An Interview with Seb Rogers, Cranked Magazine Founder
The bike magazine veteran on why he started his own publication
Started by veteran photographer and writer Seb Rogers in 2015, Cranked could maybe be described as the mountain bike magazine for those who don’t usually like mountain bike magazines.
Sitting on the same shelf as modern, thoughtful outdoor mags like Like the Wind and Sidetracked, Cranked is less about the bikes, and more about the people who ride them—cutting through the endless advertorial spiel with long and thoughtful articles you might actually want to read.
I called up Seb to find out more…
Before we talk about Cranked, you started out writing and shooting photos for mountain bike magazines in the mid-90s didn’t you? How did that come about?
It’s all the fault of an old girlfriend of mine. In the early 90s I was at Sussex University in Brighton studying social anthropology, and I had a particularly upsetting split up with my girlfriend at the time. I took it very hard—and I found that one of the things that helped me to cope with it was riding my bike.
I’d bought a mountain bike for riding between town and campus. Mountain bikes at the point were still fairly new—couriers in London were using them, and if someone took one to the summit of Snowdon, it’d still be considered newsworthy. I was just using mine to and from college, but after I split up with my girlfriend, I started experimenting with riding further and going off-road—using it for what it was intended for.
I spent most of my time riding my bike instead of going to lectures, but it did wonders for my mental health. I graduated in ’91, around the time of a short but very deep recession. There were no jobs—there wasn’t even any bar-work. All my plans just evaporated.
What did you do instead then?
I rode my bike a lot, and spent a lot of time in my local bike shop. I was unemployed—so it was cheaper to sit in the bike shop and drink their tea and eat their biscuits than sit at home and do that. I hung out down there, helping out a bit when it was busy, and eventually they gave me a job, and that’s how I ended up in the bike industry. I spent the next few years working my way up—basically by accident—but I knew I didn’t want to work in a bike shop for the rest of my life.
How did you go from working in shops to shooting for mags?
I’d always looked at magazines and rather arrogantly thought, ‘I could do that.’ I actually managed to sell a couple of short pieces to MTB Pro. From there I felt I had a toe in the door—so I made myself a pain in the arse really. And this was before e-mail.
I was wondering about that… so you’d basically post off your articles every month? What was the process?
From my time in Brighton, I’d done some riding with Jo Burt—the artist behind Mint Sauce [the long-running mountain-bike comic]—and because of his ties to MBUK, Jo knew people in the magazines. We went on holiday for a week in Crete, and I took some pictures. Jo wrote some words and it ended up in MTB Pro. That was my first published thing, and off the back of that I started pitching ideas. The web at that point was just something that only nerds and geeks used, so to pitch an idea you either had to write a letter or get on the phone.
In those days it was still possible to speak to someone on the phone—I think now people hide behind email—but back then if you were polite and persistent, it was theoretically possible to get to talk to the editor of the magazine on the phone. And then you’d have maybe 15 seconds to keep their attention. I just kept coming up with ideas.
By early ’96 I’d had two or three little things published, and I really liked the idea of doing it full time and I hated my job—working in a bike shop was fine, but the one I worked in was spectacularly badly managed. I resigned about six weeks before the entire company went bust. I had two options on the table—one was to try and be a freelance writer and photographer, and the other was a job offer I had, working for a major bike company as a sales manager. It was a big bike company that I really liked, and the job offer was very tempting, but I figured that I didn’t have a mortgage, a family, ties or debts—if there was a time to have a go at being freelance, it was then. So I turned down the job offer and I gave myself 12 months to see if I could actually make some money being a freelancer.
I let the contacts that I’d made know that I was doing it full time—and was hoping that at some point they’d start coming to me to commission me to do stuff. And that did happen—but it was relatively slow at first. I think in some ways it was easier back then, because everyone’s got a camera now. In the mid-90s most bike companies didn’t have a presence on the internet, and photography was all film based. That meant the barrier to entry was quite high.
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You needed a bit of technical know-how.
Yeah—because a magazine editor commissioning a photographer for an article was taking a risk. There was no direct feedback—you didn’t know if you’d got the shot until you got the film back from the lab. So you needed to be pretty confident and competent. The advantage I had was that I’d got all that out of the way in the 80s because photography had been a hobby of mine for years. That was what enabled me to make that leap.
