Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Biking Journalist: Interview with Blair Robertson

Journalist Blair Anthony Robertson has worked as a newspaper reporter for more than 20 years. After stints at the Charlotte Observer, the Detroit Free-Press, and a small-town daily in Alabama, Robertson has worked for the Sacramento Bee since 1999. A native of Canada's capital city of Ottawa, Robertson attended Augusta College (now Augusta State University) in Georgia on a golf scholarship and earned a degree in English. Robertson's daily round-trip bicycle commute is 50 miles all year long, avoiding cars for most of his trip by riding the American River Bike Trail.

After a recent Bike to Work Month article in the Bee, I contacted Robertson to gain his insight on life as a bike commuting journalist.

Bike Commute Tips: Tell me about your bicycling experience. How long, since when? In addition to everyday commuting, what other bicycling activities do you enjoy (touring, MTB, racing)? What bicycle do you ride on your daily commute?

Blair Anthony Robertson: I have been riding a bike in some fashion since I was five years old. I had a bike all through school and I rode to the golf course every day during the summer. That's when I encountered bike racers and tried to keep up with them. Besides commuting, these days, I also participate in the occasional bike race and especially enjoy time trials--enjoy, in the very twisted way only other cyclists can understand, the ridiculous suffering that goes with it. I don't do any touring, mostly because I don't like being away from my three dogs.

I have five or six bikes (depending who you ask and what repairs are going on): a steel De Rosa fixed gear (42x14), an Opera road racing bike, a Steve Rex (the great Sacramento frame builder) custom steel road racing bike, a Colnago time trial bike, a Bianchi San Jose single speed cyclocross bike for doing groceries, running errands, etc. For my commute, I try to rotate the bikes, riding my fixie about once a week. I'm a Campy guy.

Bike Commute Tips: I've been very impressed by the number of bicycling-related stories you have published in the Bee. Is the Bee generally supportive of bicycling? Is your interest in bicycling stories encouraged by Bee editors, or is it merely tolerated?

Robertson: Hey thanks. I'm glad you noticed. In fact, a lot of people seem to notice, which is what keeps me going. I just added them up from the past two weeks: five bike-related stories. That's quite a bit more than normal. I was happy to see the Bee make a major commitment to the Tour of California this year. When it came to town, we had already had comprehensive preview stories and the turnout for the three-lap downtown circuit was huge. Sacramento looked a little like Paris that day.

I think cyclists hunger for cycling stories and I think they appreciate that I know a thing or two about the subject and that I actually ride a bike. I like to think I have a very hands-on approach to my cycling stories--more of a rider than a reporter. For instance, when we had a major train trestle fire a few months ago, the county and the train company set up a detour because the fire knocked out a portion of the American River bike trail, which is the major bike commute route in the region. I didn't just call people and ask about it. I got out my bike and rode the detour--and I reported that it was unsafe and poorly marked. County officials got on it the next day and fixed it. It's a little thing, but I'm proud of that.

I like to think I am watching out for my fellow cyclists. My impression is that the editors like my output of cycling stories because they are well-received by the public. Hint for readers out there: if you like the cycling stories, let an editor at your local paper know. If you don't, those kinds of stories might dwindle. I'm going to keep writing about cycling because the more stories I write, the more ideas I get.

Bike Commute Tips: Are you alone among your colleagues at the Bee as a bike commuter? Is the Bee supportive of its bike-commuting staffers (lockers, showers, secure parking)? How does the Bee compare to other publications you may have worked for or may be familiar with? How are you perceived by your colleagues?

Robertson: No, several people at the newspaper commute, including a few reporters and editors. It's nice to see. I hope I have set a good example over the years. Many people have approached me and asked about my bike riding, so I know people are curious and want to figure out how to do it. That was partly my motivation for writing my recent story about how to commute by bike. My point was that anyone can do it.

As far as other places I have worked, the Bee is probably the best for bike commuters. We have a gym with showers in the basement. I have a permanent locker there, so I'm all set. The only thing I wish we had was an indoor bike parking place or bike lockers. We just have a normal bike rack and bikes do get stolen--I had an Eddy Merckx racing bike stolen four years ago. I now use three locks when I park my bike at work.

Sacramento is a totally flat city and the weather is good year round, so there's no reason not to get on a bike.

Bike Commute Tips: How does your interest in and enthusiasm for bicycling impact your journalism? Does your approach to articles differ from your driving colleagues? Reporters often need to travel for interviews or to cover a story. Are you able to cover all assignments by bike? Do you occasionally need a vehicle?

Robertson: As a cyclist, I probably see a lot of things differently. I notice a lot of the hypocrisy that others might not want to see. For instance, I noticed Al Gore never talked about bikes as a solution in his movie. And I noticed he sure did drive a lot of places. I also noticed he needs to drop about 50 pounds.

