At work with: Ian Cleverly, Rouleur

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Cycling magazine Rouleur celebrates its 100th edition this week, launching a redesign that builds on its successful decision to go subscription-only earlier this year.

Lifelong cyclist Ian Cleverly is executive editor, having joined the team in 2008 after taking a late journalism post grad at the London Collge of Communication. We asked him about his 2020, the magazine, and the coming week.

Tell us about your typical Monday journey to work.
Without wishing to get too maudlin on a Monday morning, I really miss cycling from my south London home on a quiet cycle route to the office near London Bridge, seeing the lovely coffee guy every morning and having a chinwag, then ambling in and seeing the crew on a daily basis.

You can Zoom till the cows come home, but it will never replace human contact, people watching, and post-work pints with workmates. Normality will return, hopefully sooner rather than later. Anyway, can’t complain. Good health, gainful employment and a house full of family makes me a lucky man.

Describe the state of your desk and what you can see from where you sit
My desk is in a reasonable state right now. There’s an ever-rotating pile of back issues from our 100 editions that I constantly reference, then return to my shelves in the wrong order, making it hard to find them again. You know how some people are really anal about their record collections and alphabetical ordering systems? That’s not me, much as I’d like it to be.

One of the plusses of this enforced homeworking situation over the past nine months has been the appreciation of nature.

Birdsong is now heard, not planes descending to Heathrow. Blue tits skit around on the out of control climbing plant outside my window, nibbling away at the buds. There’s a love-hate relationship with the foxes, who crap in the most unlikely places, steal bits of my bike apparel and gardening gloves – anything leather-related is fair game, apparently – but provided endless pleasure as we cub-watched on summer mornings.

Sum up your 2020 – highs and lows
I got to do a tour of Vietnam with my wife immediately pre lockdown in March, which makes us lucky on many levels. What a country – absolutely spellbinding. Other highlights, and this one is tinged with guilt, include cycling around deserted London streets and seeing this wonderful city in a wholly different way. London is supposed to be a heaving, thronging metropolis, and although it feels wrong to enjoy emptiness, it has been – hopefully – a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Lows for 2020 are also Covid-related, of course. This may sound like a tiny annoyance in the great scheme of things, but not being able to wander down to my local pub in the early evening and clear my emails over a pint of ale has been missed terribly. I may have my head buried in the laptop, but those regular faces, little interactions and cheesy jokes are so important. And you don’t even realise it until they are gone.

Which magazine do you first remember?
The Victor, a comic from the 1960s/70s. I was a sucker for war stories as a kid, and there were lots of them, as well as Alf Tupper, Tough of the Track, a working class lad who would win running races, then stuff his face with fish and chips. I could identify with Alf, apart from the winning races bit, which was never a strong suit.

Which magazine do you value more than any other right now?
It has to be Private Eye, which is probably not what your readers would expect. Sorry for being so lowbrow! In these dreadful times, politically and societally, dirt digging on our spectacularly inept leaders combined with some light relief is a winning combination, now more than ever.

Describe Rouleur in three words.
Bike shed porn

The new issue of Rouleur is the 100th one, and along the way it has seen many other cycling magazines disappear. What’s the secret of your success?
Our starting point editorially remains the same from the very first issue (above): Have I seen this story before? Will it resonate with non-racing enthusiasts as well as cycling geeks? Is there a fascinating backstory that merits us covering this person, race or bike builder?

When the magazine started in 2008, it was unique in the cycling world. Our founder, Guy Andrews, and the boss of cycling clothing company Rapha, Simon Mottram, would meet on a weekly basis over copious cups of coffee and the conversation always ended up on the same subject – why are cycling magazines so poor? How come there is nothing out there we want to read?

Simon agreed to back it, even though Rapha was a tiny company back then, and Guy ran with the idea. Issue 1 was 64 pages and cost £9 – a bold move, to say the least. But it worked and Rouleur grew from there.

As anyone involved in producing quality magazines knows, it is an expensive business. I think we have become smarter over the years when it comes to utilising our resources, but it still takes time and money to make the best. We expect our subjects to invest fully to being in Rouleur. If we can hang out for three days – pre-Covid – and really get inside their worlds, that is ideal.

Some stories are put together over an entire racing season, with repeated visits to interviewees. But if we are expected to cobble something together from a hurried half hour following a press conference, then no thank you. We do it properly or not at all.

Now there are probably half a dozen or more publications in various countries that have taken the Rouleur template and put their own spin on it, with varying degrees of success. We have to keep upping our game to stay one step ahead, always referring back to our founding principles. “Innovate or die” may be a cliché, but it rings true for us.

As for the traditional newsstand cycling magazines, I fear the outlook is grim. I’d love them to thrive and survive – some of my best friends in the business work for them – but it’s hard to see anything but a slow decline for the mass market.

The magazine’s strategy has moved to a subscription-based one. How difficult was that, and what advice would you offer other publishers?
The landscape looked pretty grim for any magazine on the newsstand back in April. Sales disappeared in one fell swoop.

Thankfully, we put out the messaging that, if our readers wanted us to still be here come the other side of the pandemic, they needed to subscribe and back us. The thousands who enjoy our free website and podcast content needed a gentle reminder that magazine sales fund what we do, and I think some of them probably didn’t even think about it before.

We now have record numbers of subscribers after 12 years in existence, which is both humbling and remarkable, and a sign that we are getting something right. Thank you, Rouleur readers.

As for advice for other publishers, I think the aforementioned Simon Mottram from Rapha summed it up perfectly when I spoke to him last week about Rouleur’s early years, and far better than I ever could:

‘It’s such a brilliant thing to be creative and different. The first rule of marketing is to be first. You can set the template, decide what the market looks like. It’s difficult, because you make mistakes, other people can learn from you and they might be fast followers and do better. It is quite a well-known theory, but I would always rather be the first person making the mistakes. It’s brilliant, isn’t it? Being on the tip of the spear. And Rouleur always was, and can be still.’

Be on the tip of the spear. Be the first. Make mistakes, but learn from them.

The magazine has just been redesigned; describe the thinking and process behind the new look.
Our 100th issue felt like the right time to shake things up, at the same time as celebrating the magazine’s history. It was only when Jeremy Kunze came in as creative director and we looked at our archive in depth that we truly appreciated what we had.

Not being on the newsstand has actually freed us up in many ways. We can take more risks, both with our covers and our content; be more discerning with the quality and quantity of ads that we include; be bolder graphically and photographically. It’s been liberating and refreshing.

We also launch our first Italian language edition at the same time as our issue 100, as well as collaborating with Spanish publication Volata. Having the editors Emilio and Olga on board to work alongside myself and Andy McGrath, the UK editor, has been a joy. They get the Rouleur vibe totally.

We have an exciting year ahead, for sure, starting with the first issue of 2021, an all-women edition with guest editor, television presenter and journalist Orla Chennaoui. Really enjoying putting this one together.

What’s going to be your highlight of the coming week?
It’s my wife’s birthday on Friday, a big one too. So brunch with the kids at a secret swanky location in town (she hates surprises), Michael Clark exhibition at the Barbican, and I’ve bought her a lovely painting (also a surprise). If all three of these things come off, I’ll be a very happy bunny.

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