Q&A with Cranked Editor Seb Rogers
Who Says Print is Dead?
In the next round of Q&A for the Editor Series, exclusive to MTBeer, we hear from Seb Rogers. Seb founded Cranked: A Magazine for Mountain Bikers when it seemed that all indications for starting a print magazine were screaming “don’t do it.” He did it anyway, offering to the world (literally) an elite, high quality publication that includes some of today’s heavy hitters, when it comes to writers and photographers, and specializes in long-form articles that dig deep into what we all love to do: ride bikes on dirt. Seven years on, Cranked is still charging ahead and serving as a leader in mountain biking journalism. From the UK to your living space, here’s some insight into the mastermind behind Cranked:
1. Tell us a little about yourself in relation to mountain biking. How long have you've been riding mountain bikes? Racing? Etc.
It’s all the fault of an ex-girlfriend. When I was at uni[versity], in the late ‘80s, I bought one of those new-fangled mountain bicycle things so that I could ride between town and campus instead of getting the train. After a particularly upsetting breakup, I discovered that one of the things that really helped was riding my bike. And so I started riding, a lot. The campus was just on the edge of the South Downs National Park and literally hundreds of miles of legal, accessible off-road riding. It’s fair to say I filled my boots, to the point where my social life tilted away from uni and towards riding buddies. I also undoubtedly spent far too much time riding when I should have been studying, but we’ll gloss over that.
I graduated in ’91 (social anthropology, since you asked) in the middle of a short but very deep recession, which killed my plan to get an apprenticeship in TV. I was unemployed for a while, so I used to hang out at my local bike shop (when I wasn’t riding) because it was cheaper to drink their tea and eat their biscuits. Eventually they offered me a job, and since then, one way or another, I’ve never left the bike industry. I mean, I never planned it this way… it just sort of happened.
As for the racing, I tried it and didn’t really understand it. My best ever race result was 4th singlespeed, I think, at a race where singlespeed qualification included the mandatory consumption of five pints of beer the night before (and racers were also encouraged to drink an additional beer on their way through the start/finish area on each lap). I had almost no sleep, a raging hangover, and rode the best race of my life. I just think I’m not (normally) competitive enough to be bothered.
2. When did you first get involved in writing/journalism/editorial work?
By the mid ‘90s I’d accidentally managed to get myself promoted a couple of times in bike retail, and found myself running a fairly large bike store in Birmingham, which is a large city in the middle of England. I hated it. To describe the senior management as incompetent would be a gross understatement. Their response to being permanently out of stock of inner tubes (because they hadn’t paid their bills with any of their suppliers) was to order a container from Taiwan full of… brightly anodised bar ends. I quit after a year, turned down the offer of a sales manager job with a major bike brand, and gave myself 12 months to see if I could make a go of being a freelance writer and photographer.
I’d already had a couple of travel pieces published, and I figured I could build on that. So I set about making myself a complete pain in the ass, sending almost weekly pitches to the editors of a couple of the big bike mags. Eventually one of them said something like, “who is this Seb Rogers who keeps writing to me?” and, perhaps because he just wanted to make me shut up, offered me my first commission. That was a mistake, because I definitely wasn’t going to shut up after I’d got a toe in the door. I made a tiny profit in that first year, so I figured I might as well carry on. That was 1996, and here we are more than a quarter century later, and I’m still earning my living writing about, and taking photos of, people riding bikes.
3. Considering today's media landscape, what role does print journalism have in the mountain biking community?
A much smaller one than it used to, but it’s still important.
Print is different from online. Doing print well, and attracting an audience for it, is just about identifying what it’s good at and doing that. Much of what used to fill magazines – gear reviews, ride guides, technique features and so on – can be done more effectively online. But that still leaves loads of opportunity to create engaging, informative and inspiring long-form content that simply doesn’t work as well on a screen.
