Paved Perceptions

In A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his génération perdue days in inter-war Paris, Ernest Hemingway suggests to a talentless, advice-seeking writer that he become a literary critic instead of foisting his own questionable prose on an innocent public. While I hope criticism never becomes my primary written product (at least not for that reason), I thought a quick review of Paved, the newest U.S. road cycling magazine, might be a good way to shake off the cobwebs that have gathered here at the Service Course.

Created by the editors and publisher of the venerable Bike magazine, Paved was something to look forward to from the outset. High production values, pursuit of offbeat topics, and good, thoughtful writing had always been hallmarks of the organization’s fat-tired publication, and there was every reason to believe those qualities would carry over to its skinny-tire venture. That initial anticipation was bolstered when ex-pro-turned-Bike-editor Joe Parkin revealed on his (defunct?) blog that he was venturing back to his old Flemish stomping grounds to gather material for the debut issue.

So how did the reality line up with the early, lofty expectations? I’d say pretty well for a first effort. As expected, the photography was terrific, and it’s printed on paper that feels substantial in your hand – a nice, affordable compromise between mainstream magazines and more boutique offerings like Embrocation and Rouleur. The writing is up to snuff, and, in an unfortunately significant step for a cycling publication, it’s been thoroughly copyedited. (By contrast, the first issue of the now-capable Road was a festival of misspellings, run-ons, and incomplete sentences, most notably in then-editor Esteban Cortina’s opening column.)

In terms of content selection, Paved was a bit of a mixed bag. Parkin’s photo-saturated return to Belgium sets the tone for the magazine, with photographer Stephan Vanfleteren’s subsequent black-and-white photo spreads continuing the bleak-skies-and-hardmen theme. For riders wanting to mimic the high-kilometer or high-mountain challenges their heroes face, cycling journalism veterans Patrick Brady and Bruce Hildenbrand contribute solid pieces on gran fondos and the Dolomites, respectively. Short photoessays on the bootleg Red Hook criterium and other topics bring in some of Bike’s sense of both the grassroots and universal aspects of the sport.

Given the tone of those pieces and the target demographic they hint at, Vernon Felton’s article on doping in the pro peloton seemed a bit off the mark. I’d expect that most of those picking up an issue of Paved would be familiar with the reality of doping in cycling, and that they wouldn’t require an explanation of what EPO is and what it does. While the piece is well-written, it is a survey course where I would have expected at least a 200-level class or an insider view.

Similarly, I have to admit I was a little surprised and put off by the Lance Armstrong cover. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an understandable choice, probably even the right one for a new publication. No matter what the current tide of public opinion may be, Armstrong pulls the layman eyes on the newsstand. And it’s a great photo – one that captures the grit-and-pavé feel I think Paved was aiming for while still drawing on Armstrong’s transcendent marketability. But, as a new publication, I can’t help but feel that Paved squandered a rare opportunity to not be that magazine. If I’m reading it right, Paved’s intended audience isn’t one that’s desperately searching for one more picture of Armstrong.

The feeling the cover gave me was reinforced when I read Gary Boulanger’s American pioneers piece inside. Of the five profiles – Ben Serotta, Steve Hed, Gary Erickson, Chris Carmichael, and Jim Ochowitz – three stray into discussions of Armstrong. It’s not that I’m inherently against any Armstrong content. I’m not. Regardless of how you feel about the guy, he’s a central figure in American cycling, and pointedly ignoring him is as obviously skewed as featuring him on every other page. That said, if you’re trying to create something new, exploring some less travelled stories and figures might be preferable to highlighting the same social circle that’s dominated the literature for 15 years. Anyone have a number for Mike Neel or Jock Boyer?

(Others will undoubtedly point out that, with the debatable exception of Ochowitz, all of the “pioneers” interviewees are trying to sell you something, be it frames, wheels, food, or training plans. And then they’ll speculate on how that choice of subject matter jives with the nascent magazine’s advertising sales. To that, I’d say: People, it’s cycling. Everyone’s trying to sell you something. Cut out anyone with a brand to push, and you’d be hard pressed to find an interview.)

Lastly, following an entire issue of racing, hardman, and big-ride content, the unintroduced {showcase: bikes} section on “street bikes” like the Electra Ticino is a non sequitur. Paved ("celebrating the raw passion of riding on the road") has positioned itself to feature those sorts of bikes and the urban riding they’re intended for, but the piece would have been better placed with a more extensive package of city riding content. If the bike showcase is a regular section, this particular issue cried out for road machines from brands like Merckx, Ridley, Colnago, and DeRosa.

All of that might seem like quite a bit of criticism, but in the context of a first outing, they’re pretty minor quibbles. And make no mistake, I’ll be grabbing issue #2 when it hits the shelf. The contributing writers are top notch, the photography is excellent, and the editorial vision will solidify as time goes on. That’s a strong foundation, and I think it’s still reasonable to expect great things.

NOTE: These are boom times for the cycling magazine aficionado. The flock of cycling magazines at my local Barnes & Noble is now nearly as large as the neighboring gaggle of women’s beauty pubs and is getting almost as pretty as the surfing journals. Paved is already on shelves there, and another publication, Peloton, is set to debut on November 16. I’ll do a writeup on that one too when it’s available. Or, if they’d like, they could, you know, just send me one…