it takes two to tango

derailleur is going to la vuelta

jackson

I’m going to the Vuelta a España.

There are myriad cycling-related anecdotes I could pull and use as an extended metaphor, but Kate’s already gone that route to explain how and why she ended up going to the Tour a couple of months ago. She’s already done all of this, come to think of it. For that and many other reasons, it seems like the best way to begin laying all of this out is to start with her.

If I were to map out my life and zoom out to a macro view, you’d probably identify an inflection point about a year ago, at which (after following the sport casually for a couple of decades) a large part of my life became very profoundly about cycling. The consequences are equally identifiable, and in many cases, measurable. I have two bikes, a trainer, and lots of kit. I have less money saved than might otherwise be the case. I watch… many hours of professional racing in a given week, and consequently have undergone an improbable reinvention as a morning person. I’m much happier, more fulfilled, and would produce a meaningfully better VO₂ max value if tested. It has been, on the whole, a great thing.

At first glance, it probably looks like a wholly cycling-driven swerve in my life’s trajectory, but if you zoom in just a touch, it’s clear that it was helped along by another influence at another clear inflection point. 

That’s Kate. 

In the week between last year’s Tour de France and World Championships, a certain fairly notable architecture critic suddenly turned up in the online community where I spend a lot of my time discussing cycling. I didn’t really know anything about her, apart from that my wife thought her Tumblr was hilarious. She’d just written an essay on Medium about the experience of watching Primož Roglič lose the Tour de France, and that piece would soon be picked up by Bicycling. It was fantastic, and I regarded it with mixed admiration and envy. 

She was even greener in this sport than I was, but she wrote about it with a blend of gravitas, assuredness and emotional openness that reminded me of how much I missed writing things I actually cared about. 

A week or so later, I wrote my own Roglič essay after he rebounded to win Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Once or twice a year, I would write something like this, nursing it for days through the difficulties of my writing rust and compulsion for overly meticulous self-editing, and then post it on Medium for my friends and family to read. They would say all manner of kind things about how I should do this more often, and I would take those words to heart but seldom (if ever) act on them.

On a whim though, I shared my Roglič piece in the cycling group chat. Much to my surprise, Kate was not only complimentary of it, but proceeded to reach out to me to talk about… I’m not even sure what, anymore. Was it a theory she’d come up with, or a drawing she’d made? In any case, before long we’d traded life stories in brief, and established ourselves not only as fast friends but kindred spirits. 

We analyzed and relitigated dumb tactical decisions and breaches of peloton decorum, produced dozens of mostly unpublishable in-jokes, Zwifted together and encouraged one another in our respective training programs, and talked at length about our similar dreams of “making it” as cycling writers.

Then, characteristically, she started making it happen for herself. First, there were a few freelance gigs, then the origin of derailleur, and then, crucially, the assignment that would become that Roglič profile. Around this time, I realized that for all our many similarities, we were very different. 

Her preexisting following afforded her some opportunities I didn’t have access to, but that wasn’t the reason why all of this was coming together for her. While I dreamed and maybe even longed to write about cycling for a living, she wanted and maybe even needed to. It wasn’t a hypothetical.

She was a grinder, and left no stone unturned or question unasked. When the situation called for it, she would take big swings, and was prepared to stake her livelihood on them. I’d grown comfortable in the B2B copywriting job that keeps my bills paid, and forgotten how to take swings like that. 

Still, she believed in my writing, recognized how much it meant to me, and trusted me. She trusted me enough to not only ask me to write for derailleur, but continually bug me about it when I initially dragged my feet. When my first few pieces did reasonably well, she brought me in as a partner, and we began planning our (in retrospect, overambitious) Giro project. 

We both struggled a bit to balance comprehensively covering a Grand Tour with our other professional responsibilities and personal lives (and we remain thankful to our endlessly patient spouses), but it was worth the nights and weekends. We both improved as writers, our little project was growing quickly, and people seemed to like what we were doing! It was a strange realization that for the first time, there was a small group of people I’d never met who actively followed my writing (and bless each and every one of you, you know who you are). We were doing it! I was a cycling writer, sort of?

