Keeping up the Momentum

A giveaway Canadian magazine run by three women is making waves in the global bike industry, finds Carlton Reid...
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A giveaway Canadian magazine run by three women is making waves in the global bike industry, finds Carlton Reid...

There are many reasons why Momentum magazine turns heads. It’s Canadian. It’s stylish. It majors on utility cycling. Bike mags are generally written, edited and read by men: Momentum isn’t.

In other markets, at other times, this magazine would have been unthinkable. Today, it’s possible. And it’s possible because the bike market is changing. Utility doesn’t have to be boring. It’s just as possible to cycle to work on a cruiser as a fixie. Lycra is out, Louboutin heels are in.

It comes out six times a year, it’s distributed free and in marketing muscle terms, it really ought to be no more than a local fanzine, specific to Vancouver. That it has survived and prospered is down to the tenacity and creativity of co-founder Amy Walker. She’s bike mad, as you’ll see from the rest of this Q&A, but I’d like to magnify one of her quotes, something a lot of enthusiast-led bike shops will recognise. I asked her what Momentum was all about: “We encourage the bike-curious in hope they will adopt bikeishness into their own lives.”

What is Momentum Magazine?

Momentum is a magazine for self-propelled people, people who use their own power to get around – transportation cyclists. Six times a year we publish a magazine which includes current events, profiles of bicycle-oriented people, cities, organisations, mechanical tips, a food section, book reviews, comics, beautiful photography and art. Momentum magazine is created by people who love the biking lifestyle for the enjoyment and education of other bikers – and to inspire non-bikers to give cycling a whirl.

Who founded it, and why?
Momentumwas originally founded in 2001 by three cycling ladies: Carmen Mills, Joelle Paton, and myself. Joelle went on to other things after a couple of issues, but Carmen Mills and I continued to publish the magazine, a regional British Columbia publication at the time, for two and a half years.

That first incarnation of Momentumwas a non-profit society and was inspired by a previous publication called the Spoke ‘n’ Word, of which Carmen was a founding editor. The ‘Spoke’ was published between 1994 and 1999 and it was the first time I had ever seen the stories, issues, personalities and the culture of transportation cyclists reflected in the media.

When I read the ‘Spoke’ I felt like it was relevant to me – and others like me – and that is the spirit on which Momentum is based. I re-launched Momentum as a business in 2005 and we have grown slowly and steadily from that point to where we are today. In the past year I’ve been fortunate to work as part of a female trio again – this time my collaborators are associate publisher Tania Lo and marketing director Mia Kohout.

Has anybody on the mag got bike trade backgrounds?
Some of our writers have wrenched professionally at some point or another, but overall our contributors are from a wide spectrum of professional, academic and advocacy backgrounds.

Joe Breeze reckons urban transport bikes will be bigger than mountain bikes. Are you with him on that?

Joe’s right in the respect that utility biking as a social and technological trend will have longevity. We have a genuine need for transportation bikes whereas mountain biking is largely a recreational activity. I believe that the mountain bike boom was also somewhat inflated by the fact that it was so dominant for about 15 years. People walking into their local store sometimes had little choice but to buy a mountain bike.

The strength of the transportation biking trend is also dependent on the development of appropriate urban biking infrastructure. It’s little help having a bike if you’ve got nowhere to ride it, a lesson familiar to mountain bikers as well. So, the bike industry will benefit from this trend to the same degree that it works with transportation cycling advocates, supports initiatives to get bikes on public transport, and sees this trend in a holistic, systems perspective. This view must take into account riders of all ages and abilities – not just highly capable riders. Cycling is for everyone – from little kids to grandmas, so we have to ensure that there are safe and connected routes so that all levels of riders can enjoy cycling – and continue to invest their money in this form of transport.

How has the magazine evolved and grown?
When I re-launched the magazine in 2005 it had a glossy cover, but the interior pages were printed black and white on newsprint. We have slowly increased the page count, the amount of colour and moved last year to a glossy paper stock. We have made gradual improvements in quality and increased our network and our distribution organically. We are somewhat strategic in our growth, but we’ve also enjoyed much serendipity and I am always amazed at the people who find us.

How many bike shops are involved?

About 200 retailers.

