Twenty years ago I took the train into London for a job interview at Cycling Weekly. I had seen an advertisement for a sub-editor in The Guardian’s media supplement a few weeks earlier, had sent off my CV with a covering letter and then received a phone call inviting me for an interview.
Back then, there used to be a race among the staff at the Watford Observer to get the copies of The Guardian’s weekly media supplement, which was in the G2 section of Monday’s paper, and the industry magazine Press Gazette, to have a look at the job ads in the back before everyone else.
It wasn’t that people were desperate to leave the Watford Observer – I wasn’t, at least – but there were a lot of young, ambitious people among the reporters and subs who all felt there was a bigger world beyond the windows of 124 Rickmansworth Road.
I was 22, with a reasonable amount of experience at local newspaper level and I was getting a little impatient to move on. However, if I was going to move it had to be the right move.
A couple of years before this, I’d been interviewed for a job as press officer and programme editor at Watford Football Club and not got it, which in hindsight was a blessing in disguise, not because it was a bad job but because I’d have been terrible at it. I’d applied for a couple of jobs in America, one at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, and one in Sydney, partly because I thought that if I was going to move I should make it a big move.
I realised that I had probably been applying for the wrong jobs – doing the equivalent of the people on that BBC daytime programme Wanted Down Under, who are dissatisfied with life in a two-up, two-down semi in Coventry but can’t understand why their budget doesn’t stretch to a detached bungalow with a swimming pool and a view of the Sydney opera house.
As an aside, local papers have declined so much, and offer so little opportunity for young journalists now, that I feel the need to explain what the Watford Observer was like in those days. It was a respected two-section weekly broadsheet paper with a decent circulation and a large editorial team. The same team also produced two weekly free newspapers, a monthly lifestyle magazine and a whole host of supplements that were distributed with the papers, so we were always busy. We worked three long days from Monday to Wednesday, press day was Thursday, and on Friday we came in late, sat around drinking tea, and then went to the pub at lunchtime and often came back only to turn off the our computers. In many ways, it was the end of the old days.
In the mid-1990s the first of a series of hatchet men had swept through the place making many of the older, more experienced (and more expensive) staff redundant. That had given me and my contemporaries some fantastic opportunities although we’d had to learn fast, often by making mistakes on the way. I’d gone from junior reporter to junior sub-editor in one step simply because I’d shown an interest in page design and typography and because there was no one else to fill the role. It was an exciting time working in a vibrant, energetic newsroom and it’s quite sad that so many newspapers like that have scaled back dramatically. It was a place where the reporters could be writing about a couple’s golden wedding anniversary one minute and heading to Crown Court to cover a murder case the next.
I’d been subbing for about three years when I saw the advert for a job at Cycling Weekly. It seemed to have been written for me. I’d been a regular reader of the magazine since I was a kid and, looking at the criteria, I had more or less all the skills they were looking for. The interview seemed to go okay and I felt pretty confident I’d done well in the subbing test. I have no idea how many other people went for the job and I didn’t know at that time that the magazine was actually looking for three new sub-editors but when I got the call to say they were offering me a job I was delighted.
It’s fair to say some of my colleagues at the paper were surprised.
‘A magazine about cycling? And it’s weekly?’
I’d explain that the magazine covered the Tour de France.
‘And what’s in it the other 48 weeks of the year?’
Most people had heard of Chris Boardman because he’d won a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics on a bike made by a racing car designer and he wore a ‘funny helmet’, but cycling was not part of the nation’s sporting lexicon then.
I gave the newspaper my notice, took two weeks’ holiday to watch the World Cup group stages, and returned to see out my final few weeks while the Tour de France was on. This was the Tour that was shaped by the Festina affair, police raids and protests by the riders. At once point it looked like the race might not even make it to Paris. During stage 17 to Aix-les-Bains the peloton stopped several times and when they finally reached the finish hours late the TVM team came to the front of the bunch and led the way over the line. Several of TVM’s riders had been questioned by police and had their hotel rooms searched the previous day.
That afternoon, I was at my desk when one of the paper’s photographers came in from a job. He’d been listening to the radio while he’d been out.
‘Have you heard what’s going on in the Tour de France?’ he said. ‘At this rate there might not be a Tour de France next year. It’s not too late to cancel your notice, you know.’
At my leaving do, one of my ‘gifts’ was a box with a label stuck on it that read ‘DRUGS FOR CYCLING’.
Back then, Cycling Weekly was based on the sixth floor of King’s Reach Tower on London’s South Bank in the same building as a host of lifestyle, TV and women’s magazines, among them Marie Claire, Loaded, Country Life, Woman’s Weekly and the NME. I’m not sure what this says about the magazine’s position within the company’s pecking order but Cycling Weekly shared a floor with Cage and Aviary Birds back then.
What I didn’t know until I’d accepted the job was that there had been a mass exodus of writers and subs from Cycling Weekly and its sister magazine Cycle Sport because they’d all left to set up Procycling magazine. Procycling, of course, has outlasted Cycle Sport, the title it was established to rival.
When I started at Cycling Weekly, I was part of the sub-editing team correcting and rewriting copy, cutting stuff to fit the gaps drawn up by the designers, writing headlines and captions and proof-reading the pages. The diet of copy was the same most weeks – extensive race reports from home and abroad, news, bike and product reviews, features on performance and coaching, interviews, plus a hefty section on mountain biking, which I must confess I didn’t enjoy as much as the rest of the work.
There were also despatches from correspondents dotted all over the country and the Scottish racing scene was covered by someone called Richard Moore. I wonder whatever became of him?