Today, I just got back from an interview at the local university. It was a 25-minute slow ride each way. I leaned my bike against the desk of the professor I was interviewing. I was wearing a shirt and tie and street shoes. When I have to go beyond, say, 10 miles (in work clothes, that's about my limit), we have company cars we can sign out. That's a nice perk. But I try to cover most of my stories by bike.

I also try to approach cycling stories as something inclusive. I don't want us to seem exclusive or snooty or anything like that. I have always maintained that the more people we can get to ride bikes, the safer we all will be. There will be less of that us-versus-them thing, in which motorists act as if we are aliens from another planet who don't pay taxes or drive cars.

If more people rode, they could identify with the problems we cyclists face because maybe they have faced them, too. For instance, to avoid getting doored, we have to ride a fair distance from parked cars. This can irritate some motorists. But motorists who are also cyclists get it. I want more people to get it.

Some drivers--a lot of drivers--don't even think we should be allowed on the streets. That said, cyclists have to do their part. They can't blow through stop signs when a car is already there. We all suffer when that happens--and it happens way too much. I try to hammer away at the idea that we need to be good ambassadors for our sport. We shouldn't tolerate dangerous drivers, but we should try to win over some friends by being good cycling citizens.

Bike Commute Tips: Many bicyclists and bike advocacy groups are often disappointed by major media coverage (or neglect) of bicycling. What suggestions do you have for bicyclists interested in seeing more favorable coverage? Do you think the media is becoming more receptive of bicycling as a transportation mode?

Robertson: I think we're doing pretty well in Sacramento these days. But the complaints about the coverage can occasionally make me roll my eyes sometimes. A friendly reader emailed me last week and said he hadn't seen any of my cycling stories lately. I emailed him back and pointed to five in the last 10 days.

For people reading this in other locales, I would suggest they try to build a relationship with their newspaper. You shouldn't just ask that a cycling event be covered. You should give the newspaper a compelling reason why it should be covered. Remember that there are a lot of other groups and activities competing for attention in the newspaper. You've got to sell your idea like you're selling a car.

I'm still trying to tackle things that aren't necessarily my interests but deserve a story or two in the paper--BMX, mountain biking, touring, etc. I'm a roadie, but I have to get out of that comfort zone from time to time. The best way for me to do that is for people to contact me with ideas. We journalists are always looking for good ideas--trust me.

Image: Blair Anthony Robertson at Pebble Beach, California
Visit: Sacramento Bee, letters responding to Robertson's article.
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips

5 comments:

Karma said...

I just found your blog today through Sheldon Brown's website. I am trying to get started bicycling to work and was shocked to find that May is bike to work month! The reason I am "trying to get started" is because I continuously find myself being too lazy, and sleeping-in an extra 45 minutes instead of getting up and on the bike in the A.M. There are no bike lanes in Dallas, and mustering the will to brave a little traffic or (recently) wet weather has also deterred me from getting going.

I am a cyclist, but I'd taken the entire month of April off to concentrate on some rock climbing trips, but that's a lame excuse. Sacrifice excerice for excercise? Hm...

Anyway, I'll be commuting 15 miles each way on a fixed gear I built myself earlier this year. I have a rack and small bag for work clothes & lunch that I installed this past weekend. I have access to a shower at the office, and parking in the company mailroom. I'm all set. I'm just being lazy.

The good news? Your articles and postings have enlivened me. I'm ready, I'm willing and I know that if I just get my arse in gear I can begin a long history of bike commuting! Thank you for your efforts and dedication to cycling.

Anna said...

"We just have a normal bike rack and bikes do get stolen"

The Bee should have a webcam on their intranet, that looks out at the bike rack.

(and ideally there'd be a colocated loudspeaker with a "get the #$%^ out of here" recorded message, that could be activated by a viewer when appropriate...)

Karma said...

Thank you for all your work on this site. I just found you through Sheldon Brown and am excited about commuting to work by bike. I live in Dallas (we're pretty lacking on bike lanes) but it is only a 15 mile commute each way and I'll be on a self-built fixed gear equipped with a rear rack and bag large enough for work clothes and my lunch.

Sasquatch said...

Paolo, thanks for the great interview with Blair. I cringed when I read about his Merckx getting nicked outside the Bee--bastards!

Note to Karma: Right on with getting ready for biking to work, but "commuting 15 miles each way on a fixed gear"? Wow, sounds exhausting. I know you have no hills in Dallas but the headwinds must be fierce at times--and I know from headwinds as I used to live in Paolo's beloved Provence-sur-Walmart (Central Valley, Calif). Are you sure you wouldn't want to drop a gear or two sometimes, coast awhile? I'm not meaning to sound patronizing and my sincere apologies if you are a very experienced cyclist and/or under the age of 22.

Melly/Melody/or Mel said...

This explains how he can dine out so often and stay in shape! I love his dining reviews...just fantastic!

Nice interview..thanks!