You seem to be in cities with existing bike cultures. Are you making inroads into ‘anti-cycling’ cities?
We’re not making a particular effort to do that. There are enough cycling-friendly places to keep us busy at the moment. If anyone reading this feels that their town or city is bike-hungry and needs some pro-biking media, I’d encourage them to get in touch.

What's your print run? How does the mag pay its way?
Our print run has reached 25,000 copies. Advertising is our biggest source of revenue and we are receiving a growing stream of individual subscriptions with authorised dealers. Financially, it has been a struggle. We operate on very tight budgets and we owe our existence to the dedication of our staff and contributors, many of whom work for very little pay or volunteer their time because they share our mission.

How many bike companies ‘get’ what you’re trying to do?
More get it every year. In previous years we approached larger bike manufacturers and many of them understood our mission – but now they are committing money to the transportation category and creating a budget line for its marketing because the business case for doing so is strong.

Larger bike manufacturers require the economic justification to support any changes they make in their manufacturing and advertising. At this point people in North America have a genuine need, as well as a genuine passion, for transportation biking. This is the demand those companies needed to see before they could fully get behind us.

How many full-time and part-time staffers work on the mag?
There are three of us in the office full-time, plus a couple of part-time support staff. We have a designer and editor who both work from home and we have a network of dozens of contributors all around North America who contribute once in a while or on a repeat basis.

Momentum magazine presented a bike-borne fashion show at Interbike. How did that come about?
Bikeosphere, the first fashion show, was an art show and fashion show which we presented in July. It was intended as a way to make the world of the transportation cyclist more visible.

It was inspired by a conversation I had with a woman who had begun riding her bike more. She said, “I’ve been riding on the bikeway instead of driving my car, and it’s like another world.” Indeed, it’s true, when you travel on routes that are heavily used by cyclists, you can begin to see the possibilities for cycling in our cities. This is something we see on our bike routes everyday – but for years we have not seen it reflected in the media – or even in much marketing created by bike manufacturers.

Once you experience the quiet, friendly, flowing ‘Bikeosphere’ you instantly understand the folly of our automobile-clogged streets. So we asked artists to show us their version of the Bikeosphere. The fashion show was a performance component of the show which was intended to be very simple – to show real people riding bikes in fashionable, everyday clothing. North Americans have long been told that cycling is a sport, so we wanted to give them more images of cycling as something you do in the course of your everyday life.

The Interbike fashion show was an amazing opportunity which was extended to us after Rich Kelly, Interbike’s marketing manager, saw the video of our Bikeosphere show. We had a short time to plan the show which showcased clothing and bikes from Interbike exhibitors. It was a great learning experience – and we were glad Interbike was willing to take the creative risk and collaborate with us. It was a very positive experience and we are looking forward to taking what we learned this time and applying it to an even better series of shows in 2009.

We heard very positive feedback from people who attended the show. We contributed something of value and something novel. It probably acted as more of a launching pad for creativity than as the ultimate bike fashion or art show. More than anything it was a learning opportunity for us.

I’m very critical of everything we do, so there are many things I would change next time. The greatest success was how everyone worked together and fulfilled their roles beautifully – from the stylists, dressers and models to the DJ, the bike mechanics, Interbike staff and all the exhibitors who submitted clothing and bikes featured in the show.

Do you think every country could do with a mag like Momentum?
Sure. There’s a need everywhere for media which reflects the cycling lifestyle – especially where cycling is a growing part of the transportation picture. When you ride a bike you often feel small and vulnerable and it is very encouraging to read a publication which speaks to your experience. The UK has given us inspiration with publications for urban and transportation cyclists, like VeloVision and City Cycling as well as the now defunct Bike Culture Quarterly and EnCycleopedia.

What are your plans for the magazine?
To double the page count; to pay our contributors and staff fair wages for the incredible work they do; to improve the quality of our editorial content; to influence and collaborate with the bike industry so we can better serve the needs of utility cyclists; to connect advocates, the bike industry and the riding public to build a stronger demand for cycling infrastructure; to continue to joyfully communicate that by choosing simple, appropriate solutions like the bicycle we can positively transform our lives and take less of a toll on the earth. This list can go on and on.

We’d love to dedicate more energy to our website, accomplish as much of our distribution as possible through pedal-power, and locate our offices within a multi-use bike community centre, workshop or visitor centre on one of Vancouver’s gorgeous bikeways.

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