Goodbye, farewell, and amen: thanks for the ride, CT

After more than seven years in the saddle at CyclingTips, tech editor Matt Wikstrom is moving on. In his farewell piece, he reflects on what he's learnt along the way, and we reflect on how we're going to clear the lofty bar he set.

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A note from CyclingTips founder Wade Wallace:

It was more than seven years ago when I was running CyclingTips from my kitchen table that I put a call-out for someone to review products for the site. To my surprise, many people came forward, but one that stood out above all others was Matt Wikstrom. He came to me with refreshing ideas and approaches to product reviews and we both wanted to try something different.

From the start, Matt was a dream to work with. He was fully self-sufficient, took product photography to a new level, held experience and opinion above regurgitating product specs, and every article was better than his last.

Matt is a man with many interests and talents, and I knew his time would eventually come. Recently, Matt called me letting me know the news that he’s ready to move on to greener pastures. I’d like to thank Matt for his enormous contribution to CyclingTips and wish him well in whatever he decides to do next.

We’ll miss him around here, but he’ll always be welcome to write something when he has something to say.

CyclingTips had just celebrated its third birthday when Wade put out the call for a tech editor. At the time, I was working as a medical researcher characterising the immune response to cytomegalovirus. I also had two kids under the age of 10, so it was questionable whether I really had the time to take on extra work.

However, it was simply too good an opportunity. I had been trying for at least a few years to break into publishing by submitting unsolicited manuscripts to different magazines, and while my pile of rejection letters was a little unsettling, I wasn’t prepared to surrender the possibility. So, rather than work on my next experiment, I spent the afternoon composing my application letter.

It was 2011, and by then, the internet had the world’s attention. I had been reading Cyclingnews for a few years, and had stumbled across CT a few months earlier in my quest for more content. Where so many websites at the time were dominated by text, CT had lots of high-quality photos. Having grown up with BMX and skateboarding magazines, which relied heavily on striking images, I was immediately drawn in by CT.

Those BMX magazines were responsible for more than just my love of photography; they also exposed me to my first product reviews. The whole notion that there was a job where I could test-ride bikes for a living blew my mind, though 30 years would pass before I realised that particular dream. That was when Wade responded to my letter and offered me the job as CT’s first tech editor.

* * *

Wade’s ambitions for CT were always very clear: he wanted to challenge the major outlets (like Cyclingnews) rather than simply competing with other blogs. As inspiring as this was, I wasn’t so certain. What seemed more realistic was that CT could be a great stepping stone to a career as a tech editor. In fact, I once gave voice to this view, telling Wade that the day one of the major outlets tried to poach me would be the day he could say that CT had made it. In retrospect, I suspect I might have offended him, but he never argued the point.

Besides, there were far more important things to dwell upon, like building an audience. This was something that happened gradually, but if there was just one factor that was critical to this process, it was our audience. Leaving our articles open to comment provided us with immediate feedback on our efforts, and as a result, my work, as well as CT’s direction, was shaped by the expectations of our readers. There were times when that criticism was hard to hear (and perhaps it could have been delivered with more consideration), but it kept us honest.

What began as a voluntary part-time position slowly morphed into an actual job, and eventually, a full-time salary. And along the way, something truly remarkable happened: CT made the transition from a blog to a respected media outlet. I have no idea how that happened, but it meant that I never needed that stepping stone (though my ego is a little bruised that nobody tried to poach me).

Throughout it all, I remained a fan of CT, devouring its content like any great magazine. It has been a pleasure watching the site evolve, and while cynics may accuse CT of selling out at some point, the underlying principles and overarching goals have never changed. This is perhaps most evident in the amount of space that is still given over to photos despite the fact that it can harm CT’s page rankings.

* * *

The formation of an idea has often been likened to childbirth, since there is a moment of conception, a period of gestation, and of course, the final delivery. In the case of my retirement, it was an unplanned conception with a very rough gestation due to bouts of scepticism, denial, and even outrage at the notion that I needed a new challenge.

Fortunately, it was a painless delivery. The idea arrived one morning in February, and I did not hesitate to share it with Wade. It was naked and unfamiliar, just like a newborn child, and I fumbled with it during those early hours. Even now, one month on, there are times when I have trouble cradling it in my arms.

It is thriving, though, helped by the fact that I’m immensely satisfied with the work that I’ve done with CT. I also know the technical direction of the site is in good hands (thanks, Dave and James), and Wade continues to attract passionate and dedicated people to help him maintain CT’s upwards trajectory (which, as it turns out, includes the owners of Pinkbike). After so many years of doing all I can to help the site, I can take a step back and simply enjoy the show.

* * *

I’ve learnt a lot about bikes over the last seven years, and much of this insight is distilled in an article I wrote a few years ago, entitled 9 things I’ve learnt as a bike reviewer. After re-reading it this morning, I’m not tempted to add to this list, but I think it’s important to reiterate that many of the distinctions that separate modern road bikes (as well as many other products, such as wheels) are nuances.

