Bicycle Magazine Comparisons

28 Sep

A happy coincidence in articles within the latest Bicycle Quarterly and Bicycling, both on the Dursley Pedersen bike, led me to dream up some comparative notes, in case you were wondering how to spend your recession-proof subscription dollars.

Bicycle Quarterly used to be known as Vintage Bicycle Quarterly, giving some idea of its orientation. It is a completely black-and-white magazine. Photographs are generally of an amateur level (for the incidental, in-article ones), extreme museum quality (for certain staged pictures) and then carefully curated historical pictures that, personally, I find fascinating. There is a near-total focus on the demographic and topic of the “performance amateur” and especially the sport of randonneurring. It seems to be a labor of love from one fellow, Jan Heine, who is heavily involved in the local Seattle International Randonneurs group. He brings a curious blend of art and science, wrapped up in personal and relatively objective observations. I find his style exceedingly enjoyable. I could see how some might not.

I believe there is some beef with Editor and chief writer Heine in that he sells some of the products that are reviewed. Considering he probably sells a relatively small amount of these items (how big is the market for 650b tires, really?) I find this complaint to be ridiculous, and his efforts to be almost charming. How much worse is this than to have Bicycling run a two-page review of a Pinarello in the same issue where there’s a four-page advert? If anything, I think his obvious role as official spokesman for the Wide and Supple Tire Industry is the only questionable ethics issue (ha!). Seriously though, he’s championing something which, through lots of empirical testing and anecdotal mileage, he believes in. This is small taters when we’re all inured to watching cable news channels features some ex-general or ex-industry titan or other, paid handsomely in yearly ‘consultant’ stipends that run in the hundreds of thousands if not more (what a bargain that must seem to their masters!), say in one week “This is the WORST recession ever!” and follow up the next week with “What recession?” to perpetuate the sit-and-spin ‘cycle’.

Two recent intersections between Bicycling and Bicycle Quarterly: BQ published a (very amusing) article on a field test of a Trek Madone, and the aforementioned Dursley Pedersen (part of an ‘oddball bike geometry’ general issue). For the Trek Madone, unsurprisingly, BQ found that it wasn’t a whole lot faster than a very lightweight, steel, planing old-school bike. Many readers seemed, somehow, surprised at the conclusions, as voiced in the Reader’s Forum. On the one hand, and from experience, I do honestly feel a 19 pound steel bike with a lively vibe isn’t necessarily slower on the flats or hills than a 16-lb carbon wonder. Those three pounds make up only a fraction of the weight differential when factoring in the rider and water bottles etc. Would I want to race a criterium on a 19-lb steel bike? Would I sprint on one? If you’re sprinting, and your livelihood depends on it, then yes you’ll want to ‘spring’ for the fancy carbon bike. On the other hand, what pleases me the most about BQ’s treatment of the notion is that, simply, they have the guts to bring it up. I get so sick of the ‘understood’ logic in mags like Bicycling where they compare the 2011 Madone to the 2010 Madone and talk about how much more (fill in the vaguely physics/mechanical adjective) it is. Seriously? You buy a $6000 bike one year and you MUST get a $7000 version of the same thing the next year because the shifting is ‘crisper’ and it ‘glides through corners’?

Bicycling’s reviews of such high-end bikes tend to be oriented from the perspective of the ‘gentleman racer’ i.e. from a land of bullshit the majority of us can only pretend to aspire to. It’s not so smarmy as the Rapha stuff, but it does feel as if written from one dentist to the other. “Oh, now, this Pinarello, this is the one you want.” As evidence, the amount of column inches spent on the ‘comfort’ features. Sorry, but that’s dentist-level stuff.

Bicycle Quarterly’s reviews, in stark B&W contrast, literally start with a Summary section. The paragraph is labeled, in bold, Summary. Then he (usually Jan Heine) proceeds on a predetermined vector of seemingly scrupulous testing methodology. At least six times he’ll throw in the phrase ‘wide, supple tires’ such as “if equipped with wide, supple tires, this bike would no doubt have handled the (gravel, road, dirt, curves, bumps, life) much better.” The article is then peppered with and followed by a column inch or two of footnotes. Footnotes! In 2010! Seriously, footnotes. He actually ties back to other articles he’s written, or to other sources of information. I rather doubt that anyone involved with any of the other modern magazines even vaguely remembers what footnotes are, or the idea of a collaborative circularity. His footnotes run to the order and level of the Adobe Illustrator graphics in Bicycling; where they have dozens of layers in that Illustrator file, he’ll have dozens of traceable references.

The last two issues of these mags showcased the other intersection. In BQ’s article on the Dursley Pedersen, he actually reviews one built in the 80s, with an inclusion of pictures of an historical 1910 version. I say ‘actually’ because he talks about the ride quality, the fact you have to completely dismount at stoplights, etc. Ultimately he was impressed: “If the original Dursley Pedersen rode like this 1980s reproduction, they offered a spirited ride and very good comfort.” There are six pictures of the Pedersen, pulled mostly from Heine’s book The Competition Bicycle (hence the museum-quality images).

In Bicycling, you have in contrast the journalistic equivalent of a blog entry. [Ahem.] It’s an awkward editorial mess, a disjointed narrative about one person’s attempt to purchase a Pedersen replica, entitled ‘A Strange and Not Unpleasant Experience.’ The author apparently falls in love with the idea of riding a Pedersen around Boulder CO; she ‘did some research’ and learned there were exactly two Pedersens in Boulder. They look like the Eiffel Tower! But trouble in B-town: since they start at “a couple of thousand dollars and I had recently brought home another town bike from an earlier trip to Holland. My husband was worried this would become an expensive habit.”

