Backmarker: Cycle Editor Cook Neilson

January 5, 2012
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
Contributing Editor|Articles|Articles RSS

In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Gone but not forgotten. Cycle Magazine was a seminal publication in '70s motorycle journalism with Cook Neilson at the helm.
Gone but not forgotten. Cycle Magazine was a seminal publication in ’70s motorycle journalism with Cook Neilson at the helm.

Looking back over 2011 in the little world of American motorcycle media, the biggest news was that Cycle World was sold.


First, the giant French conglomerate Hachette-Filipacchi sold it, as part of a large portfolio of magazines to Hearst, an American media conglomerate. At the time, I wondered if Hearst was really making a commitment to magazines in general, or just planning to keep Hachette’s Elle brand and part out the rest of the titles.

The latter proved true and before long Hearst sold Cycle World to Bonnier Corporation, which publishes about 50 niche magazines including ‘men’s’ titles like Popular Science, and Field & Stream. That was probably the best possible outcome for Cycle World once it had been put into play.

But even though Cycle World seems destined to survive for a while, the days when American newsstands were crowded with well-written motorcycle magazines have passed.

I was reminded of that when Cook Neilson, who was the editor of Cycle Magazine throughout the ‘70s, made an appearance last fall, at the Barber Motorsports Park AHRMA races. The Barber museum features a precise replica of ‘Old Blue’, the Ducati that Neilson used to win the 1977 Superbike race at Daytona.

“You know, Phil [Schilling] and I go these racing events and more people remember us for what we did at Cycle, than what we accomplished in racing,” Neilson told me. “There’s a fondness – almost a yearning for the kind of publication that Cycle used to be. And that touches us because the racing was a sideline; what we really cared about was Cycle Magazine. At one point, we had a circulation of just over 500,000 readers, and that’s a bunch.”

Cycle Editor Cook Neilson in the Daytona winner's circle, 1977, with Dave Emde and Wes Cooley.
Cycle Editor Cook Neilson in the Daytona winner’s circle, 1977, with Dave Emde and Wes Cooley.

“They remember the magazine as being literate and thorough,” Cook said. “And they remember that we expected them to bring curiosity and intelligence to the table. We didn’t write down to anybody.”

Cook pointed out that the landscape in which motorcycle magazines operate has changed a lot. Back in his day, Cycle could devote a lot of pages to racing news, because there wasn’t television coverage and the internet beating print to the punch. “But,” he lamented, “there’s not a lot of analysis in magazines these days. I understand that they’re publishing in a short-attention-span world. We didn’t have that problem; we knew that people would get the magazine and read it cover-to-cover.”

I interrupted him to ask whether that short attention span was just an accepted truth; did he think that if someone published a magazine like the old Cycle again, motorcyclists would flock back to it?

“I don’t know,” he replied “I don’t read too many foreign publications, so I don’t know if Motociclismo, which was a great magazine in it’s day, or Das Motorrad, which was a great magazine, have changed their approaches with the times, or if they’ve stayed with a blueprint that allows for thoroughness.”

Cook didn’t just win that Daytona Superbike race while he was working full time as the magazine’s editor; he and another editor, Phil Schilling, actually built the bike themselves. Every aspect of its development and construction were detailed in the magazine. I wondered whether another way the motorcycle media landscape has changed is that motorcycles themselves have become much harder for the average motorcyclist to understand and work on.

“I think that’s a factor,” Cook said. “Cycle World had [Attack Kawasaki’s] Richard Stanboli build a bike for their rider to compete in the Superbike series this year, and I thought that was terrific, but the idea that Cycle World could do that for themselves; I don’t think that would have crossed their minds.” Although quite a few SoCal hot rod specialists, guys like Jerry Branch, contributed their talents to Old Blue, all of the assembly took place right in Cycle’s own shop.

“We did most of the engine development at the drag strip,” Cook recalled, “because the dyno can really mislead you but the drag strip will never lie!”

Cook Neilson read English literature at Princeton. He had done a bit of motorcycle drag racing while in school. One of the first stories he got published was a profile of Sonny Routt and his double-engined drag bike for Cycle World. Through a friend of a friend, he managed to meet Gordon Jennings (then Cycle’s editor) and talked himself into a job as Associate Editor.

