By Captain Dondo
Like the 25th anniversary of that drunken wedding you had in Las Vegas that seemed like a good idea at the time (but knew deep down had no chance of going the distance), Dirt Rag is still here. The 25th anniversary passed a while back and recently we celebrated the 200th issue, in a row, with no time off for good behavior. Dirt Rag and mountain biking grew up together—sometimes like sibling rivals, and sometimes like those folks who have their kids young and the role of parent swapped around a bit. We’re here to report that none of that growing up stuff happened to our beloved publisher, co-founder, (still) owner, and, in my case, dear old friend, Maurice Tierney.
So who taught you how to ride a bicycle?
I guess my dad. My earliest memory is building ramps in the driveway. We ran it in a Dirt Rag in the table of contents one year. I was into photography pretty early and I took a cool picture of one of my buddies jumping off one of these ramps in my driveway. So we got into the stunt thing on the Stingrays.
Was the Stringray your first offroad vehicle? That was mine.
I don’t remember having a Stingray. My parents wouldn’t buy me a Stingray. They made me get a three-speed. I had one of those. I wasn’t happy about that.
Did they make you carry a briefcase to school instead of a bookbag?
Yeah. They tried to make me get an English racer, a three-speed. It’s much bigger. You can’t jump with it. I think when I hit my teenage years I got a Bottecchia road bike for 125 dollars. And did some bike touring out on Cape Cod with a buddy. Probably when I was 13, 14, 15. We took a bus to Boston and then rode out to Provincetown from Syracuse [where I grew up].
The Bottechia must have been more of a racing rig though. You must have had enormous gears on there to go touring.
I don’t remember knowing that much about it except it had cottered cranks and I was really into taking it apart and putting it back together.
Me too! That’s how I learned how to be a mechanic.
I had little blocks of two by four that I used to hold the crank when I took the cotter out, so I wouldn’t be hammering on the bearings. At least once a year I’d take that thing apart—completely apart—and clean and lube the bearings. I was always tinkering with it. It was like a $125 bike in… 1973 or ’74, ’75. I forget. One of those years.
I made it to Pittsburgh in about 1980. I got a touring bike. I didn’t really do any touring but I did a couple centuries. I was reading Mountain Bike for the Adventure in 1987. There was an ad on the back cover for a Supergo Access, $500 delivered to your door, TIG welded, steel frame, Araya RM 20 rims, “Salsa-approved” stem, Deore, SIS derailleurs. I can’t remember if it had BioPace, but it had an under-the-chainstay U-brake. And so I got this bike and started riding around random trails in Springdale, Pennsylvania. With the geography of the land around Pittsburgh, there’s a lot of unused space. It’s all private, but it all contains trails. Motorcycle people had created a network throughout Allegheny County that you could ride for hundreds of miles in different hollers and abandoned coal mines or just unused land. And along creeks and stuff. But there was this pretty huge network of trails. I got this bike for Christmas in 1987, started riding. In 1988, I got a Macintosh to do my photography business, to do database and contacts and stuff.
You were doing newsy stuff? Like AP or something like that?
I was doing it all. I was doing “you name it.” I had a police scanner in my car. So I did fires. I did ambulance chasing. I was the chief photographer for the alternative news weekly in Pittsburgh. “In Pittsburgh,” it was called. I did weddings. I was building a commercial photography business all through the ’80s. And while Elaine [co-founder, editor, and former spouse] was working as a copywriter in an ad agency. The Macintosh was kind of a lightbulb for desktop publishing. I thought, “Wow, all you have to do is put words on this.” You’d fill the space with words and then reproduce, and then, boom, you’ve got a magazine.
So when I met you, had you produced the first issue yet? It was… I think it was the summer of 1989 at Mount Snow. I met you and Elaine.
Well, so the thing that’s getting me is getting my first mountain bike in 1987 and then being so into it that by spring of ’89, we had launched and printed the first issue.
Okay. Let’s cover that ground because that’s a lot. That’s a lot in two years.
I mean, that’s one year because it must have been… I’m riding mountain bikes in ’88. That means we must have started planning the magazine late in ’88, before I had even ridden a year, to launch in April of ’89. So it was really quick. I was really into it.
Like you said in your business, you were quite diversified in the kinds of work that you were willing to do. Was this just another facet of that, or was this something different?
Well, it started that way. It was totally freelanced. So I had jobs, and then I didn’t have jobs and started this project. And Elaine acted as editor in her spare time, but she still had a day job in downtown Pittsburgh. And then as years went on, photography started to fall by the wayside and the magazine kind of took over because people were really into it.
Yeah, it was a big time in the sport.
We got a lot of support right away, even for just launching in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. The second year it was for the mountain biker of the Northeast, and then we included more states, and then it was the mountain biker of the East, and then we went completely national.
Yeah, but it was always for the mountain biker. It was a reflection of a group of people. I mean, the beer articles, the music articles, the coffee joints, the lifestyle. Did you mean to do that?
It wasn’t really a huge amount of strategy. I mean, it was made like a zine, independently, without a whole lot of research. It was kind of like what you, me, and our friends want to do. Or what we wanted to read about while trying to get some service in there, like tips on how to get stuff done. Where to ride, how to ride, trail mix, little tips about how you can put a power bar wrapper in a sliced-up tire.
So that was the situation in 1989 when you banged out the first issue. Two hundred issues later, coming up, what’s so entirely different? Do you have a lot of editorial research going into the mix of this magazine? Do you have a panel of gurus that are analyzing the uptick of certain trends, and you try to ride herd on that, or are you still just winging it?
