INTERVIEW: Richard Ballantine

INTERVIEW: Richard Ballantine

Sex had Dr Alex Comfort. Cycling had Richard Ballantine. Cyclists of a certain age – bearded or otherwise – cut their teeth on dog-eared paperback copies of Richard Ballantine’s Richard’s Bicycle Book.

The green tome was a 1970s publishing sensation, selling in excess of one million copies, making the American-born, London-based magazine editor not just cycling’s biggest author but a market-creator. The pre-MTB cycling mini-boom of the 1970s and 1980s was fuelled, and partly created, by his book.

His later championing of the new-fangled mountain bike is the stuff of legend. He imported the first commercially-available mountain bike to the UK (20 Richey Montares), helped to create the famous Fat Tyre Five mountain bike ‘race’ series, and the rest, as you all know, is history.

In short, he’s the Godfather, the big cheese. What he writes matters. And this cult-like status is what attracted Emma Barnes to Ballantine. Barnes is the MD of Snowbooks of London. Snowbooks, established in 2003, won the Small Publisher of the Year award in 2006 and is building up a portfolio of eclectic, interesting titles. Barnes is a new cyclist, heard about Ballantine’s history and contacted him to produce a book targeted at perhaps the fastest growing sector in the UK bicycle market: cycle commuters. City Cycling is the result.

“We got in touch with Richard because we were reminded of him through an article in The Independent, which said something to the effect that Richard’s Bicycle Book was a bible to cyclists. Snowbooks is a small company, and relatively new, so it was a real honour when Richard said he might be interested in publishing with us,” says Barnes.

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“We saw a gaping void in the market for a book that catered to the rapidly increasing population of city cyclists. Speaking personally, I started cycling to and from work in 2005, and have got more and more obsessed since then. I’m not a serious or fast cyclist but I am a passionate advocate for using bikes as the best way to get around the city. Journeys to meetings in the city now take me 12 minutes rather than 40 on the tube. I can get to fiddly places that aren’t well served by buses or trains, and I can avoid the traffic by using backstreets. I can schedule my day without having to allow for the inevitable delays and breakdowns of public transport – and I save a mint by avoiding transport other than bikes.

“There are thousands of people like me, and thousands yet to discover the lifestyle benefits that I enjoy. We hope to help people like me, as well as more seasoned city cyclists, to get the best from their bikes.”

Richard Ballantine is helping Snowbooks create a commuter cycling promo campaign for bike shops:

“The aim of the campaign is to equip bike shops with the motivation and materials to convince would-be and borderline cyclists that they can ride comfortably and safely in traffic,”
says Ballantine.

The campaign package, still being worked on, is to include promo materials from Snowbooks, a ‘You Can Do It’ leaflet and poster, and info from Dan Dansky’s Cycle Training UK. There will also be leaflets from campaign groups and cycle insurance providers. The CTC will likely provide leaflets and help. In effect, the ‘Sell Cycling, Sell Bikes’ box of info goodies will be a ready-made resource of pro-cycling hand-outs. The packs will also contain an aluminium PoS counter-top unit for a single copy display of City Cycling.

“We also want to eventually include a give-away short booklet, ‘Beginning Cycling’. The booklet will have material from City Cycling, and the organisations participating in the campaign, plus some one-off contributions from well-known figures. As well as going through bike shops, the booklet will be co-produced with municipal councils, which will enable custom-tailoring editions to specific towns and areas,” says Ballantine.

Snowbooks is open to sponsorship for the pack and is in talks with some bike business brands.

But not retail chains. As readers of his books find out, Ballantine is a big fan of independent bike shops.

“A good bike shop is a source of effective solutions,” says Ballantine. “Anyone can buy on price these days. What cannot be obtained so easily from the internet or a discount outlet is good advice.

“Say someone wants to commute, going by train for part of the journey.

“Does the train take bikes? The shop should know, because if full-size bikes are out, they need to recommend a good folder. Or, a possible customer is proposing a fairly long commute, and locking on the street. The shop should know to recommend a bike lightweight enough to make the journey a pleasure, together with enough high quality locks so that the locks can be kept where the bike will be parked. Simple stuff, but these factors really matter.

“A good bike shop will be completely conversant with trailers and other add-on means for carrying baggage, groceries, etc.
“Cycling does not have to mean just one bike. It’s good to have a ‘hack bike’, and a machine for gritty winter conditions and hauling home stacks of nappies and provisions. But there is a good part of the year when the weather is fine and days are long and the fun in life is rolling out a bike that is fast on the tarmac or agile on the dirt. Two, even three, bikes is not too many to own.”

This sort of message is music to the ears of bike shops. It’s not consumerism gone mad, it’s plain common sense.

The lemming-like intertwined future of gridlock and oil depletion mean cycling in cities is going to grow in size
and importance. Ballantine’s 1970s dream that bike shops were to be the shops for the future might have once seemed fanciful but just as he was right about mountain bikes, he’s probably right about the prospects for bicycle retail. To borrow a marketing slogan from Edinburgh Bicycle (a shop started in 1977: Ballantine was a guest at the opening ceremony), ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Motorised.’

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