The Uncut Dirt Rag Interview: Chipps Chippendale
By Jeff GuerreroThe following interview was conducted in February 2004 while driving along the straight stretch of highway I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona.
Dirt Rag: Who is Chipps Chippendale?
Chipps Chippendale: I don’t know...it’s a fictional nom de plume. My pen name.
DR: So what’s your real name?
CC: William Henry James Chippendale III.
DR: How did you get to be called Chipps?
CC: Well I got called Chipps in high school and it sort of vaguely stuck with me apart for a brief period of a year or so when I was called Bill for some reason. And then the first article I had published for a mountain bike magazine, Mountain Biker International in about 1993, the editor, Nicky Crowther, put me down as Chipps Chippendale and I thought, oh, O.K. Once you get started like that it’s kind of hard to reinvent yourself.
DR: What does your mom call you?
DR: And your brother and sister?
CC: William, also, because we’ve all at some point been known as Chipps...it being sort of a British thing to all have nicknames like...oh, I don’t know.
DR: Right on. So you’ve been a mountain bike journalist for how long?
CC: Ten years, this is my 11th year. I started full time in January 1994.
DR: Who did you start for?
CC: I started working for Future Publishing for a magazine called MTB Pro. I was there for about five years. The magazine became Mountain Bike Pro, and eventually became Mountain Bike World, which was kind of our homage to Bike magazine. Initially MTB Pro was sort of the more serious mountain bike magazine to Mountain Biking UK which was its stable mate. MTB Pro was kind of the serious one for serious cyclists with nice bikes...kind of the market that Singletrack is after now. And Dirt Rag, for that matter. Eventually, some new publisher turned up, launched a new magazine and kind of closed our mag, much to the dismay of the readers.
DR: But Future still has an arsenal of mountain bike magazines, right?
CC: Yeah, well, it’s got two mountain bike magazines. There’s Mountain Biking UK which has been going 15 years now, and What Mountain Bike, which is sort of the latest incarnation of the magazine that isn’t MBUK.
DR: So let’s back up a bit. How did you get into mountain biking?
CC: I actually studied advertising copy writing and I wanted to write clever adverts, and I went to college for a couple years and finished with a year in London. That was in 1990 and all the bike messengers were riding around on Muddy Fox mountain bikes. I thought they looked really smart. And so I got myself a cheap mountain bike to commute in because I lived about eight miles out of town. I got a Pro Bike Macho. It was pink and white, when floro was cool, and I had a fluorescent green top tube pad for it.
And then I finished college and did a bit of intern work for posh advertising agencies. Eventually, because that doesn’t pay any money at all, I thought I may as well see if I could be a bike messenger for a while to tide me over. So I became a bike messenger...I hadn’t done it before, but I vaguely knew my way around London. Here’s a tip; if you turn up on a wet monday morning when half the messengers kind of can’t be bothered to come in, there’s always a vacancy for a new rider.
So I started doing that and I absolutely loved it...it was so much fun. Then I did a mountain bike race in the sport class and came in nearly last, and that was actually the first time I had ridden off road. I was going to do another one, and kind of put my knobbly tires on my mountain bike for the weekend, and then came out of my house to get on a train to go to this race and fell off on black ice and tore cartilage in my knee. So I was in plaster for six weeks and while I was there I wrote to a few companies to see if they wanted any writing. Cannondale UK phoned me up and said, thanks for the letter, but no.
This other company called NTI (Nicol Trading International) didn’t reply, so I started sending them very bad poetry on florescent paper until they eventually phoned me up and said, stop! O.K., come in for a chat.
It turned out to be just one guy importing kinda cool stuff from America. He just moved to a new warehouse and needed someone to help him, so I started working a few days a week and then full time. I did that for two and a half years.
DR: As like a mechanic or what?