I would’ve been content with that steady growth for the rest of this season, and would have happily left ‘next step’ plans for next year. Kate had another big swing in mind. The Canadian classics, which were to be her first travel assignment as a cycling correspondent, had been canceled. So, fuck it, she thought. What if I just tried to go to the Tour?

A couple of weeks later, that Roglič profile was out, she was credentialed for the Tour on Procycling’s badge, and she’d be doing an audio diary and a series of appearances on The Cycling Podcast. Not bad.

I was thrilled for her — equal parts amazed and amused that she’d managed to pull this off in less than a year. As the Tour commenced, though, I knew I wasn’t content anymore. When she took those big swings, it wasn’t really even so much that she wanted to; she had to. It was the thing to do, and I was beginning to understand that. This sport — this world we cover? She was in it now, and thanks to her help (and the goodwill of everyone who supports derailleur, to be sure) I was adjacent to it, but the only way in was to take some big swings of my own. 

So, I’m going. Last week, I applied and got a press pass (whoa, derailleur is an accredited media outlet with A.S.O now), I’m taking most of what remains of my vacation and personal time, and I’m joining Kate in Spain to cover the second half of the Vuelta, my favorite cycling race. It’s less crazy than what she did to get to the Tour, and the Vuelta isn’t the Tour (although if you ask me, it is The Best and Most Prestigious Grand Tour) but it’s nonetheless the craziest thing I’ve done in years, and a meaningful step toward making a life and a living in cycling. 

What’s our coverage going to look like for the Vuelta? We’re figuring it out as we go, but for the first half at least, I’ll probably continue to write derailleur-style recaps of notable stages from here at home, while Kate again chronicles Grand Tour life with entries from the road. 

Once I’m on the ground in Spain? We’ll be able to divide and conquer for more rider access, in-the-moment insights, and a more complete overall picture of what’s happening at The Best and Most Prestigious Grand Tour (if you’re wondering how long this bit will continue, it will go on until I’ve spoken it into existence, so you might as well cooperate). The form of the content will probably evolve as we figure out what we’re capable of and what works. Thankfully, learning as we go has treated us pretty well so far. On a personal level, it’ll be the first time we’ve been around each other in real life, so prayers up that we aren’t sick of each other by the end. It’s gonna rule.

And… that’s the story. As is our custom to mention at derailleur, we have no idea what will happen next, but as ever, that’s half the appeal, isn’t it? As always, we’re eternally grateful for your support, and we’ll be glad to have you along for the ride. 

See you in Spain. 

kate

I’ve never been to Spain.

My Spanish, albeit better than my French, is still abysmal, though I’m at least literate. I’m reminded of a saying relayed to me by my Russian teacher (before the community college cut Russian classes) about foreigners who try and learn a new language: If you can listen but you cannot speak, you are no different than a dog. Well, woof woof.

Anyways, like the Tour, I originally wasn’t supposed to be going to La Vuelta, either. In fact, it’s been a bit of a nightmare to try and squeeze the whole thing together. Are you going to the Vuelta? I asked every colleague I’d met at the Tour in hope that there’d be an answer. There was: you’re on your own, kid.

The Vuelta’s like the wild wild west compared to the Tour. I’ve heard it described as more “lowkey” and “chill." Considering what a barnstormer of a race it was last year, one that had me in tears at my kitchen table, I find that very hard to believe. I suppose it might be chill in that dinner in Spain starts at eight, something that offends my five o’clock American sensibilities while also speaking to my “time isn’t real” writer sensibilities. Perhaps “chill” simply means a smaller, more intimate operation, where everyone isn’t muscling in to get a ten second soundbite from Mark Cavendish (not that that wasn’t fun either.) To be honest, I don’t think it’s fair to compare the two races at all. The Tour, I’ve been told, is its own beast, in fact, it has its own infrastructure. The race organizers offer everything from a laundry service to wine with a lovely lunch spread. The Vuelta just isn’t as, well, famous, perhaps undeservedly, considering it is the best and most prestigious grand tour. If you’re wondering how I fixed my logistical problem, I ended up drafting my younger sister Susannah to come with me and drive because I can’t drive. (I will be learning this winter.) It’s a pretty sweet deal, she gets to see Spain and chill at the beach and in the mountains, and I get to slave over an aging laptop in an overheated press room with probably not so nice a lunch spread as the one with free wine. And there’s no place I’d rather be, either.