Cranked, like other niche print bike magazines, attracts a small but highly influential audience. We have the early adopters and the opinion formers; the independent bike shop owners and the local trail group advocates; the people who put drop bars on their old steel hardtail years before the bike industry invented ‘gravel’… you get the idea. These people mostly gave up buying other bike mags years ago, but we’re not trying to sell them anything and we’re not talking down to them… we’re including them in the conversation.
4. Someone interested in pursuing mountain biking/adventure/travel journalism might read this. Any advice on how to get started?
My advice hasn’t really changed very much over the years. It’s this: don’t. There was never much money in it, that’s still the case, and the competition is even more ridiculous now than it was when I started (one of the reasons I got a toe in the door was that I shamelessly plugged the fact that an editor could send one person - me - in place of two to produce both words and images to a high standard. That gave me an edge over a lot of my competition, although it also put me under a lot of pressure sometimes). Very, very few people manage to turn it into a stable career that also allows them to do, y’know, regular things like raise a family. I’ve had several near crisis points over the years, absolutely no job security, ever, and the only reason I’m still doing this is because it’s immensely satisfying, I’m extremely stubborn, and I don’t really know what else I’d want to do.
5. A quick follow-up to that: What are some "do's and don'ts" when someone is writing a pitch to an editor?
- read the publication you’re pitching to. If it’s a magazine, at least one issue and preferably more. If it’s a website, lots of its content. Make notes. Figure out what its USP is. Pitch with that in mind.
- send a brief synopsis. Editors are usually stretched for time; we don’t want to read War & Peace to get to the point.
- do the ’so what?’ test. Why would someone want to read your feature? Truly… why? If you can answer that honestly, you might be onto something.
- have a think about how your feature might be illustrated, and make some (practical) suggestions if you have any. Many perfectly great ideas have fallen by the wayside through lack of a photographer / illustrator.
- send the same pitch to several editors, and double don’t do that without fessing up that that’s the case. If you’re doing it right each pitch should be tailored to the publication / website anyway.
- that’s it, really. Editors like seeing new ideas, provided they’re succinct and to the point and especially if the pitcher has clearly done their homework.
6. Back to you and mountain biking: any favorite place(s) that you ride/road trip to on a regular basis?
The Quantock hills, just down the road from me, is one of my favourite places to ride anywhere in the world. I do love a bit of technical Alpine singletrack, but these days I tend to ride locally as much as possible, partly because of time constraints and partly because I’m becoming more aware of our impact on the climate. Driving or flying to ride is a luxury, and one that I’d like to be able to cut down on even more. Luckily I have great riding just five minutes from my front door...
7. Current bike(s)?
I spent much of 2021 and the early part of this year with chronic fatigue and an injured knee, so my 2021 Cube Hybrid Stereo 140 has been getting a lot of use just to get me out. When I’m not riding that I’m usually on my self-built custom steel singlespeed, which is based (loosely) on the geometry of my old Kona Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (which I also still have). And then I also have a 2011 Ellsworth Epiphany (which I love, despite its desperately unfashionable geometry) and a custom BTR Ranger. So it’s a pretty eclectic fleet, really. The e-bike has been a game-changer. I always assumed I’d be fit enough to ride a regular bike, until suddenly I wasn’t. I’m recovering from the fatigue and regaining some of my old fitness, but there’s absolutely no shame in using some assistance if it puts a smile on your face. Without the eeb I’d have had an enforced 12+ months with no riding, and that doesn’t bear thinking about.
8. If you're someone who has a post-ride beer, what might be in your cooler?
I’ve been cutting down on the beer lately, but my personal favourite is Korev - a lager from Cornwall.
9. Any last words? (Intentionally open-ended)
Just this: ride like you mean it. Life’s too short to meander along in a half-arsed fashion. Might as well go for it…
That’ll do it. Many thanks to Seb. I encourage MTBeer readers to check out Cranked at: https://www.cranked.cc/ In the USA, you can find the magazine at select Barnes & Nobles stores. Subscriptions are available through the Cranked website, as well. If you enjoy reading The Surfer’s Journal, you can think of Cranked in that kind of way.