CC: No, as a sort of sales guy, packing boxes full of stuff. It was a distributor of kinda cool bits, sort of like QBP or BTI. And we did all the really cool stuff. We did Salsa, Bontrager, Merlin, Onza, Grafton, Dia Compe, RockShox...all the really top end stuff. And so through that I kind of got to know people like Ross Shafer and Keith Bontrager and I would go to America on holiday and go to California and stuff. I met people like Mike Ferrentino and Tim Parr from Swobo. Then I was going to work for a frame builder called Greg Fuquay who was tig welding really nice steel bikes. He was just a one man band and we were going to kind of do it together. I was going to sell the bikes and so I sort of gave my notice at NTI. Greg then decided that he couldn’t double in size to two people so I was stuck with having given my notice and I didn’t have a job. So I just happened to be at a mountain bike race and I mentioned it to a couple friends of mine who mentioned that there was a vacancy at MTB Pro. I got the job as technical editor for the magazine and I suddenly thought, hang on; I’m not actually a journalist. I’m not qualified and I didn’t even know how to turn a Mac on. And so I turned up for my job going, hi, what do I do? Now I’m still sort of ten years on waiting for someone to go, hey, you’re a fraud! But then I’ve had a couple people describe me as an old timer of the business because I’ve been around ten years.
DR: Well you’re especially known as an old timer in the singlespeed world because of your involvement in the Outcast magazine and such. How did you come to be involved so heavily in the singlespeed scene?
CC: I was kind of the first person to turn up at races with a singlespeed in the U.K. I kind of stole the idea off Mike Ferrentino. I knew Mike and I read lots of his stuff about singlespeeding, including a great story about Bob Seals racing in red Speedos and Chuck Taylors on a singlespeed bike, you know, drinking beer at the start line and such. And having done lots of years racing, not very successfully, but more as a social thing. I just enjoyed it as a way of meeting friends and having a nice weekend away out of the city. And singlespeeding just seemed to appeal to my sense of races being fun, and that was back in late 1994. In 1995 was the first Singlespeed Worlds that Bob Seals put on in Big Bear and I went there and raced that with Biff who designs the Outcast. Then I decided to organize the first UK Singlespeed Championships in 1995. We just kind of hijacked someone’s race and said, do you mind if we have a category for singlespeeds? We had ten people show up including two tandems, and actually I came in third because one of the good guys’ handlebars fell off. I think it’s the only thing I ever won in cycling.
DR: What about the magazine, then, how did that come about?
CC: The Outcast came about around the time they closed Mountain Bike World magazine. The publishers had lots and lots of influence on the magazine as far as what went on the cover and what you could and couldn’t write about, and it all seemed far too regimented. So I started doing The Outcast when I got laid off from Future as a sort of, well hell, we’ll just print whatever we want. No story is going to be too crazy or too drunken, and no picture is going to be too offensive. I just did it as a finger up to the establishment.
DR: Which then lead to you doing a proper magazine, Singletrack. How did that get started?
CC: Well after Future had no use for me I freelanced for a couple of years, I did some work for Future, I did some work for Clark’s Shoes, any work I could get really.
DR: You wrote a book for them, didn’t you?
CC: Yes, about 50 years of the Clark’s desert boot. Then I had a dot com job for a year, there was this company called 9Feet.com...
DR: With Tom?
CC: With Tom Hartley, yeah. And they had three...five million dollars or whatever to spend as quickly as they could in order to be the number one outdoor and cycling online retailer. So they were just burning money and they hired me for a year on a fine salary to do the content for their mountain bike web site. They sold it to me as being an online community and online magazine, sort of what Singletrack is now, but it was really a newsletter for a shop. I kind of made it work to my advantage in that I made sure that my trips did include going to Interbike and Sea Otter, so I did do my best at helping them spend their money. At the same time there was another web site called GoFar, which stood for “get out for a ride” which was done by Mark Alker who I work with now,Shawn Murray and a bunch of kind of northern mountain bikers who had got together to do this web site just for fun. I noticed after doing my dot com job for about nine months, with all our big budget, that their web site was as popular as my web site. Then someone suggested to them, wouldn’t it be great if there was a magazine version of the web site? Somehow Mark, Shaun and I got to talking because they didn’t have any magazine knowledge and I worked at magazines and edited The Outcast. So I used the last few months of my dot com salary to buy a computer and a good camera and stuff then took my leave of them. We started Singletrack on very little money, in fact, the first issue the only reason we managed to pay our $10,000 print bill was that we sold subscriptions to the magazine before we printed a single one. We had 410 people buy a subscription just going on a picture of the cover and a list of journalists that we thought might like to write for us. Those 410 people got a bonus issue for doing that.
