Meister interviewed


Does editor Will Meister exist? Sara and Duncan of Sorted Cycles are the only people on the UK scene who claim to have met him in the flesh. This has led some pundits to speculate that he is a pseudonym. The only bio we could Google up appears on the site of an Australian luthier and refers to 'an English writer and Web guru'. We thought it was time to nail the sucker down.

Will Meister at Castle Hubjub Actually, before we begin the interview, there's this really pressing question...

WM: Yeah? Who is April Lawton?

WM: I think you should explain that one. 63xc updates very regularly, on the first of the month, every third month. A couple of times I've hit the site an hour or two early, before the content goes up. There's always a 'pardon our dust' notice and a picture of a woman identified as April Lawton. Who is she? What does she have to do with fixed gear?

WM: Nothing, really, it's just a story that I like. At the turn of the 70s, Lawton formed a band called Ramatam with Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix's drummer. By all accounts they weren't much of a band, but people who saw them live agree with remarkable consistency that Lawton was a nonpareil, jawdroppingly good, the best guitarist they'd ever seen. So here was this young, very good looking chick -- I use the term advisedly -- cutting up all the male guitar heroes. She was on the scene for about a year, decided it wasn't for her, and left to become a painter. Fell off the map, as far as I can tell. I keep telling journalist friends to research her, but no-one's gone for it yet. OK, so now I know who April Lawton is. Who is Will Meister?

WM: I'm this ageing hippy type who really likes bicycles. Everybody I know really likes bicycles. Some of them have websites of their own. None of them has ever dreamed of a readership the size of yours. What's going on?

WM: Well, y'see, there are two versions of the story, both true. The standard one is that I did up an old bike as a fix, took it offroad, and attained nirvana. Yeah, right. What's the other?

WM: The other is that I was a dotcom casualty. The dotcom boom was the most amazing high for me. After my degree I trained as a technical writer, but then spent the late 80s and early 90s in London as a computer-based designer and later as a systems manager, bringing computers into the big design studios. I learned a lot about comms and data transmission, besides picking up some useful skills in layout and typography. When the Internet thing hit, I was in there like a ferret up a drainpipe. How does this relate to, exactly?

WM: I watched this brilliant, amazing scene go bad, and I was forced to ask myself why it had gone that way. What I loved about the early web was the way that you could be your own writer, editor, designer, photographer. With little or no resources you could reach a worldwide audience, if you had energy and dedication and something to say. What went wrong was people trying to graft stupid management structures and studio hierarchies onto a basically anarchic participatory stock. And so?

WM: And so, when the bubble burst, I decided that the best thing I could do was put together a really good specialist site -- something better than the print mags -- on no budget. Just to remind everyone what the medium was capable of. Why did you do a cycling site?

WM: I nearly didn't. I got into playing mandolin when I moved back to the country, and for several months that was going to be the new site. Back then, the idea that my perspective on cycling might command an audience of any size would have seemed absurd. What makes you say that?

WM: Well, like a lot of country people before me, I'd always regarded the bike primarily as a means of transport. In my weird teens it was my way of getting into town and having some kind of independent life. Later it was for commuting. At a quite fundamental level, I didn't understand offroad cycling. In fact, I remember feeling pretty hostile when the first bikers started showing up on the Downs in the 80s -- you know, you're walking some remote footpath listening to the skylarks, and suddenly four guys blast past you, all multicoloured lycra and creaking springs. And they've got a car with a roofrack parked right across the gate where the disk harrow has to get in... Temperamentally, I'm still probably closer to the scowling bloke with a pitchfork than I am to the average weekend rider. Why would, say, an MBUK reader want to listen to me? So why the change of heart?

WM: Part of it was that the place I live changed. When I was a kid this was a real farming estate, with a huge flock of sheep and a dairy and a small market garden. Starting in the 70s the farming was run down and the houses where families lived and worked were sold off to weekenders one by one. These days it's basically a range where a bunch of rich buffoons can slide their fat arses out of SUVs and blast expensive shotguns at anything that moves. That being the case, I don't feel so bad about outsiders using it for recreation. Plus, I discovered fixed gear. Why does fixed gear make a difference?

WM: This is going to sound like sophistry -- a bike is a bike, right? -- but I approach taking a fully-rigid fix on a longish ride as a kind of walking. It's perfectly quiet, you aren't insulated from the terrain, you have to adapt to the place you find yourself. You're forced to pay attention. It's the exact opposite of that awful downhill warrior thing from a few years back. Downhillers related to the landscape like an army of occupation out for jollies. So how did you get into fixing?

WM: Not a bad story, actually. I didn't have a bike when I arrived back in Hampshire. What I did have was a lot of old bike stuff, including the debris of a long, contrarian relationship with hubgears that went right back to my teens. So I went into my stockpile and dug out a Sturmey FW mechanism. FW?

