middle. Me, I love it. As a magazine man, I love its unapologetic lunacy. It flies in the face of all received wisdom about magazine publishing. It costs £10 a copy and yet carries relatively little advertising. They produce separate covers for the subscribers, devoid of barcodes and coverlines. And it comes out eight times a year. None of it makes any sense, and yet they do it anyway.
Chateau! Gateau! Respect!
The latest issue of Rouleur is number 58, and when it arrived with that reassuring thud on my doormat my heart sank. Oh god…cyclo-cross. I hate this time of year because it’s when all the mags try and convince us that cyclo-cross isn’t actually shit. Of course deep down we all know that it is shit, but in the spirit of the Emperor’s latest garments (something that seems to predominate in cycling) we nod sagely and murmur “Sven Nys” in reverential tones. Or declare, breezily, that Hertz van Rental’s exceptional bike-handling skills are down to his time spent cyclo-cross racing.
But it’s all bollocks…drop-bar off-roading is just stupid. You don’t need to adopt an aero tuck while ploughing through a quagmire at walking pace, or when your bike’s slung over your shoulder. If you want to get all muddy and tired, do mountain biking instead. On a mountain bike (a device purpose-built for this sort of thing). Don’t do it on a road bike that has been bastardised so that it is neither fish nor fowl. And do it in a beautiful wilderness, not round a field outside Milton Keynes or Ronse.
I have a theory…cyclo-cross is like speedway. Most of the people watching speedway have absolutely no interest in motorcycle sport, or motorcycles, they have an interest in speedway (and possibly beer and gambling). And most of the people at a cyclo-cross event have no interest in cycling. Look at the crowds at a cyclo-cross event. The vast majority of them are large, grey-haired, beery Belgian and Dutch men who have clearly never been near a drop-bar bike in their lives. For the crowd, this is an excellent excuse to meet up with like-minded beery people, have a beery barbecue in the rain, and then drive home slightly pissed smelling of the onions and ketchup.
Sure there are a few wannabe fans at these events…they run back and forth across the infield with their own CX bikes slung over their shoulders, hoping to get another glimpse of Saint Sven of Nys. But mostly the crowd is middle-aged men and young children, most of whom I suspect are related to people in the race. And, I’m afraid to say, from a spectator’s point of view it’s really quite boring.
Anyway, first up in the latest Rouleur is a piece about Sven Nys, who’s retiring at the end of this season. It’s actually moderately interesting, even if it still doesn’t convince me that cyclo-cross is anything other than rubbish. Then we have a nice piece about Hennie Kuipper, a man who won Olympic and World Championships, as well as a hatfull of Monuments, and of whom most people have never heard. I like pieces like this…I actually feel like I’ve learned something new, something that adds to my understanding of the sport.
The next big feature is absolutely beautiful. Entitled “Outsiders” it’s an extract from a new book about De Marchi, the company that made jerseys for some of Italy’s greatest (and not-so-great) cyclists. There are jerseys worn by Coppi and Cottur and Favero, beautifully photographed, and with a brief but incredibly lyrical story about the rider and the jersey. I don’t know if there will be an English language version of this book (these excerpts were translated by Andy McGrath, one of Rouleur’s staffers), but if there is, I want one.
Another heavyweight feature comes in the form of The Enemy Within. It’s a serious look at an unspoken taboo within the pro peloton – mental illness. Ex-racer and former British U23 National Champion Ben Greenwood opens up about depression, eating disorders and mental health issues within pro cycling. It’s a very interesting look at something few want to talk about, although I feel an opportunity was lost to go further. An add-on piece from a sports psychologist might have been useful , because this is something that seems to affect a large number of sportsmen and women (A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng is definitely worth a read on this subject).
After a 10-page piece about Adidas (no, I couldn’t care less either) is a nice piece about Dario Cataldo (Astana domestique). The editors of Cycle Sport and Pro Cycling should look at this, read this, and then try and understand why this piece is in a completely different league to the turgid stuff they churn out month after month.
It’s the same with the following article, ostensibly about about Charley Gaul but actually about the personality types in cycling and where we all fall on the Myers-Briggs scale. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking piece that I will revisit and think about for a while to come.
An that’s it. Another issue of Rouleur, and this is a particularly good one. With 102 editorial pages out of 146, this issue had rather more ads in it than I expected. And a fair number of those editorial pages are often dominated by arty white spaces or full-page photos, but ultimately it takes me longer to read Rouleur than anything else, and I feel I get better value from it than the lightweight drivel of some of the monthlies. Having said that, Rouleur doesn’t always get it right (the madness of redesigning the musette being a case in point…17 pages in issue 57!).