DR: Were a lot of these people expecting something more in the vein of The Outcast?
CC: I think a few people were expecting something a bit more irreverent and probably a bit less glossy. But our idea was to do a magazine that we wanted to read, because no U.K. magazine was appealing to the kind of riders we were. The idea was that we would launch a magazine and a web site together that would take advantage of each particular media’s strengths. The web site is great for instant news, chat, new product photos, that kind of stuff, and magazines are good at big glossy photos and big long features. We wanted our paper quality to be as good as we could get, none of the see through pages, every page would be color...which isn’t that hard to do, for all the American magazines reading this, but it does cost money. So there’s less money left to pay yourself with, so it’s kind of a labor of stupidity since Mark or I could make more money working at Burger King.
DR: Speaking of which, it’s probably surprising for people to learn that you’re not just rolling in dough. Does that really bother you?
CC: Well it does when you want to buy things. But that is the trouble of being a small business. I did hear a wonderful rumor that the magazine’s actually being bankrolled by my family because I’m outrageously rich. Which I thought was quite a good thing. What we’ve had to do is sell one issue, make a bit of money so we could print more, and do it like that—just bit by bit.
DR: So it is a hand to mouth thing?
CC: Yeah, kind of. We’re kind of getting there. We’ve got good distribution and you can even buy it in America. But we’re still a small independent magazine and we even need lots more volunteers. We do rely hugely on volunteer help. Or maybe we’ll, you know, sell out to the man, because really we can do good magazines and web sites, but we’re rubbish at selling adverts and getting distribution.
DR: Is the 25% advertising content in Singletrack on purpose?
CC: Yeah, we started off by saying we don’t want lots of adverts because it clutters the magazine up and it also makes people suspect that you’re in the pocket of all these advertisers. The other thing we promised was that we wouldn’t accept mail order adverts, which obviously is business suicide. But we did it for a number of reasons. Like Dirt Rag we rely heavily on bike shops to sell roughly a quarter of our issues and in a lot of cases it’s the only magazine they sell. We didn’t want a customer to be able to come in, pick up our magazine and point to all the super cheap prices from all the mail order boys and annoy the bike shop and try and haggle them down. So that was one reason, and the other reason was purely that they’re so ugly. Any advert with prices in it is just so ugly. We’ve actually had mail order companies advertise with us now, and they’ve made special adverts just for us that have no prices on them.
DR: So we’re on our way back from the 24-hours in the Old Pueblo, and you’re pretty experienced in this 24-hour racing thing. How many have you done now?
CC: I think I’ve done eleven—all as teams and one as a pair. I did the first one at the 24-hours of Canaan in 1996 with Mike Ferrentino, Tim Parr and Matt Nyiri who now works for Soulcraft. The following year when I got back this chap named Patrick Adams in the U.K. who persuaded Red Bull that it would be a really good idea to sponsor a 24-hour race, what with all this sleep deprivation and stuff. And they thought it was great and had given him a big budget, but the thing was he didn’t actually know how a 24-hour race worked. Since I was the only person anyone knew who had done a 24-hour race in the states, I became his rider’s guide, I suppose, as sort of what a rider would want from a 24-hour event. We put our first event on in 1998, the Red Bull Mountain Mayhem, and I think we had 125 teams in the first year. The following year it was 250, and the next year it was 350 and then it sold out. It now sells out in about 48 hours. There’s three or four 24-hour races in the U.K. now, and it’s a very popular, growing form of racing.
DR: Is there anything different about 24-hour racing in the U.K.? Your hours aren’t longer, right?
CC: Because we’re more northerly than most American races, we have greater seasonal variation in sunset and sunrise. So the one in midsummer, Mountain Mayhem, you’ll have maybe five hours of darkness. It won’t get dark until maybe 9:30 or 10:00 and it’ll be light again by 3:00, so that’s good news for solo riders and team members who don’t like riding in the dark. I think the prices tend to be pretty reasonable compared to the U.S. races...$300-350 per team, $100 for solo riders. Similar to the 24-hours in the Old Pueblo.
DR: In my limited experience, it seems that mountain biking is promoted a lot more in the U.K. or at least is made a lot more accessible. Do you agree?