These nuances are, by definition, subtle and therefore, easy to overlook. Finding an appreciation for them can be difficult too, like understanding the mingling flavours of a wine or savouring the textures of a meal. An amount of experience is necessary to inform the palate, and not every individual will respond to them in the same way.

In the beginning, my own palate was quite coarse, but with each bike review, and every new product, it started to mature. I can’t pin down a date (or even a year), but after a few years of working for CT, it had evolved into a sophisticated thing, and it’s perhaps the greatest gift that could have been bestowed upon me.

It’s also something that is incredibly difficult to give voice to, especially in a way that a wide range of readers can understand. Put simply, if each bike was a meal, then some were more satisfying than others. Some were remarkable for their nutritional value, others for their inventiveness, and then there were those that filled the senses to achieve new levels of delight.

After years of making the effort to describe the often indescribable, there’s a measure of relief in calling an end to it. There’s also a selfish part of me that is looking forward to enjoying any future meals in private. I have a hunch the flavours will be a little richer and they will last longer when I’m not trying to dissect and analyse them.

* * *

Before I started working for CT, I didn’t have any experience with photography outside of holiday and family snaps. I wasn’t too worried because I reasoned most people read reviews rather than look at them, so my writing would carry the day.

And in some ways it did, but as I started submitting reviews, Wade started coaching my photography. In pragmatic terms, there was no real need for anything other than illustrative shots, but Wade could see how effective it could be for distinguishing CT from our online competitors. Fortunately, I possessed some aptitude for the art, and while his insistence on high-quality images for the site created a steep learning curve, I enjoyed the challenge.

Working outdoors with natural light can create a lot of frustration. Bikes and wheels tend to fall over, and there is no way to slow a setting sun when more time is needed to prepare a shot. There is a wonderful flip-side, though; that moment when I manage to capture an image that bursts with magic and glows with beauty. I can’t conjure them at will, but I know if I’m operating the shutter often enough, I will get lucky.

* * *

I know I have a bias, but I believe CT is the most beautiful site of its kind, delivering a desktop viewing experience that is akin to browsing a lavish magazine or an outstanding coffee table book. CT’s mission has long been to celebrate the beauty of cycling, and one look at the site should make that apparent.

That beauty runs deep, too, thanks to the quality of the content as well as thoughtful comments from the audience. The latter has always added a certain something to every article in the same way that a good coffee (or a cookie) is often the most fitting way to close out a ride.

I have no doubt that the CTeam will continue to find ways to surprise, delight, and endear the site to its readers. They have the skills, the passion, and the devotion to tap the spirit of a sport that has all sorts of riches to offer. That alone is enough to tempt me to reverse my decision, but then, that’s a sure sign of any great ride: an adventure full of vivid moments that will populate your thoughts for years to come.

I’m deeply, humbly, and breathtakingly grateful for the ride, CT.

Some notes for photophiles: When I started working for CT, Wade sent me his Panasonic DMC-GF1 with a Lumix G 20mm F1.7 wide-angle lens, and it made an immediate difference to my photography. For those unfamiliar with this camera, it’s a Micro Four Thirds design with interchangeable lenses that offers much of the capabilities of a full-format SLR without the associated bulk and expense. Image sizes are smaller, but there’s no need for all those extra pixels when publishing online.

I moved to an Olympus E-M1 a few years ago, another Micro Four Thirds camera, so I could keep using the Lumix G wide-angle lens, but I added an Olympus M 45mm F1.8 portrait lens to my bag. The portrait lens doesn’t distort the lines of a bike, so it offers an arguably truer perspective, but it’s the difference in the feel of the photo that I appreciate. I continually swap between these two lenses during every shoot in my search for the most pleasing photos.

I have a strong preference for natural light, but I didn’t understand how important a tripod was until I started using one. It adds weight to my bag and slows down my photography, but the results are always worth it. Some might question the use of prime lenses, but I really enjoy moving around the bike and adjusting my position to frame each shot.

As for image handling, I depend upon Adobe’s Lightroom, and will often devote more time to post-processing than the actual shoot. I derive enormous pleasure from this aspect of photography, if only because it always make my work look much better than what can I manage with a camera alone.

Acknowledgements: I’m indebted to every manufacturer and distributor that was willing to place a little faith in CT by providing samples for review.

A note from CyclingTips global tech editor, James Huang:

I honestly wasn’t sure what to think of Matt Wikstrom when I first started working for CyclingTips in 2016. Unlike many other tech editors I’ve known over the years, he wasn’t impressed with something just because it was new and shiny. His respect and praise for a product had to be earned, and his photography displayed a level of artistry rarely found in someone with such an analytical mind.

Matt, you may feel confident that you’re leaving this beloved publication in good hands with your departure, but I have to admit to feeling some anxiety about living up to the lofty standard you’ve set during your tenure here.

Top wrestlers have a curious tradition of leaving their shoes behind when they’ve competed in their final match: a reference to “leaving it all on the mat”, if you will, and the ones you’re leaving behind are dauntingly big to fill. We may not bother trying to fill them at all, in fact, instead leaving them as a reminder for where the rest of us will continue to aspire to be.

Enjoy the next phase, Matt. You’ll be sorely missed.

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