Following on from our recent La Vélothèque installation at the Rouleur Classic, where the magazine covers of Winning Magazine adorned the walls, we asked former staffer James Poole for an accurate history of the magazine, the people behind its publication and the sad tale of its demise.
Winning Bicycle Racing Illustrated, to give it its full title, happened to be an unlikely magazine launch, prompted by a malicious attack on an independent publishing house and a new business friendship with Eddy Merckx.
The owner and publisher was Jean-Claude Garot, a young political journalist with an entrepreneurial flair.
Garot had established a publishing name for himself after launching in the late 1970’s, a left-wing Belgium weekly newspaper called POUR. Uniquely, the paper refused to take advertising and existed purely on copy sales and donations from socialist supporters.
Trading conditions were turbulent and POUR was just about able to keep from going under, although the final straw was in 1982 when the offices were attacked and set on fire, by an extreme right-wing movement. POUR continued to be published for a few issues afterwards until the decision was made to call it a day and close the title.
Winning magazine quickly established itself as the standard for race reports and interviews for us English language readers, it arrived with good writers and great photos that made the established cycling magazines look old fashioned and out of touch. It pushed expectations much the same way as we the Anglo Saxon, Australian and American riders did so being on the cover or the main feature was pretty special.
Philippa York. Former professional now Rouleur & Cyclingnews contributor
Winning Magazine Cover Stars: Roland Liboton, Colin Sturgess, Robert Millar.
Garot realised the sport was bigger, there was more to talk about than just results, like bike tech innovations, training methods and the lifestyles of a pro rider. Not only was there more to educate readers with, they also saw that the USA was starting to get a grip into the European race scene too, with the likes of Andy Hampsten, Bob Roll, Davis Phinney and Greg Lemond getting results in Europe.
Merckx reached out to Jack Simes, an ex-pro rider and former US National Champion, but now held a position at the Federation of USA Cycling. They wanted to get his take on what could be possible. Dummy pages were made along with a business plan and a few weeks later Garot met up with Simes in the USA.
Winning came along at the most perfect time for the English-language following of cycling, with the USA's Greg Lemond riding high in the Tour de France, and Sean Kelly, Robert Millar and Stephen Roche heading an armada of Irish and British champions in European races. We also had Phil Anderson and Allan Peiper from Australia - all of these guys came to race in the UK and Ireland against a big grupetto of home-grown talent.
Winning was the magazine we'd never had before - more in-depth than International Cycle Sport, more colourful than Cycling Weekly, it offered 'Sports Illustrated' quality to a sport suddenly going places again. I was proud to have worked for them, because the way my photography was used gave a huge lift to my career.
We - journalists, photographers, designers - had an awful lot of fun working together back then, we were all young and ambitious, yet carefree and naive as well. And almost everyone I worked with back then is still out there today, still enjoying their role in the sport. People know of Cycle Sport, ProCycling, and newer titles like Rouleur today.
But Winning was the magazine that preempted them all, and which set the benchmark for all future cycling magazines. What a pity it isn't still there today, recording and reflecting the all-time high in British cycling successes.
Graham Watson. Photographer, Winning Magazine 1983 - 1990
In July 1983 Winning magazine was launched with Merckx on the cover, keeping true to its original plan, the content focused on Europe. The logistics meant the entire magazine was produced in Brussels, content, design and repro, but printing had to happen in America, although keeping an eye on print costs, regularly forced Winning to switch print facilities into Canada.
Lead times were slow, often longer than six weeks from an issue going to print until a reader got their hands on a copy.
Winning Magazine Cover Stars: Laurent Fignon, Eric Van Lancker, Sean Kelly.
Winning magazine soon established itself and a natural progression was to start publishing closer to home. Ciclisme International was launched, basically exactly what Winning was, but in French for Belgium and French markets.
Editorial offices were set up in San Diego as well as a financial and fulfilment office in Allentown Pennsylvania. Over time, the US team generated more of their own editorial content focusing on American events as well as the big traditional races.
The first time the UK started to see Winning magazine was when limited copies were shipped over and put onto the newsstand as an obscure American import.
It was soon apparent there was an appetite for the magazine in the UK. A London office was set up and it didn’t take long before the UK was generating the majority of its own content and managing its printing locally.
Copy sales across all three versions were strong throughout the late 80’s and into the 90’s, but there was competition starting to creep through. The mountain bike boom diverted readers and advertisers were choosing to invest their marketing dollars into mountain biking.
By the early 90’s, Garot had grown his portfolio with the launch of Triathlete Magazine, establishing six different versions in six different territories. The success this was generating was taking up time and resource, and consequently, little investment went into Winning magazine.
In 1997 Garot accepted an offer to sell the American part of the business. Triathlon was growing significantly, making Triathlete Magazine the golden part of the business, but road cycling was seen as a fringe sport. Several attempts were made to give Winning a facelift and boost sales, but they didn’t work.
Winning was inspirational when I was a young bike rider because no other British magazine offered the same brilliant images, crystal clear depictions of our heroes, mainly shot by the legendary Graham Watson. It was also where I had my first article published in October 1988. Plus, when we launched Cycle Sport magazine in 1993, Winning was the role model for Andy Sutcliffe and me, so it will always have a place in my heart.
William Fotheringham. Guardian journalist & author
Finally, Garot came up with a radical resolution to convert Winning magazine into more of an adventure magazine, but by the time the sale had gone through with the new owners, they chose to keep it for just three issues before killing it in 1998.
This had a detrimental knock-on effect for Ciclisme International and Winning UK which caused them to close a few months later - ironically just a year later - Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France for the first time and would go on to be featured across many magazine covers.
It was like no other English language cycling magazine I’d seen. I was blown away by the first copy I saw. Glossy high quality feel and superb photography meant that after that first issue I never wanted to miss another one. The excitement of getting my hands on each months copy was massive. I devoured every page of every issue and kept going back time and time again to old copies to drool over the photography. The demise of Winning was a dark day for us English speaking cyclists.
Andy Hill. Publisher, Rouleur Magazine