As Style Man became simultaneously more popular and more unpopular, I noticed that people stopped asking me so many questions about what bike they should buy, or what I thought of some new gizmo, and instead wanted to know who Style Man was. A few weeks after I wrote this, The New York Times — if you can believe that — ended up making the claim that I was him. All I have to say about that is that the paper of record’s story appeared on April 1.
Just less than 10 years ago, a reader wrote in to Bicycling magazine to ask if it was okay to wear cycling shoes without socks. I showed the letter to this character who’d been hanging around, someone I’d been acquainted with for a pretty long time but never published, and got this response back:
“Sure, no socks looks cool — if you’ve got the physique of an NFL tight-end and are sprinting ten-second 200-meter times. But as with everything else, style ain’t about right or wrong, it’s about suffering and conviction. After all, a nerd is just a freak without confidence.”
We printed that almost verbatim, and Style Man was introduced to the world.
Back then, in 1999, there was no Rapha and we were all still trying to wrap our heads around the miracle that was Mario Cipollini and the eerily beautiful incineration of Marco Pantani. And, as it always had been, the cycling world (especially road cycling) was a closed society of unwritten and mostly unspoken — and often contradictory — rules. No one would simply tell you how to fit in: You had to keep showing up and being humiliated until you figured it out, and if you could be driven from the pack, then you damn well never deserved to be in it.
Style Man not only openly wrote about those elitist codes of conduct — he ridiculed them, too, by holding them up as impossibly pure grails. And, at the same time, he believed in them.
It could be a confounding mix, and just when you thought you understood or loved or hated or could dismiss Style Man he would turn on you — by lacerating your own important sense of who you were or what you stood for or, worse, by making you laugh out loud.
Some of you probably know by now that Style Man’s run with Bicycling ended with our March issue. A reader asked a question about which cycling magazine would look best on his coffee table, and Style Man responded:
“There hasn’t been a bike magazine worth the strain on your retina since Coureur was turned into Sporting Cyclist in the mid-1950s. John Borland Wadley founded, wrote and shot most of the few issues of Coureur, creating one of those expressions of singular vision and honest love that sometimes gets called art. Of course he went broke. In the tradition of publishing, an outside investor destroyed everything admirable about the magazine — to great financial success and mainstream popularity. Wadley’s ashes are scattered on the Col du Glandon; the ashes of cycling journalism are scattered in front of us every day: There are the breathless news publications that conspired with racers for decades to conceal doping and now address this foundation of the sport with the kind of sham shock and outrage perfected by political parties whose senators have wide stances. There are the twee art imprints whose readers pee their pants every time they gaze upon a black-and-white photo of a precious, wool-shorted hero they’d previously never heard of but now — in breath reeking of St. Raphael, espresso and loneliness — will pontificate upon for the duration of every group ride until the next issue arrives. There are the buy-cycling magazines that, depending on the guile of their bike-and-clothing comped “editors,” churn out reviews that on a scale of integrity range somewhere from marketing firm to shill to whore. There are the illiterate local rags that keep it real — because “it” is about the only word they end up spelling right — and whose hatred of top-tier racers and bike manufacturers turns into obsequious fawning the moment the racer or a product manager actually talks to them. Journalism takes the exquisite guanciale that is cycling and grinds it up into potted meat food product, and the longer we support this process the more disgusting the mush we’re fed — now there’s even a cycling magazine run by a girl.”
People were hurt when Style Man would viciously insult beginners, old-timers, the rich, the poor, the middle class, women, children, family men, singles, those with hairy legs and those who shaved, the dumb, the smart, the fast, the slow, the undecided, those who didn’t wear helmets then the next month those who did — all of us. Any one of us.
I got to know him better than anyone, I think, and maybe even was closer to him, in a way, than anyone. Over 10 years, the things I believe (as well as the things I wear) were torn apart by him in ways that occasionally made me feel bad but more often made me laugh. And, sometimes, helped me change. And I’m not talking about deciding I was fast enough to wear white shoes or whatever.
One answer Style Man gave always stands out for me. In August of 2007 a reader wrote to ask how he could ever be stylish if he couldn’t afford to buy gear like Sidi or Assos.
“Neither speed nor intelligence has anything to do with style,” answered the strange, unknowable character who turned out to be my friend. “Nor does hope. Style is either an inherent gift, or an unending but passionate and fulfilling series of conscious choices. It doesn’t matter whether you choose to eat ramen and wear Rapha, or have a regular table at Vetri and ride in Voler. It just matters that you choose.”
So, as it turns out, in a kind of perfect mess, Style Man’s most authentic expression, and explanation, of style came not through anything he wrote about style but in the way he chose to stop writing about it.
As he said in 2002, when Cipollini promised a win at Milan-San Remo, then delivered while wearing that hideous zebra-striped Acqua & Sapone kit: “Sure the Style King is dead. But long live the Style King. Get it?”
Originally published in the Sitting In, Feb. 6, 2009