What To Read: Kate Wagner is capturing the thrill of professional cycling

This week, we interviewed Kate Wagner, an architecture critic and sportswriter who writes derailleur, a newsletter about contemporary professional cycling.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

derailleur tells the epic, inspiring, and sometimes tragic stories of professional cycling in unconventional, narrative-driven ways.

You’ve said that cycling changed your life. What makes it so special to you?

Before I started cycling, I never thought much about my body. As a writer, I lived a sedentary lifestyle. After my in-laws gave me a 2003 Cervélo time trial bike, I decided I had to live up to the gift, so my husband and I started going on long bike rides – 20, 40, 60 miles – and the way it improved my well-being is indescribable. It helped me manage my depression, appreciate my body, and bring competitiveness and fun back into my life. I've made many friends through cycling, including Jackson Roman, who's working with me on derailleur.

Many of your pieces are narrative depictions of cycling races, rather than recaps. Why write about racing in this way?

Never has there been a sport that is so literary, engaging with themes like man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature, man vs. machine. To sit down and watch, for example, the five hour Tour of Flanders is something I didn't have time to do before the pandemic. However, in seeing the races from the very beginning, I began to understand the strategy, the drama, the interweaving storylines. You have these quirky, interesting characters with varying personalities whose successes and failures are so evocative, so human – you become emotionally invested.

I decided to write about cycling in the way I wanted to read about it. A race recap doesn't capture all of these things – it's a dry summary of events, but the events themselves are these sublime spectacles, and often, it's impossible to view them again except as highlights on YouTube. I started derailleur almost as an exercise in permanence, capturing those moments, those emotions in amber to revisit them later.

As someone who also writes about architecture, how has your experience telling stories about professional cycling differed?

In writing about architecture, I've done a very specific type of work, namely criticism. Criticism is important, but its scope is limited – you're talking about other people's art. Architecture is different because it is a collective endeavor rather than the work of a sole genius. To write about architecture is to write about society, public life, aesthetics, labor, politics. Hence, I've always tried to bring my work to bigger audiences, to make it accessible, whether it's architecture or cycling.

Anyways, I started feeling this longing to write narratively. It’s a whole different ball game. When I write about architecture, I feel like a detective pinning different elements on the wall and trying to create a common theme from them. When I write about cycling, I feel like I'm carving a bust out of a block of marble, chipping away at each detail, trying to set the scene, line up the players, convey their backstories and actions until the final story emerges from that. My goal is that, even if you don't know who, say, Primož Roglič is, by the end of the essay you'll feel something for him, just as you would a character in a work of fiction.

You mentioned that you have four bicycles, one of which is 20 years old. Can you tell us about each of them, and what they mean to you?

Prior to receiving the time trial bike as a gift from my in-laws, I'd never owned a nice bicycle before. Time trial bikes are weird – they've got aerobars and bullhorns rather than traditional handlebars, and as someone who didn't learn how to ride a bike until their teenage years, that was really intimidating. 

You can't haul groceries around on a time trial bike, so I bought a "beater bike" – a steel-frame Bianchi Volpe from 2000 with a big ol' rear rack. I cherish this bike more than any other because even though it's fast in its own right, I use it as a tool for mobility. I run my errands with it, go and see my friends, get social-distance drunk in the park. It proves to me that a bicycle is so much more than its specs and components or a means of transportation. It's an essential part of everyday life.

The other two bikes are racing bikes. The first is a Bianchi Oltre Xr3 which is a carbon fiber aero bike. It's extremely fast and I feel humbled and small in its presence. I love it so much it scares me sometimes. The other is a Cannondale Topstone, a gravel bike, which I bought to ride cyclocross with. A gravel bike is a practical bike to have in a place like Chicago where it snows all the time because the wider tires and sturdier geometry add extra stability. Also, it's lots of fun – I love going to trails and doing gravel or dirt riding – and it allows me to ride a bike in places I wouldn't be able to otherwise.

If you could go cycling anywhere in the world, where would it be?

One day, I'd like to ride from Amsterdam to Paris with my husband. I'm not much of a climber, so a lot of the most fetishized places in grand tour cycling, like Alpe d'Huez, don't agree with me. It would be cool, however, to ride in some famous places – the Arenberg Trench and the Roubaix velodrome, the holy sites of Paris-Roubaix, or the beloved cobbled hills such as the Koppenberg in Belgium for example. For pure cycling pleasure, I'd love to visit Slovenia.

Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?

Definitely Marianela D'Aprile, whose pop music Substack the immense wave makes my week every Thursday.

Subscribe to Kate’s newsletter, derailleur.