Vulnerability is not an obvious business strategy – especially in publishing, where received wisdom suggests you need to be quite the contrary to get ahead. But desperate times called for desperate measures at independent cycling magazine Rouleur when Covid-19 prompted the first lockdown last spring.
“Advertising in March / April (2020) was decimated,” editor Andy McGrath recalls. “We put a tweet out saying to our readers if we are going to continue, we need your help.”
Around this time, Rouleur also took the decision to throw open its vaults and make all of its back issues free to readers via the Rouleur app. This proved to be both a valued gesture of solidarity and, also, a compelling shop window.
“We had hundreds, maybe thousands, of new subscriptions,” McGrath says. “The response was overwhelming.”
Just one of many initiatives which have helped Rouleur ride the storm over the past eighteen months, the title’s plea – and, more importantly, its readers’ response – is a striking demonstration of a valuable brand asset McGrath believes will power it in the future: community.
Launched in 2006 by founder Guy Andrews, who was editor until 2014, and funded for its first 40 or so editions by sportswear brand Rapha, Rouleur was conceived to celebrate the sport of professional cycling past and present.
Its proposition is as simple as it is aspirational: cycling culture for cultured cyclists.
Its high production values – stylishly-shot cycling kit in the Desire section, for example, or visually-stunning Explore section pieces done in partnership with travel brands and tourist boards – help make its printed edition something readers want to keep.
Its editorial, meanwhile, balances lightness with serious reportage. One award-winning feature followed a group of Syrian cyclists from war-torn Damascus to their new home in Germany as they readjusted and tried to become proc-cyclists over the course of a year.
In 2013 – the year McGrath, an established cycling journalist, joined as assistant editor – a deal was struck with Rapha to take the title independent, though the two brands have grown closer again recently.
Soon after, Rouleur moved into events with Rouleur Classic – a three-day live event held each November, in recent years in the art deco Bloomsbury Ballroom – at which desirable cycling brands and the best pro-cyclists past and present mix with readers.
Subsequently, Emporium – its online shop, selling a host of upmarket branded products it curates as well as some of its own – was launched.
Today, Rouleur’s magazine sales and subscriptions for the 25,000 or so copies printed each issue account for around half of its revenue, with the balance roughly split between advertising / commercial partnerships and the live show / retail.
It is one of a half dozen or so cycling titles published in the UK.
Yet from its French cycling-inspired brand name (a ‘rouleur’ is someone who rolls, riding with style and panache fast and hard all day) to its top-quality production values and striking visual imagery and perfect binding, it has always sought to stand apart from the crowd.
It’s more than a brand or just the magazine, it’s more like a membership model.
And now, under a new owner, the plan is very much to continue to do so.
Matteo Cassina – an Italian former banker and former shareholder in Rouleur, who is now Chairman – acquired the title in February 2020 from previous owner Gruppo Media Ltd (which, back in 2013, bought Rapha’s majority stake) a few weeks before the start of the global pandemic.
Looked at one way, the timing could not have been worse. Looked at another, it was anything but.
For a start, the team – six working full time on magazine editorial, six more full timers working across other parts of the business – had been considering for a while leaving the newsstand – an idea acted on when Covid-19 forced their hand and the decision was made to make visiting the website the only way to buy a single print issue.
As the country went into its first lockdown, the decision to make back issues freely available created a compelling shop window for would-be subscribers – who, rather than the £10 per issue cover price, pay £73 for the eight editions now put out each year.
“Subscribing is the Holy Grail for all publishers,” McGrath observes, “and even more so in a pandemic when readers would rather have their own copy land on their door mat.”
The worse thing for me is a title that sits on the fence and doesn’t say anything or offer any opinion.
New editorial direction
Inspired by a conversation with its new owner, planning refocused onto an editorial evolution.
Up until issue 100, Rouleur’s editorial year was shaped in the main by the major live cycling events it covered – the Tour de France, of course, but also the Tour of Italy, cycling’s second most prestigious race, as well as the so-called Spring Classics.