CC: I don’t know if I would agree, actually. It seems that in America, since you have so much space, and because you can kind of drive around until you bump into an event or until the weather gets better, you have a lot more crazy 100-mile races and 30-mile loops and fun things like that. It seems like that there’s a surprisingly good cycling community given that most people like cars and don’t like riding bikes. I guess it’s a bit like other minority things—singlespeeders, Apple computer users—you tend to group together more fiercely because you’re outnumbered. I think mountain biking in the U.K. is a reasonably popular sport, but it’s not the media darling it used to be. To a lot of people it just looks like hard work, especially if it’s raining all the time or whatever. I don’t know, you do seem to have it reasonably good over here.
DR: I wouldn’t argue with that. I was just noting that you often have a cafe at the trailhead and you’re never more than five miles from a pub. But speaking of, you’ve spent a lot of time mountain biking in the U.S., and noting its distinct advantages, how come you never decided to just up and move to the United States and take up mountain bike journalism here?
CC: Well, I have actually had a few offers in the past, but the unfortunate reason is that I don’t have a work permit and I would have to prove to some immigration lawyer that no other American could do the job that I was going for. If I was from Ireland I could enter the green card lottery but it’s not open to British people or Canadians. So the simple reason is that it would be annoyingly difficult to get a work permit, so I would have to marry my way in, in a green card movie style. I do love it in America, and I do have a journalist visa which lets me live here for a while if I’m working for a European magazine, but I haven’t found a European magazine rich enough to pay for me to have fun over here while they sit in the rain and do all the work.
DR: Speaking of travels, where is your favorite place to go mountain biking?
CC: I do really like Moab. For all it’s kind of over-hype and whatever, there has to be some reason people talk about it with such love. I did spend six weeks there once, riding my bike every day, and didn’t tire of it at all.
DR: What about other exotic locations?
CC: I’ve not ridden in too many crazy places. I’m actually quite boring in my travels in that I’ve been to America and Canada. I suppose a bit of Europe, but probably not as much as you might think because it’s almost easier to come over here where I know a lot more people in America. So really, I do need to explore Europe more. But I’ve ridden in the French Pyrenees and in the French Alps, and that’s fantastic. You can ride up a Tour de France climb for two hours, have lunch at the top, and then descend down just endless windy little goat trail singletrack. On your way up the mountain you get a friendly toot from a car to let you know that they are there as they pass you with loads of space, and then on your way down you ride through what seems to be people’s back yards. And they’re all waiving at you and wishing encouragement. You see hikers on trail and they all stand aside and clap for you as you go past. And that is very nice...I think France and Italy, and I suppose Spain as well, have a great attitude towards cycling.
DR: As opposed to some of the farmers in the northern England countryside?
CC: They’re not bad, actually. I mean, we have this great historical rights of way that you mentioned in your article (in Dirt Rag #101, about mountain biking in the U.K.) where the trails have been there for hundreds of years and if you own the land, tough luck, you still can’t close the trail because that trail’s been there longer than you have. And because of a sort of last minute addition when they rewrote the rules in 1968, bicycles are allowed anywhere horses are.
DR: Speaking of these kind of things brings to mind access issues, which we have a lot of in the U.S., and I guess you guys don’t have quite so many, but yet recently I.M.B.A. opened a chapter in the U.K.. Do you have any thoughts on that? Have you been involved at all?
CC: I have a bit. I mean, we do have...not really access issues in terms of being allowed places, but we have problems in being heard. Perhaps an area will have a footpath that someone’s discovered is actually an old horse trail from hundreds of years ago. We need a voice that will say, hey, we represent mountain bikers, let us help you make sure that if you upgrade a trail to be good for horses that it’s good for mountain bikers, as well.
DR: So you guys have a pretty good scene overall as far as mountain biking in England, do you think it’s got a bright future?