She researched more and scanned the Danish equivalent of Craigslist and then, feeling lucky, flew to Copenhagen on ‘cheap tickets’ having found one for a considerably low price, around $700, about half of all the others she’d seen listed. Met the sheepish guy, took the bike out, bought it. But then later, when she ‘pedaled into the light Copenhagen evening’ for a chance to ‘nod to each other knowingly’ with other Pedersen drivers while she practiced her ‘Danish, throw-back-my-hair-and-laugh posture’ came: disaster! She noticed a ‘slight dent’ in a rod. Also, that the bike wasn’t as tall as advertised.

So, to recap: article starts off with meeting a stoned Norwegian in Denmark’s Cristiana neighborhood; bit of history about the Pedersen cycle; a bit of history about Cristiana and the guy who lived there who built the replica bikes; backstory about how the author had seen one and wanted one so badly; and the Craigslist drama. Where’s the connection, you wonder? Here it comes: because her cheapo Craiglist bike find is not what she had hoped it would be, she calls around, finds the guy who originally built the bike, and tracks him down to a shop in Cristiana. Where he offers her tea, suggests her bike had maybe been stolen at one point and welds on new rods to fix the seatpost height issue; he does leave the bent rods alone. That’s it. Author gets pictures of the welder, a guy who several times it was mentioned never made enough money from his work, and we’re all left wondering if she had just gone ahead and spent the ‘reasonable’ $1400 on a Pedersen replica instead of $700 if there would ever have been a ‘story’.

I do like Bicycling. It has a different purpose. I tend to enjoy the accessory reviews, and the menu suggestions. The general health/stretching advice articles always inspire me. Stories about people who are truly inspiring inspire me. I like Bike Snob (hope this post isn’t too much shading into that territory). Yes, I skim through the reviews of the $1000 aluminum bikes and the $8000 carbon bikes because, really, they’re just rehashing the same thing over and over… and that gets to the heart of Bicycle Quarterly’s latest couple of issues: bike science really hasn’t changed that much in 100 years. Bicycling is part of the Z Generation (or is that AA Generation by now?) social-media experiential, OMG I’m So Actually Here, first-person blog-like narrative, always ‘geared’ to future bikes, purchases, rides. Bicycle Quarterly is more of a museum piece, looking at the past to orient the way we approach our present.

In comparing the respective treatments of the Pedersen between Bicycling and Bicycle Quarterly, nowhere is the difference in magazine titles more apparent. BQ is all about the Bicycle. For a one-man show, it purports to be and usually comes across as an objective approach focused on the bike itself. Bicycling is all about the gerund, the act of Bicycling. How are you (primary) while on the bike (secondary). Depending on your cup of tea, you’ll prefer one to the other. I guess it’s pretty clear where my admiration lands, but I will continue reading both.

For a faux blue-collar contrast, check out Bike magazine. I definitely only read that for the photographs. The articles are almost nauseating. Far too many of them run along the same meme: Hey you, I’m a paid professional mountain biker. I’m either taking the pictures myself or riding with a pro photographer. We’re here at (dream riding location) slogging through the mud and it’s just so HARD, whimper. But by the end of the ride I’ll hit a mountain view and realize JUST HOW LUCKY I AM AND HOW LIFE AFFIRMING THIS WHOLE MOUNTAIN BIKING THING IS AND SO YOU SHOULD CONTINUE RIDING. Even though, sorry, you’ll never ever ride the Swiss Alps or England’s Lake District on a dream carbon 6-inch travel bike. Those are the long articles. The shorter ones are along the lines of “tough day, threw everything together in 5 minutes to hit the trail, everything sucked, and then suddenly everything didn’t suck, then we drank a bunch of beer and, hiccup, I’m so blue collar about this it’s funny.”

In conclusion, Bike and Bicycling struggle to max out the emotional and often neglect the technical. Sure, they may review (as in repeat high-level sales brochure points) the latest electric Shimano Dura-Ace gruppo or 26-lb all-mountain wunderbike… but seriously, who’s going to buy that stuff? Those who are, are they really being influenced by a shoddy and short article? On the other hand, BQ is obesessive in just the reverse: it emphasizes the technical, allows the reader to fill in the blanks or read between the lines to supply the emotive imaginings. BQ goes to pains to formulate the equations underlying adventure riding so you can go out and do the adventure riding; they tend to not harp on their own personal adventures (there’s a little of that reportage, but not much). Bike and Bicycling are experiential, more concerned with capturing that photo of the one dude jumping off some cliff 10 seconds before sunset (which sure is cool) but… how was it to get up to that mountain? How was the rest of that day? How did their equipment handle? Any lessons learned to pass on to other riders who aspire to similar heights/sights?

Okay. Gonna go read Bicycle Times. That always cheers me up!


2 Responses to “Bicycle Magazine Comparisons”

  1. Surlylady September 28, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    Ooh, an editorial debate is way more interesting than what I’m doing at work right now! You’re comparing journalists who are presumably interested in cycling with cyclists who are presumably interested in journalism, so obvs there’s going to be a different focus. I liked the bike-topia hippie enclave angle, even if the editing was kinda clunky.

  2. konaladdy September 29, 2010 at 6:39 pm #

    Dude, you should start a magazine called Bicycle Magazine Comparison Quarterly.

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