That was in 1967; Cycle was owned by Ziff-Davis, a big conglomerate, and was based in New York City. Cook became the editor a couple of years later; he was still just 26, and the motorcycle industry was about to have an amazing decade. Cook knew that for Cycle to catch that wave, the magazine had to be based on West Coast. In 1972, he took most of his editorial department to Westlake Village, where he rented an ‘office’ that was actually 75% workshop space.

Old Blue is now parked in a New Jersey collector's bedroom.
Old Blue is now parked in a New Jersey collector’s bedroom.

“For me, and Gordon Jennings, and the other guys, we were like kids in a candy store that first year,” Cook recalled. “There’s a lot of work that goes into making a monthly magazine. But, a lot of the responsibility for that fell on Phil Schilling’s shoulders, because he’d stayed back in New York, and was our contact with the art department. All we had to do was generate stories. We had all these great roads; we weren’t that far from Malibu, we had Mulholland Highway; if you wanted to go and buzz around the desert on some two-stroke you could do that. We were all young; it could not have been more perfect.”

Cycle got bigger and better with every issue. Cook convinced Cycle’s owners that the magazine should be completely independent, and thus the art department and Phil Schilling, who was the managing editor, joined them in Westlake Village.

Until then, all of Cook’s racing experience had been in a straight line. But he soon realized that testing motorcycles in the canyon roads behind Malibu was crazy. “I took my little 750 Ducati GT to Riverside raceway, and signed up for a production racing class,” Cook told me. “I think 36 bikes started and I finished ninth. I got lapped by Steve McLaughlin and Reg Pridmore. At that point, the needle was stuck in my arm.”

When Cycle got its hands on a desmo-valved Supersport, Cook and Phil Schilling immediately saw its potential in the AMA’s new-fangled Superbike class. They set themselves, and Cycle Magazine, an audacious goal: winning the Daytona Superbike race. It wasn’t going to be easy; the new class already had sophisticated entries from the likes of Butler and Smith (the U.S. BMW importer) and Yoshimura. They finished third in the 1976 race, and won it the next year.

“At that point I was prepared to say, Phil, we’re done,” Cook told me. But Schilling convinced him to try for the championship. “Riverside in ’77 was my last race; we missed out on the championship by a point or two. It wasn’t much and there were races we couldn’t attend, because it was too far or too expensive. It didn’t matter to me; all I wanted to do was win at Daytona. That was my Holy Grail and I think it was Phil’s too.”

Neilson and Phil Schilling, who largely built Cycle's Ducati race bike bike, were invited to parade it at Daytona on the 20th anniversary of their win; that was one of the last time's it was ever seen in public.
Neilson and Phil Schilling, who largely built Cycle’s Ducati race bike, were invited to parade it at Daytona on the 20th anniversary of their win; that was one of the last time’s it was ever seen in public.

At the end of the ’77 season, Cook stopped racing to pay more attention to the magazine. Then, in 1979, he left Cycle, the entire motorcycle industry; he left writing, and Southern California behind; he moved to snowy Vermont and became a commercial photographer.

Talk about quitting at the top.

“I pretty much put motorcycles in the rear-view mirror,” Cook told me. “I’d been completely fulfilled by what we were able to accomplish at Cycle and what we were able to accomplish in Superbike racing.” Nowadays, he doesn’t even own a motorcycle. Once in a great while, he borrows a bike from some friend or other, just to see what modern bikes are like. And there are ceremonial rides at events like the one last fall at Barber.

Without Cook, Cycle went into a long, slow decline. The whole motorcycle industry sputtered, too, compared to the ‘Seventies. Ziff-Davis publications was acquired by CBS, which eventually decided to stick to its core competency and sold its magazines to Hachette-Filipacchi, which already owned Cycle World. The bean counters at Hachette decided that only one of the two magazines should continue, and folded Cycle. Ironically, the last motorcycle story Cook ever wrote was about riding Doug Polen’s World Superbike Championship-winning Ducati, which ran in Cycle World.

The motorcycle media landscape is still in flux, and it seems likely that we’ll see more changes in 2012. The sale of Cycle World to Bonnier – a company that seems committed to print – suggests that it’s too early to say cry ‘Print is dead!’ but the loss of Cycle is still lamented by any American motorcyclist old enough to have read it in the ‘70s when it was edited by Cook Neilson.