An Amusement & Diversion for The Genteel Cyclist. Daily.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Condiments at the Sausage Fest: A Conversation with Dirt Rag Editor Karen Brooks, part 1

Hey! You love Dirt Rag magazine, right? Like we do? Excellent. Then you're going to appreciate this little correspondence course that we took with Dirt Rag's Head Honcho, Karen Brooks, who very graciously answered a bunch of silly questions.

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll see why we're breaking this up into like two parts, at least.

We’ve always heard there’s awesome singletrack right out the back door of Dirt Rag headquarters. True?

True indeed. Our “office” is a typical suburban house with a yard that needs to be mowed and everything, and there is a singletrack trail that starts at the edge of the backyard and goes up into Hartwood Acres, a 629-acre county park. We can see it from the back windows. It’s a constant temptation.

The mountain bike scene—hell, the bike scene in general— is such a sausage-fest. Any advice to offer for other women working in this hazardous line of work?

Ha ha, well, I guess I’m used to it, having worked in bike shops for a while before coming here, so I don’t find it hazardous. And that’s actually a good bit of advice—don’t let yourself be intimidated. Thanks to countless pioneers who have already crossed most of the imaginary boundaries, at this point there aren’t many individuals who would deliberately try to keep women out of cycling (and other male-dominated activities). Wrenching still seems to be dude-centric, and I’ve encountered some chauvinism in that area, but I just try to prove myself and put any doubts to rest. If you go about your business and do the best you can, you know any resistance you may encounter is invalid and can ignore it easily.

Plus I don’t really consider it “work”, and nor do a lot of folks in the industry. It’s fun! So it’s easier to be lighthearted about things.

And what about advice for the men? How can we be more, uh, welcoming and accommodating (and less solicitous) to female cyclists?

That’s probably a tough line to walk, er, ride, for a lot of guys… you want to encourage women without being condescending. Try to treat the less-experienced females in your midst as if they were dudes, as you would have wanted to be treated when you were starting out: give some help or advice when needed, or slow down and wait if necessary. Just don’t assume that all women are beginners. I can say that the help I got from the dudes I rode with when I was a beginner was much appreciated, and I try to remember that when a guy tries to show me how to change a flat now.

To my jaundiced eye, Dirt Rag has become more commercial on its covers, presumably to compete better on the newstand with more polished, big-league magazines from the Rodales and Conde Nasts of the world. How do you stay “street” while at the same time you have to give stuff away, and publish a lot of “service journalism”?

It’s tough! I’d say most of the compromise is on the surface, as you’re right, we have to compete on the shelf and get people to pick up the mag in the first place, then we can hook them once they start reading the good stuff. (I sound like some kind of drug pusher!) So the covers started having bullets and giveaway notices and all that some years back. But we try to maintain a separation of “church and state,” as we call it, or advertising and editorial. The bikes and other things we review are really thoroughly tested, the stuff we give away is things we think the readers would really want, and we do very little “service journalism,” if at all. Generally if we don’t think people would be interested to read about products, we don’t write about them. Fortunately the bike industry has a lot of people who are motivated by pushing the envelope of design and by making your ride better, not so much by making money, and thus there are a lot of really cool and interesting things being made.

The most important thing, though, is to keep in mind that there’s a lot more to riding than the equipment, and thus a lot more possibilities for good content. In doing so I like to think we nourish the rider’s soul.

Related: Two of my favorite things about Dirt Rag over the years have been the fiction and the fine-art covers. Any plans to change or evolve those elements?

Well, I’ve got lots of Literature Contest entries sitting on my office floor. (Actually they were piled on a letter tray, but it broke from the weight.) I’m sure those elements will evolve, but they’ll never go away, as freeform creative output is a lot of what we feature. Riding bikes is so inspiring, riders are driven to create stories and art (and hey, even music), and sharing those things inspires more riding. It’s great how that works. (Insert hippy-dippy “cycle of life” quote here.)

“Bikes are the new punk rock.” Your reaction?

Woo hoo! [Throwing devil horns hand sign] I’ve been involved in the bike scene and the music scene here in Pittsburgh for a while, and in the last couple years I’ve seen my bike friends and my music friends start to come together in the same crowd, which is great. I used to be the only freak at a show with a messenger bag and helmet—now it’s the “in” thing. But really, that’s a wonderful development. I hope it’s not just some short-lived trend. I don’t think it is… There’s always been that zone where messengers and punks have overlapped, but it seems like the biking lifestyle is being adopted by more than just the career folks, in some cases for political reasons but also just for fun. And some of the people discovering how great it is to ride places are also discovering how great it is to ride in the woods.

Which would you like to ride less: a folding bike or a tall bike?

Ha ha, I guess I’d have to say a tall bike, as I’m not too good at it. And I confess, I’m really more of a bike geek, or should I say a “Fred,” than a bike punk, so a folding bike would probably be more suitable.

Where do you personally stand on the whole 29-inch wheel hubbub? The Second Coming of Christ, or Bio-Pace dustbin?

The Second Coming is a bit strong perhaps, but 29ers are definitely not destined for the Bio-Pace dustbin. They are now a viable option that may perfect for some but not for everybody, as much as, say, rear suspension. I always thought a 22” mountain bike with 26” wheels just looked wrong when trying to size customers; 29” wheels make a lot of sense for taller people. At first that’s all I thought they were good for, but then I tried a few, and man, it makes a big difference for me personally. There’s no question I’m faster on one, geared or SS.

Tweaking canonical bike parts, geometry, etc. can sometimes lead to breakthroughs. Wheel size isn’t done being tweaked, either—there were a lot of gyrations (ha ha) and arbitrary factors that got us the standard wheel sizes we have, and rethinking them can lead to more than one conclusion. Psst, you heard it here first: 650B.

Actually, we heard that first from Grant at Rivendell, but he's such a grump that we were skeptical. Now we're convinced!

Coming up: What REALLY happened with Jeff & Jeff & Urbvan Cyclist, Helmets & Bike Paths, and much more...