And you were the double-package. You could write the interview and shoot the photos.
That helped me, and it also helped the magazines—because it was easier to organise. I’d do jobs that were purely writing—for nearly 20 years I reviewed bikes for MBUK and What Mountain Bike, but then I’d be asked to shoot the cover-shot too. Which was great for me.
At that point it seemed like mountain biking was evolving rapidly.
Definitely. It was still a relatively new sport—and this may sound strange to people now—but cross country was huge. The World Cup attracted enormous crowds. Back then, people like Ned Overend and John Tomac were superstars. They were the rock gods of mountain biking.
Downhill was still in its infancy. Mountain biking had started with downhill, but in the mid-90s a lot of downhill racing was like what they did at Mammoth Mountain—basically riding down a fireroad as fast as you dared, and hoping your wheels didn’t slide out from under you. It bore very little relation to what downhill is today. When most people think of mountain biking today, they probably think of either downhill or freeride.
Yeah—big squishy bikes, not nimble cross country bikes.
That’s right. The thing about the mid-90s was that mountain biking was going through this massive era of change, so it was really exciting. The technology was changing, and the riding was changing. The other thing of course that was happening then was that print magazines were absolutely booming. Lads mags were selling 750,000 copies, every single month. That might not sound like a lot, but a magazine that’s selling 20,000 now is considered to be doing quite well.
How much would a bike magazine sell?
At its peak, MBUK would sell maybe 70,000 copies. And in comparison to FHM or Loaded that wasn’t much, but it was a magazine for a niche hobby. So it was a really exciting time to be involved with print—and I feel very lucky to have been there, doing that at that time.
How does all this lead to Cranked? Was there a tipping point that led you to want to do your own thing?
It was a combination of things. Maybe ten years after the peak of print magazines—around 2010, most magazines were struggling to find their way. They were starting to experiment with much more of an online presence, but the key thing was that they weren’t making anywhere near as much money as they had been. And in a situation like that, it’s often the freelance budget that gets hammered first, so I was losing quite a lot of work.
Also, around that time the magazine Privateer came along—I did some work for them, I really liked it. It was sort of like MTB Pro on steroids, but it only lasted a couple of years. I was convinced there was room in the market for a magazine like Privateer.
Was there a specific thing you were trying to do or show with Cranked?
I wanted to create a magazine that I wanted to read. By 2015 I’d been freelancing for mountain bike magazines for 19 years, and I still enjoyed it, but it had lost a lot of the excitement. The monthly magazines struggled to maintain the relevance they had in the 90s. Back then it made sense to have a monthly magazine because the internet wasn’t a thing—if you wanted to find out about the latest kit, or what had happened at a world cup, you’d read a magazine. But one of the reasons that print magazines started to struggle around the time of the banking crisis was that so many people were online—and there was so much more information online.
“It’s not really about bikes, it’s about people—people who ride bikes, people who crash bikes, people who race bikes, people who build bikes… everybody has got a different story to tell.”
I think this is a problem for what I call the legacy publishers—those big corporations that have had monthly magazines since forever—it’s really, really difficult to make them relevant. But I don’t have that problem with Cranked.
With Cranked my starting point was ‘What does print do well?’ You’ve got this tactile thing, so you might as well use really high quality paper, because it’s nice… it even smells nice. And then a print magazine is an opportunity to make a cup of tea or open a beer, to sit yourself down and immerse yourself with no distractions, so you might as well fill it with immersive stuff—long form stories. And then you just leave everything else for other people to do. It was just about making it very simple and clean.
It’s quite a departure from the traditional mountain bike magazine format with their busy front-covers and endless product chat.
Having worked as a freelance writer and photographer for 19 years, I suppose I’d developed a degree of cynicism. For example, I had shot or written an article about pedalling technique probably three or four times over the years—everything would go around in a circle. And there are only so many route guides you can publish, so every three years or so, you’re going to have to start repeating them again. I was fed up with the repetition.