WM: It's a four-speed hub, single trigger, been out of production for about 40 years. Any hubgear anorak will tell you that you can easily convert an FW to a five-speed, and that was my plan. Unfortunately I enlisted the help of one of those vintage restoration guys: you know, a homeprinted business card, a shedful of spares and it'll be ready by Wednesday, no worries. He spent months trying to make the conversion work. Replaced cables, triggers, both clutches, one of the planet cages... His last session finished the day before I rode London to Cambridge. Of course it's OK, he says. A few miles from London Bridge one of the gears vanished, and another two went shortly after, so that I ended up doing something like 80 miles on two working ratios. I was so disgusted that I decided to give up on gears for good. Was it easy to switch to fixed?

WM: I'd experimented a bit in my teens, which helped. But I'd never converted a bike on my own behalf. Sheldon's site was a help, of course, but what really did it for me was stumbling across the fixed gear mailing list out of Ottawa. I joined that last year, and it seems to be just a bunch of guys arguing about no-brakes and whether to wear a helmet.

WM: Mailing lists are like mushrooms. They spend years underground and then without warning they'll burst out and start fruiting like mad. For a year or two, the FG list was required reading. The membership included Sheldon, Andy from ShitShifter, Rick Chasteen, Matt Chester, Andy Corson from Surly, Greg Goode from OldSkoolTrack, Genny G, evil gordon and Aram Shumavon from Yo!Fixie, Dennis Bean Larson from FGG, the Moores, Joe Whitehair from SingleSpeedOutlaw, others... I notice that quite a few of those went on to write for you.

WM: Well, I'd love to say that was all down to my magnetic personality. I'd had some involvement with Bruce Sterling's online projects, the Dead Media List and Viridian, and I'd certainly taken note of Bruce's methods. But the truth is that the FG list had the most extraordinary energy. The entire user base seemed to be planning, or contributing to, one fixer site or another. It reminds me of that old punk saying about the Velvet Underground: only about 300 people ever saw them play, but every one of those 300 went out and formed a group. We seem to be moving towards Before we go any further, I'd like to know for sure how many people are reading the site. Someone mentioned a figure of 100,000. It can't be that many, can it?

WM: It can. The readership reached 100,000 per issue last year. In fact it's been falling away since I announced that I was winding up, but it's still huge. Remember, each one of those is someone who's decided to visit the site and actually read stuff -- it's not like a print mag, where about 90% of the readership skims the pictures and puts the book on the coffee table. How did it get so big?

WM: I think it's because is a magazine, not a blog. I don't really like blogs, as my hopeless performance with Hubjub's One Cog Blog demonstrates. Magazines are much more fun. You have a bunch of people writing from different viewpoints and they rub up against each other and new ideas come out. So, uh, that's fairly critical... Is there something else that you're not telling us?

WM: Well, while I feel a bit uncomfortable in the role of presiding ideologue, I will own up to having done various, uh, things to ensure that the site got good rankings. Such as?

WM: Some of it is obvious -- like, try to go live with one really good article that everyone wants and no-one else has. Take a bow, Mr. Goode. FG101, right?

WM: The very same. I knew Greg could write something really good, but I was surprised by how well he did. Even now, years after we first published it, it's still one of the most popular things on the site. Greg completely blew me away. I tried to return the favour when he was starting OldSkoolTrack, but I don't know how much I helped. And the non-obvious stuff?

WM: Black arts. It's down to what I said about doing all your own work. If you understand the ways that spiders use site statistics, if you understand the relationship between document content and ALTs and TITLEs and META data, you can pull yourself way up the Google rankings. If you can consistently get onto the first page of Google results for the key phrases you want, you're made. So, it was all plain sailing at the start?

WM: I got excellent support, especially from Matt Chester. I'd also mention Andy Corson, Greg (Goode) of course, Genny G and a few others, mostly FG list veterans. That was fortunate, because 2002 was excruciating. I was the most broke I'd been since the start of my career, working on an early-90s Macintosh with a dodgy hard disk and a 28k modem. I had this long lead which stretched to my parents' phone downstairs and which people were always tripping over, so that the RJ-11 showed bare wires. Besides all my own problems, there was this basic issue that the site was perceived as a non-starter. Most people just didn't get the concept, and very few of the ones who did had time or inclination to write. How long did it take to do the first one?

WM: About four months, on and off. These days I can do a complete issue in a week or ten days, but starting a project from scratch takes time. You know how it is. How fast did it take off?

