Words by William Fotheringham
It’s not good to start the New Year with an obituary, but here we go: Rest In Peace procycling magazine. The last issue dropped into the postbox today and will go onto my shelf alongside the first issue, which I edited nearly 23 years ago. It’s never good to see something you’ve created laid to rest.
It was the back end of 1998 when I left Cycling Weekly magazine with a unique offer in my pocket: the chance to found a monthly magazine, which I already knew would be called procycling. The lower case was a determined attempt to be different which now looks a little anachronistic but I’m in mourning, so indulge me please. The website came immediately afterwards, because the point of the project was to combine web and print: to use the daily news feed off the website to drive international sales towards a glossy magazine that would treat professional bike racing in a different way.
The key collaborators came along rapidly: the then Times correspondent Jeremy Whittle who brought with him a brilliant ad salesman, James Poole, late of Winning magazine, and a razor-sharp sub-editor, Duncan Steer. Before a session knocking out idiosyncratic captions, Duncan would proclaim sonorously, “let’s publish.” So we did.
The company that had hired us, Cabal Communications, was even more idiosyncratic than Duncan’s captions: a rickety start-up in a condemned building opposite Great Portland Street tube. But the key thing was that we could do pretty much what wanted. There was no middle management getting cold feet about bonkers projects, and in the beginning at least, there weren’t too many financial worries.
So I kicked off by travelling to get an exclusive interview with Marco Pantani, shot in off the wall style by the legendary Leo Mason, who took with him a special rig to mount a camera on the Pirate’s front quick release for a unique up from under cover image. Jeremy’s brain child was shooting a video to mount on the cover of issue two. That was pretty left-field at the time, but not left field enough for Jeremy, who wanted to do it with a bike rider making a unique comeback from cancer. Lance Armstrong (for it was he) said yes. Maybe I should go and hunt through the VHSs in my loft, it’s in there somewhere.
The point was to let our creative imaginations run wild and try to show a gloriously colourful sport in new ways, hopefully garnering new audiences as we did so. There was a nude photo shoot with Mario Cipollini (Leo Mason again) for issue three and a wild cover showing the evolution of the racing cycle to mark the turn of the millennium. We sent two of my Guardian colleagues, sportswriter Harry Pearson and snapper Tom Jenkins to cover the Three Days of de Panne, only for them to fall right into the middle of one of the drugs busts that were a regular feature of the back end of the 1990s. My personal target was to commission Jeremy Clarkson to cover Paris-Roubaix – an outrageous writer to write up an outrageous race – but funnily enough that fell by the wayside.
We hired Robert Millar to do bike tests, but with the twist that it had to be a team bike, and the piece had to include a visit to a professional cyclist who rode one of the bikes. We pulled in some good columnists: anti doping campaigner Sandro Donati, UCI head Hein Verbruggen and novelist Freya North. We got lucky: the mag was launched in the sweet spot between Pantani’s downfall and Armstrong’s rise to mega stardom, and also before riders’ agents got cold feet about letting journalists near their charges.
There were mistakes of course. My personal worst was in issue one, when we sent Millar to ride a Pinarello with Team T-Mobile and got a candid shot of Bjarne Riis on Millar’s Shimano-equipped bike. Under it I wrote the caption “I prefer Shimano, but don’t tell the sponsor”, which seemed side-splitting to me until Riis’s sponsor, Campagnolo, pulled their adverts. That goal of being irreverent and different was all very well until you stepped over the line of “vaguely sensible”.
My time at procycling was short-lived, and not because of dumb caption writing. The purse strings tightened and I had a chance to work at the Guardian, so I left Jeremy to the adult grind of making the magazine work in the longer term. But those years remain stand-out ones for me, years of intensity, stress, laughter, and sometimes pain. All of us had our hearts and souls set on a single goal. It was our chance to make a mark.
And I guess, given the mag endured for more than two decades, you can argue that we managed that, thanks as well to subsequent editors culminating in Ed Pickering. Legendary English speaking cycling mags such as Jock Wadley’s Sporting Cyclist and Winning didn’t last two decades, and there’s a small degree of comfort to be taken from that.
But I will miss procycling, not just because I helped to get it rolling, and because I recently enjoyed writing features about cycling history for Ed. I’d like to think there’s still a place in the sport for a print publication that does what procycling, Winning, Cycle Sport and Sporting Cyclist all managed to do with a fair degree of success in their best days: go to the heart of bike racing with passion, flair and craftsmanship. But that’s another story: for now, let’s say, Hail and Farewell procycling, you were great while you lasted.
For more reading from the lacourseentete.com team, why not buy our review of the 2021 season, Racing in the Time of the Super Teams, available through here.