There was an editor for MBR who can take some of the credit for the inspiration behind Cranked. I did some freelance work for them around 2013, and at the time they had an editor who had come over from a caravan magazine. Some people might have thought that was ridiculous, but actually he did a really good job with it, and I had some really interesting conversations with him. One thing that stuck with me was he said he’d noticed that all route guides are basically the same—you turn up in the countryside, some of it is a bit boring, some of it is interesting, someone has a puncture, you stop at a pub for lunch, everyone goes home for tea. But what had occurred to him was that it was the people who we should be talking to, because everyone had a different story to tell.
And that’s really the essence of Cranked. It’s not really about bikes, it’s about people—people who ride bikes, people who crash bikes, people who race bikes, people who build bikes… if you take time to listen to people’s stories everybody has got a different story to tell. Cranked is really just about telling people’s stories. And storytelling is as old as humanity—we’ve been doing it to entertain ourselves since we were sitting around a fire at the entrance to a cave. If you strip it all away, that’s really all it’s about. And at Cranked, because we’ve got a lot of time between each issue, and we’ve got a lot of pages, we can go into more depth. It’s about listening to what people say, and picking out the individual bits in people’s stories that make them unique.
And that’s more interesting than hearing how much a rear mech weighs. I feel like with the best magazines, the subject is usually sort of irrelevant…it’s maybe just an excuse to talk to someone. With Cranked it’s not like you need a huge knowledge of mountain bikes to get something from it.
If you inject the human element into something, then people sit up and pay attention. All the other stuff is already covered online—if you want the wow factor of amazing images, it’s all there online—but what about the story of that person in that amazing image, and how they got into mountain biking? That’s a story that may be worth telling, and that’s where Cranked comes in.
Are there any stories you’re particularly proud of publishing?
One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about Cranked is that I’ve been able to publish stuff I know for a fact that other publishers would have run away from for fear of upsetting somebody. For example, one of the best received articles we did was a feature on depression and mountain biking—and how riding bikes can help people who suffer from depression and other mental health problems. And most editors would run away from that. I was very careful publishing it that we were doing it in a way that was appropriate—we weren’t giving advice, but instead focussed around people’s stories in their own words.
More recently we published a story I’d been wanting to publish for a while—a story on transgender riders in mountain biking, specifically transgender riders who want to compete at a high level. And that got an overwhelmingly positive response, apart from two people who admitted they hadn’t actually read the article.
There aren’t really any limits—I don’t know who said, “Publish and be damned,” but that’s pretty much my attitude, and that gives me the freedom to publish stuff that the other mags would shy away from. We’ve got to have these conversations.
I’ve heard the argument that mountain biking is about escaping from everyday life, and it should all be about escapism—but we all live in the real world, and some of these difficult subjects aren’t going away, and we shouldn’t ignore them. I’m never going to apologise for publishing topics that make some people a little uncomfortable. I’m going to keep pushing the boundaries of what mountain bike journalism covers.
And it’s a mix too—it’s not like the magazine is all about activism or politics.
Yeah, that wouldn’t work at all. I don’t want to give the wrong impression—Cranked doesn’t have a particular agenda—we’re not pushing anything down anyone’s throat, we’re just allowing writers and riders to express their views, and some of those views are occasionally going to attract controversy.
We’ve got lots of inspiration and escapism in there too, and part of my job is making sure every issue has enough variety—whether we’re covering things geographically or covering different riding styles. It all goes into the mix, and hopefully each issue ends up balancing out over all.
Since you first started in the early 90s, I imagine you will have seen mountain biking change a lot. Where is it now?
Mountain biking has this incredible power to make people happy—it’s as simple as that really. Riding a mountain bike releases all these endorphins, and it doesn’t really matter what level you’re doing it at. If you’re just starting out, and you haven’t exercised for years and you’re a bit slow, you can still go out and have an amazing time. And then what the pros are doing is amazing too.
So there’s so much that’s positive about mountain biking, but where it’s evolved over the years, with things like slopestyle and freeride, it has borrowed a lot from snowsports. And that includes the words we use—carve… shred… rip. And you can see the similarities—the difference is that with snow-sports and with surfing, the trail that you leave behind you is going to be covered over at some point—whether that’s new powder, or a new wave. But with mountain biking, when we scratch that line in the dirt, it’s there for quite a long time. And I don’t think as a group we’re nearly aware enough of the potential for damage to the landscape and to the flora and fauna around the trail.