CC: Yes, I think so. I mean, one of the advantages and the disadvantages of the country is that it’s so small. You can ride different terrain within a couple hours drive—you can go from forested hills, to fast flat rolling singletrack to jaggedy mountains. The internet has really helped bring people together, and certainly Singletrackworld, our web site, has been responsible for a huge dip in U.K. business productivity because we’ll get two to three hundred people online at any one time. They’re supposed to be working and instead they’re chatting about bikes, but they’re also setting up rides. And people have discovered that journalists may go, yeah, let’s go do a ride in Tucson. We’ll find someone who lives there, we’ll get them to show us around and we’ll write a story about it. It’s not just mountain bike journalists that can do stuff like that, all it takes to either go on a great ride or host a great ride is to just post something up on the forum—Dirt Rag forum or Singletrack forum. And we’ve had people going, right, I’m going to be in Glasgow this weekend, and four or five people will say we’re going on a ride Saturday if you want to come. And another group of riders will go, oh, well we’re going for a ride on Sunday. And it could be that those two groups of riders have never met and they may decide to go on each others’ rides. So suddenly there’s this huge network of people who may not even know what each other looks like, but will end up inviting a bunch of strangers to their house. So you end up with 25 people sleeping on your floor and your friends’ floor, and you get to show them your trails, which is a really nice thing when you get someone from out of town and say, we’ll just take you on the local ride, it’s quite boring. And they’re going, wow, this is brilliant, and you go, yeah, actually, I suppose it is. It takes an outsider’s viewpoint to show you what you have on your doorstep. And equally it takes a random invite from someone you’ve never met to make you drive eight hours across the country to go and ride somewhere you’ve never been before. It is truly what the dot coms were spending all that money on in the boom, of trying to create a community, because that’s where they saw the future...if we have a community, then we’ll get advertising people to spend money.
DR: Is being instrumental in creating the community a large part of what inspires you to keep the magazine going? I mean, to be honest, you make about half as much as an American convenience store worker does. ?
CC: Yeah, I mean, obviously to outsiders our job looks very glamorous, and the glamorous bits of it are great, I mean, we’re driving along in Arizona in February and it’s warm, and that’s good. But it isn’t really what we do all the time. At the end of two weeks of working every hour of every day, you kind of think what on earth am I doing this for? And when your friends start asking you, why exactly are you doing this again? You go, yeah, well, you’ve got a point. But you do think, well, if I just said I’ve had enough, I’m going to pull the plug and get a proper office job, then you think of all these people. I’m sure they’ll find other web sites and other magazines to read, but you kind of feel like you’re personally letting them down. Obviously lots of people come up and say, yeah, great magazine, and you don’t really take it in. But then I guess I remember reading Mike Ferrentino’s stuff in the early days, or Keith Mills, Ted Costantino...all these great writers. And when you get the chance you say, that’s absolutely fantastic stuff, and they go, oh yeah, whatever. But you really do mean it. And if half the people really do mean that they do love the magazine then that’s great, and I feel obliged to keep the magazine going. So we’ll see.
DR: I can’t think of much more to ask. I guess I should just give you the opportunity to have at it and say what you might want to say to the Dirt Rag readership...being a contributing editor and all.
CC: Yeah, that’s a title I don’t really deserve since I’ve not really written anything for a couple of years, probably.
DR: Well, you had that picture of Keith Bontrager that I didn’t credit you with last issue.
CC: Oh, that’s right... I will try to use my bilingualness to jot something down for you sometime.
DR: Well is there anything you would like to plug?
CC: Well, no, except that Dirt Rag has been a bit of an inspiration in terms of the feel that when you read the magazine it’s written by people rather than being written by an editorial team and not having all these uncredited pieces that say we went here, we did this. I would much rather read about individuals’ experiences, and Dirt Rag does that very well. If the story was done by you, or by Michael, or whoever...and if it’s written well, you feel like you’re along for the ride. And I used to be a bit conscious of that in Singletrack, cause some critics would say, it’s just you and your friends on your holidays. And I was talking to a guy and who said I love your magazine, and I said, doesn’t it just look like it’s me and my friends on holidays? And he said, well, yes, but I’m a 40-year-old guy with two kids. I get to ride two night rides a week, I ride on the weekend every Sunday morning, and I’m allowed one week away per year, and the rest of the time is family time, which I’m really happy with and I don’t regret at all. But reading stuff in the magazine, I get a some vicarious pleasure from your travels. It’s a bit like I’m there with you, and even if I’ve never been to Vancouver I know there’s a great coffee shop on the corner. And if you can do that with a magazine, it’s a great thing. If you can bring a reader along for the ride, you’ve done your job.
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