In 2020, however, Covid-19 cancelled many events, of course, and Rouleur had to pivot and fast – in just a few weeks, for example, turning its Tour of Italy issue last year into an interview special.
The team then set about exploring the idea of switching from being mainly events-led to an approach that was subtler, more nuanced and themed.
This began with an anniversary issue last September marking Rouleur’s 100th edition. Working in partnership with Rapha Cycling Club, circulation was more than doubled that month and the issue was distributed in seventeen countries.
The edition that followed, in February 2021, was a women’s special, guest edited by broadcaster and journalist Orla Chennaoui.
With stories including a first-hand piece by a plus-size female cyclist, an account by teenage cyclists in Karachi detailing the sense of freedom they get from cycling, and a piece on vaginal swelling, the edition sold out several times, got picked up by several national newspapers, drove new subscriptions and attracted more female readers.
“The worse thing for me is a title that sits on the fence and doesn’t say anything or offer any opinion. That’s the kind of magazine that’s not long for this world, I think,” McGrath observes wryly.
The next issue was a true grit edition – all about defiance and toughness.
Speed-themed issue 103 included a four-way conversation between professional road racing cyclist Mark Cavendish, Formula 1 racing driver Valtteri Bottas, motorcycle road racer Cal Crutchlow, and female British racing driver Jamie Chadwick.
Following the Tour de France issue, due out soon after we spoke, work was well underway on forthcoming editions include one that will be mountain-themed and another all about diversity and inclusion.
“We all love cycle racing and still do. But what we also want is to reach into untapped areas in the market where we’ve seen real appetite among readers,” McGrath says.
“Cycling doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however, and we want to show the wider world is important – culture, geography, history and other sports. It’s all about surprising the reader with something unexpected.”
He adds: “We are driven by great stories and focused on doing that the best way we can. And what we have achieved so far has really turned the dial.”
Over the past twelve months, subscriber numbers have tripled from “several thousand” pre-pandemic. Expansion of the Rouleur website since the arrival last year of digital editor Peter Stuart, meanwhile, provides a platform for further international growth.
An Italian edition – Rouleur Italia – and Spanish edition Volata were introduced last autumn, and attentions are now turning to how to grow the brand elsewhere, in particular North America and Australia.
It is important for Rouleur to build a sense of community and offer something more than just the magazine.
New sense of community
“A lot of people feel part of something with Rouleur – perhaps more so than with other titles,” McGrath continues. “It is important for Rouleur to build a sense of community and offer something more than just the magazine. We work hard to maximise everything we do within our offering.”
All Rouleur Classic chats on stage are videoed, he points out, and the many hours of content on YouTube are an important tool for building and engaging a sense of community.
Subscribers, meanwhile, enjoy a variety of benefits. “It’s more than a brand or just the magazine, it’s more like a membership model,” he explains.
“We offer a discount on back catalogue of 50%, a discount on the Rouleur Classic show as well as other deals and a free app and readership. And there will be more moving forward because to be a modern global publishing brand, you’ve got to evolve that, and we will.”
Under the guidance of their new chairman, the Rouleur team’s priority now is to further up their game and think – and dream – bigger. “We were doing well before, but now we are really trying to be number one in this industry,” McGrath says, “that’s what we are really going for.”
Challenges remain – competition from a crowded cycling magazine marketplace, especially.
“There are currently some bigger brands out there who are noticing us and might want to push back,” he readily concedes. “But we have an exceptional team now; I’m not worried there. And we have a really good vision.”
The key, McGrath adds, will be to stay patient, be smart, and keep reacting.
“Keep obsessing, that’s the thing – the whole team is obsessed, especially over the past twelve months. And that’s something Matteo has really drilled into us: keep obsessing and I am convinced we will be the best. Because, ultimately, exceptional quality wins out,” he concludes.
“We are a very small team and make a not very big budget go a very long way.”
McGrath adds: “Quality is our thing in everything we do, and that is going to be the future of print in general. By offering people something tangible and different, exceptional titles will stand out.”
By offering people something tangible and different, exceptional titles will stand out.
This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.