I’ve done this whole grand tour thing before now, but this time, to continue our wild west theme, I’m more of a cowboy than a stagecoach driver. I’m going freelance with the promise to do a handful of articles for Procycling, but mostly I’m offering my time to whoever will pay me, simply because there’s less guaranteed work for the Vuelta — there aren’t two months worth of magazines entirely devoted to it. In addition, this publication, derailleur, now has its own sanctioned press access, which means we can conduct interviews with riders on behalf of it, in the mixed zone, and on rest days, which we couldn’t do before — that’s pretty cool, too. This lets us offer a whole other level of insider content, daily little interludes into the world of the race itself. We get to tell the story in the way we want to, curate it journalistically, with no need to piggyback off the quotes of others. We can speak as and for this publication. That’s huge.

Second, for half of this Vuelta, this delayed arms race of a grand tour, I’m going with Jackson. It’s like Jackson said above, in a way that is far more expressive and open than I can put it myself (a way that frankly makes me cry like a little baby): we’ve been friends and kindred souls and partners in this endeavor now for quite some time, and even though there have been moments when we’ve spoken long into the night about all manners of things, we’ve never actually met face to face, in real life. And, like Jackson said, we crossed paths online because we were both in a big chatroom together and we both wrote essays about Roglič losing the Tour. (In a way, we both owe ol’ Rog for all of this.) But the thing is, Jackson is a very different type of writer than me. He went to journalism school, and has been invaluable in helping me, an essayist, learn how to become a journalist, which is a very different thing. He knows how to do a deep, sharp analysis of the sport without spending 3000 words on the resplendence of the sun through mottled leaves as men suffer up a mountain. Without him, I don’t think anyone who reads this newsletter would have any idea what actually went on in any of these races as, like, sporting events that transpire in time past whatever sliver of narrative I manage to cast forever in the amber of my purple prose.

Personal journeys aside, the Vuelta this year is perhaps the most exciting it’s been in a long while, and that’s saying something because I thought last year was pretty great with the whole Roglič only winning by 24 seconds thing. La Vuelta is the final alter of second chances for those who haven’t yet gotten the opportunity to prove themselves, those snuffed out of the other grand tours by means of crashes, the Landas and Rogličs, but also those who got close once before but are still waiting for their moments in the sun, the Bardets and Carthys, Démares and Guillaume Martins.

In a way, it’s also a second chance for me, too. I learned a lot covering the Tour, which I tried my best to document despite the absolute chaos of it. I made mistakes, some of which I still regret, some which I told all of you about in the last newsletter, some of which are unpublishable but are not serious either, merely personal. I’ll have to work differently, on the road, in cars, not taking every opportunity to have experiences in as much as just getting the work done. It’s a job now, and as I check in for my flight, it feels like one. I’m going to work. And yet, I’m still excited. That girlish feeling of seeing them again is still present, frothing beneath the surface. I won’t be traveling with a pack of seasoned Lance or Schleck-era hardmen this time either, which has its ups and downs, again, as I mentioned in my last letter. My sister, a carpenter and a prop designer, is coming, followed by Jackson who is a born cycling journalist if I’ve ever met one (and I have now met many). Whatever I learned in France I’ll have to apply as much as I can, like a pop quiz but for following the chaotic heave of a bike race around a country I’ve never been to.

To be frank, this is all going to be fucking insane, perhaps even more insane than the Tour. At least in the Tour I had my chaperones. And yet, despite the insanity, there’s no one I’d rather share this work with than the person who’s made this newsletter happen from the beginning, who’s put just as much work into it, who’s been there for me when I was the most down bad I’d ever been in terms of not knowing what the hell I’m doing with my life. Oh, he’s also a hell of a writer.

I just hope he drives as well as he writes.