We’ve ridden a wave or two. We rode that first wave in the mid-90s, the wave of everyone making all of these great CNC parts in their garage, and making them in fancy colors and triple anodized this and that. And the crash after that, and then the big “S” companies making better parts. The mountain bike industry matured and there’s been different waves. We’ve always been fast on our feet to pick up on new trends like the singlespeed thing, or disc brakes, full suspension, fat bikes…
But it wasn’t because you’d heard about it. It was because you were doing it. I mean, that’s always been my impression.
You know and I know what it meant to be a mountain biker in 1989. It was like you said, it was kind of punk rock. It was on the fringe. It was starting to become legitimate. I mean, we met in 1989, and I think if you told me that there was going to be an Olympic mountain bike race seven years later, I would have laughed my ass off. So that all took off. And things have evolved. It’s defined by so many different things. Now, the first mountain bikes, we had 26-inch tires because we just borrowed from the BMX industry and that’s what was available. Now we got 26, 27.5, we got 29s. We’ve got suspension. We’ve got front and rear suspension. We’re riding gravel grinders. People have rediscovered antique road bikes and how much fun it is to ride those. I mean, what’s a mountain biker anymore?
The slope’s been driven by technology. And of course, people want to make things work better, so that’s what people do. They make stuff work better, which means making your bike ride easier, you know? Suspension, tire size, disk brakes. I hate to say it, but it… Is it driven by competition? I don’t know. I don’t pay attention to competition. Not really.
That’s why I love you.
But downhill bikes are 29ers now. Like World Cup downhills are being won on 29-inch bikes. So I mean, that technology is great, but I think it’s kind of taken over so much, that it’s made the sport less accessible to Joe Mountain Biker. I think bikes are too expensive. I think the technology has maybe gotten out of control. Just like in our everyday lives, technology is out of control, even with the way we connect with our telephones. But I’m not going to complain about that. That’s just the way it is. That’s how technology works. But I think it’s hard to keep the soul in it when the technology has driven us to this $10,000 mountain bike. So we try and review bikes that are under $3,000. Companies don’t want to send that to us. They want to send us their 7-, 8-, 9,000-dollar wonder bike. I’m exaggerating with the numbers, but you know.
So we try and keep it real—try and keep it to activities that you can do out of your back door, what you can do in your own town, and get people riding bikes in general. And try to keep it less exclusive. For a while we were doing, I think, a little too much exotic-travel-in-foreign-countries kind of stories.
Here’s what I want to know. How come you’re still in it, man? I mean, I’ve had a couple of careers since then. You were married, and having a kid, and living on the East Coast, and now you live on the West Coast, you still have a kid, and you ain’t married. But you’re still in this thing. What’s up with that?
It’s never a dull moment, you know? And I really believe in what we’re doing, and… it’s an organism. It’s a family. Like, it’s got 13 people on staff. And they come and go, but it’s still a family. And it’s an organism that’s greater than the sum of its parts. I just don’t… buy into selling out or maybe…[laughing] I pulled up the Jerry Garcia quote, “We’ve been selling out for years, but no one’s been buying.”
Yeah, I hear you. I have always felt more held by the Dirt Rag family—and this is even—I mean, I met you when I was working for the competition. And you have always treated me like a friend. And I was always welcome at your campfire at all the events that we attended together and all the shit that we did, and it really did have that… the magazine does have that family feel so, I see it.
You know, it just keeps going on. And there’s new challenges every day that keep it exciting. It doesn’t get any easier, I can tell you that. Especially when you want to print content on paper and be able to read it on the shitter, you know?
It’s always been a low-budget project without a lot of pay and we’re—of course we’re trying to make money—but maybe we’re motivated by other things…or more important than making lots of money but… My thought’s falling apart.
That’s okay because I can complete the the sentence, I think. So, we would show up at an event. I had flown there and rented a car and was staying in a fancy hotel. You would show up in the van and be camping. And who did I want to hang out with? I wanted to hang out with you because you were doing the thing that I think I actually wanted to be doing, but I didn’t have the balls to do. It’s got to be confusing with the Internet imposing and trying to scratch your head about the value of print advertising.
Well, print advertising is down. And companies think they can tell their story without it. And they often do, but with the Internet—and especially since last November—we’re kind of in a post-truth society and and I think it actually affects us as journalism. I’m questioning whether people even care that we have the best tech editor in the business writing great content. Because people are just being inclined to Google whatever information they need, and fail to recognize the quality of it. Or do they even care? I don’t know.
When the Internet began to be a force to be reckoned with, we were inclined to give the industry whatever it wants. But the more you try and sell something advertising-wise, or fake editorial disguised, or advertising disguised with editorial, you start to lose that… How do I put this?
We need to remind ourselves that we serve our readers—our 40,000 paid circulation of people that actually pay some money to read the magazine, whether it’s print or digital. You know? Journalism is being pitched by the wayside. Well, I’ll just say this. This fucking thing right here? [holds cell phone up] This block… obelisk… like from that movie 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Looks like a cell phone to me. But yeah. I hear ya.
Well, your attention span is reduced. And, therefore, your decisions are made instantaneously. And there’s no thought going into your decisions or your thinking. I think this quest for instant gratification might be making people dumber. And I don’t know, man. It’s a real struggle just to keep control of people’s minds. To keep them free, anyway. You know? I think as we move forward now, at this point in time in history, it’s more and more important for us to maintain some independence, and some thought, and some truth. Because the struggle for truth is so intense right now. Or it needs to be, anyway. Because, yeah, it’s about the reader.