Does mountain biking have the same accessibility issues as snowboarding and skiing as well? It’s not exactly the kind of hobby everyone can just have a go at.
Yeah definitely—more so now than ever. When I started working in the bike shop in Brighton in the early ‘90s, the most expensive bike we had was £1,200. And the next most expensive bike was about £750. Now, if you’re looking for a full suspension bike, you’re probably going to need to spend a couple of grand. But the thing is, you can still get a really good hardtail for £400, but all the mountain biking imagery you see online is around much more expensive bikes. The magazines and the online content tends to give the impression that mountain biking is a much more expensive sport than it needs to be. But there is good kit out there that doesn’t need to cost a fortune.
A hardtail will do the job.
For those 19 years I spent writing bike reviews for MBUK and What Mountain Bike, I didn’t really have any time riding my own bike. A lot of the bikes I did ride were pretty modest—£300 hardtails. And I didn’t mind, because one of the things I learned was that I could have just as much fun on that £300 hardtail in 1998 as I could on a £3,000 full suspension bike. Sure, the full suspension bike would perform better in all sorts of ways, but does that mean you can’t have fun with the hardtail? Of course not.
“I think the bicycle is the best thing humans have ever invented, by a country mile.”
I’m sort of the opposite of a bike snob—any bike is a good bike, providing it’s safe and it’ll hold together. Mountain biking has the appearance of a rich man’s sport, but it doesn’t have to be. We shouldn’t pull the ladder up behind us—more people on bikes is a good thing. You could level the accusation that Cranked is a very premium publication so I’m not really putting my money where my mouth is, but I’d counter that by saying that it’s actually accessible to just about anybody, because it’s very people focused. Even those people who don’t ride mountain bikes will find something interesting to read and draw them in.
It’s about the experience, isn’t it? You can have just as good an experience riding a modest bike as you can with an expensive one.
And when you’re some young kid scrounging your money together, you’re not going to be able to buy some precision custom steed. I imagine some people look down on the wheelie bike kids knocking around town on hardtails, but a few of those kids will end up riding in the hills at some point.
Exactly—and the most talented that keep with it are going to be the ones winning Crankworx in ten years time. It’s all part of the same family. So yeah, I think accessibility is really important, and it should be accessible to the widest group of people. We ran a feature in the latest issue about a group of mountain bikers in Bradford who all came from a Muslim background, and it was fascinating hearing the barriers of entry they faced—but that group of guys was having a fantastic time—and they’ve been all over the place. We need more of that—so if there are things we can do to get under-represented groups to ride mountain bikes, then we should absolutely be doing it. We shouldn’t just think anybody can walk into a bike shop and buy a bike.
Yeah—that’s a bit of a cop-out.
It is—it ignores all the reasons why for example women are massively under-represented in mountain biking. I’ve just come back from Whistler in Canada with my 17 year old daughter, and she was acutely aware of the fact she was outnumbered probably 20-to-1. And we didn’t see a single other teenage girl there all week. It’s wrong.
Fixing that is a complicated thing—and again Cranked has come in for criticism for the fact that women are under-represented in its pages. That’s an entirely fair criticism, but what I would say is that every single opportunity to feature a female writer, photographer or rider, assuming it’s a good story, I’ll take it. But the reason women are under-represented in the magazine is because they’re under-represented in the sport—we’re holding a mirror up to the sport. Would I like that to be different? Absolutely.
Rounding this off as we’ve chatted for a while now, what is it about riding bikes that people love so much? Why are people so obsessed with them?
Personally, I think the bicycle is the best thing humans have ever invented, by a country mile. It’s an extraordinary thing. It’s the most efficient way of getting from A to B. Walking, running, swimming—none of it has the efficiency of a bicycle. It’s this beautiful stripped-down machine, with everything you need and nothing you don’t—and then if you take that and ride it in beautiful surroundings, what’s not to like about that? It probably sounds too pretentious, but it’s the essence of being human—being out on a mountain bike, barreling down a trail in an amazing landscape—the freedom that represents is just extraordinary.
Interview by Sam Waller.