WM: The first one did about 5,000 I think. I lost the early stats when my former ISP deleted the site for no obvious reason during a supposedly routine server upgrade. It then grew about 20% every issue. I thought it had topped out back in 2005 but I had a lot of trouble with my dad that year and did a couple of substandard issues. When I got back on the case in 2006, numbers started going up again. Are there substandard ones?

WM: Yeah. It's hard to tell because all the old content stays live, but there've been one or two where I didn't do the necessary preparation. I reckon to start chasing articles the month before production, but sometimes stuff comes up... On the other hand, we've never missed an update. Every issue has gone out on time. Where do the colour schemes and so on come from? Do you get help with the design?

WM: We've run contributed cover photos a couple of times, and Faith Buck did an excellent drawing of an Inca cyclist for #12. Otherwise it's all me. The plan was always to make the site follow the passing seasons. Four times a year, I go out on the bike and try to think about the most striking colours I saw on my trip, and then I run them into the templates. Sometimes I'll find some object to incorporate too -- Albert the Suction Lizard, or that deer antler that became a little landscape one winter. That's all fun. It's the editing that's the hard part. You find editing hard?

WM: Well, to be fair, the stuff that comes in is pretty good. I have a shorthand for the sort of bad writing I saw on the singlespeed sites around '02 -- LKGB, standing for 'Let's Kick Gearie Butt!!!!!', a rallying cry for a particular kind of cycling illiterate. Very little LKGB stuff comes into A couple of contributors are pro writers, like the great John Ward, and fixers tend in any case to be motivated and articulate. But I do edit, sometimes quite extensively, and that bothers people who are used to posting on groups and forums and seeing their words come back exactly how they typed them. I've lost a few that way. Favourites?

WM: I wish I'd kept all the early index pages and colour schemes, but I didn't have access to a CD-ROM drive until it was too late. I remember being really pleased with #5 -- that was the one where I spotted how popular the thing was getting and redid all the layouts for scalability. I was proud to run stuff like Matt Chester's articles, the DIY 2FG and the Millington disk rotor cog things, John Gonter's technique pieces... Those are all examples of really good, hard info that you can't get elsewhere. I'm glad to have provided a home for community-oriented stuff like Thursday's 'Muttonmaster' and Genny's 'Bikesmith'. And it was a blast to interview people like Scot Nicol and Steve Potts and Dave Wrath (Sharman). How much influence has the site had?

WM: I can show you several instances of supposedly legitimate journos lifting articles lock, stock and barrel. Let's hear it for the mainstream. Among riders... well, there's a lot of stories on the web about people reading the site and rushing out to fix their bikes, but 30 zealous converts don't make a scene. It's less fun but more informative to look for products on the market. Those Boone rotor cogs, the LeVeL hubs and the Carlos Cruz MTBs are pretty significant, as are some things in the Surly range. Matt (Chester)'s work is an indicator, in a way, tho he was into this stuff long before me. Ditto Alex (Baker)'s Solitude bikes. I know that a bunch of makers follow the site because they've told me so. I think the 29" thing has had a bit of a boost off of us. Whether there's a fixed offroad scene ten years from now, and whether its members will remember, are different questions. Why are you stopping?

WM: All good things. I've worked through my money problems, and now that I'm back on my feet again it's time to look for new projects. I was actually going to finish last year, until Genny G. and Pat Marek convinced me that it had enough energy left to run until 2007. But five years is a long time for a website, especially a minority interest one. In a way, I'd have loved it if some kid had come up with a new and different concept and blown us out of the water, but we became so well established that it couldn't happen. Well, maybe it can now. Any regrets?

WM: A couple. The biggest is a computer crash at the end of that miserable first year which wiped out about a month of e-mail, including my correpondence with this one really interesting guy in the states who was doing deliveries on a fixed MTB. He was a natural writer, unpublished, lots to say, and I totally lost him. Still feel bad about that one. More prosaically, I wish we could have got the mailing list going properly. But overall, I'm proud of what we achieved. saw me through from my late 30s to my early 40s, which tends to be a fairly rough passage, and I think it delivered the goods. What happens now?

WM: will stay live for the foreseeable, and features like the cog and hub listings will be updated when I can spare the time. But the site won't be getting any new content. Hubjub, which began as a spinoff, has its own momentum now and will continue to grow, provided I can keep coming up with new angles faster than the competition. As for me... over the last few years, I've got more and more exercised about the EU. I'm trying to figure how to do an anti-Brussels site that doesn't fall back on the usual Little Englander clichés. That means finding a way to discuss slippery economic and political concepts without alienating a general audience. A nice chewy sort of project. Any parting thoughts?

WM: Be most excellent to each other. Party on. Thanks, Will.

Will Meister not at Castle Hubjub

v1.0 written May 2007

Will's UK fixed gear shop, Hubjub, is here.

Mailing list
Join the list.