SMELLED LIKE TEEN SPIRIT
DANIEL FRIEBE A LONG-STANDING CONTRIBUTOR REFLECTS ON 22 YEARS OF PROCYCLING
Alot of teenage boys can say their world turned with a kiss on a dancefloor or perhaps the first guitar chord they ever heard from a soon-to-be favourite band but not many would attribute the same life-altering potential to a cycling magazine. Yet I still remember the place, Lichfield WHSmith, and the date, April 1999. Serendipitously, it was the same day I was being interviewed for an EU-funded programme that would take me to work in Italy for the first time - another future-defining event in my then 18-year-old-life. But it was upon locking eyes with a photo of Marco Pantani, then excitedly scanning the bullet-point headlines of Procycling’s launch issue (Pantani: “Being mad is what keeps me alive”; “Ullrich in Mallorca: Fat Boy Slims Down” - very much strap-lines for another age) that, I know this sounds sad, I felt resonance for the first time.
There were other cycling magazines in the UK. But mostly these reproduced the alienation I felt in one of the other bastions of British cycling culture at the time - bike shops. In these emporia reigned a tribe and a vision of the sport that, through my adolescent and wanderlustful lens, came across as po-faced, clannish and anaemic - something of which European cycling in those years could never be accused. This new, risqué, exotic and chaotic creation - like something stolen from the dance mags or, frankly, designed on acid - presented itself as the express ticket to the outer space where my dreams were made.
Within 18 months I would find myself working on the mag. At times it was surreal: four or five of us crammed into a broom-cupboard office on London’s Euston Road, brainstorming, writing and publishing for a few thousand invisible zealots of a religion that, even in our wildest projections, never seemed likely to leave anything but the faintest tyre-track on the UK sporting landscape, let alone the wider British cultural consciousness.
They were the Armstrong years, the doping years - and also, internet obligé, the start of lean times for magazines. Lance boosted sales figures while turbocharging our suspicions, but soon after he bowed out, years of chickens came home to roost - and I don’t just mean Michael Rasmussen. It was remarkable that cycling survived the three years from 2006 and 2008, and a miracle the magazine did. Our cover stars in the first half of 2006 were Landis, Basso, Ullrich, Basso AND Ullrich, Landis... The mag went on, God knows how, by subtly shifting its focus away from personalities and towards a gritted-teeth celebration of all that was (still) good about the sport, interspersed with exasperated pleas to address what was still rotten.
Nothing catalyses change like pain, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that what happened next was the result of pro cycling’s own soul-searching. But suddenly, fuelled by the dual cylinders of lottery millions and a few individuals’ ambition, Britain had begun a land-grab of cycling that was huge in scope. In short, cycling in the UK was ‘making it’ in a way that we at Procycling all those years ago said we craved without truly being able to grasp the consequences.
It seems a bitter irony that Procycling should run out of road against this backdrop, but that conclusion no doubt downplays the harsh realities of print media in 2021. Part of me is also left clinging to a forlorn, probably deluded consolation - namely that in Marco Pantani’s words on that first cover in April 1999 were contained the spirit, the essence that sustained Procycling throughout its lifespan i.e. that being mad was what kept it alive.
Put another way, a little like Pantani, this magazine’s raison d’être actually felt more like a reason not to exist. Defiance was the force through our pedals - and it was 22 trying but magical years before our legs stopped turning.