The Tuesday Media Diet with Andrew Vontz

On KC, cycling, and the power of local weeklies

We took yesterday off. Back with a media diet to kick off the week from Andrew Vontz (AV), who was introduced to us by the great Eric Matthies (who recently wrote the board shaping edition). Check out his pod on endurance (and possibility) called “Choose the Hard Way.” Have a great week. -Colin (CJN)

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and learned most of what I know about life and work from pushing a lawnmower to earn money from sixth grade through college. I now live in Maine with my wife and two kids, but I’m still connected to KC. I mentor entrepreneurs through the Heartland Black Chamber of Commerce’s Encore program in KC and I’m also involved with AltCap’s NeXtStage KC alternative MBA program for minority and women entrepreneurs. 

I’ve loved riding bicycles since I threw a leg over the top tube of a green Schwinn Stingray with a sparkly banana seat and training wheels that are still hanging up in my parents’ garage in KC. I spent much of my youth riding around the neighborhood on BMX and freestyle bikes.

For the past 33 years, I’ve been pedaling bikes with gears and from time to time racing them. I’m a mediocre competitive cyclist at best, but through a lot of hard work, I achieved the distinction of twice losing/getting second place at the event now known as the Unbound 100 gravel race.

In my life, cycling is a meditation, a prayer, a practice. It’s a way to continually explore and learn more about myself and the world. It’s an organizational mechanism for my mind, body, and the rest of my life.

In my first career, I was a freelance journalist for over a decade and wrote features, profiles, and essays about people, places, and things at the limits of human experience for outlets including The Los Angeles Times, Outside, Fox Sports, Salon, and Rolling Stone among other publications.

Being a dad is my most important job and I love getting to draw, play music and climb on things more because those are things my kids love to do. I’m also the Vice President of Communications at Strava, the social platform at the center of connected fitness that serves over 84 million athletes around the world.

My podcast, Choose the Hard Way, explores peak performance and the obstacles people overcome to do great things with guests from the arts, science, sport, business, tech, the military, and other disciplines.  I believe that you are what you overcome and I seek to inspire people to reach beyond what they believe is possible. 

Describe your media diet.
I’m lucky that my work encompasses many of the things I genuinely love. When it comes to my media diet, I’m like a filter-feeding whale and read/listen broadly/deeply/constantly about business, tech, policy, sport, connected fitness, human performance, health, wellness, cycling. I’m looking for patterns that can inform the now and help me see what’s next. 

Pubs I’m always checking out include WaPo, NYT, LAT, Bloomberg, Bloomberg QuickTake, Cheddar, FT, WSJ, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Tech Crunch, Wired, Business Insider, the Verge, Axios, Protocol, Venture Beat, Forbes, Inc., FastCo, Politico, The Hill + all of the cycling and running outlets/podcasts in the U.S. and U.K. The Strava comms team also serves athletes in Brazil, France, Japan, Germany and Spain, so I stay dialed on outlets and media trends in those markets as well to inform our strategies there. 

A few things that delight me: Phil Gaimon’s YouTube channel (ex-pro cyclist pursuing fast times and cookies) Tom Morello on Audible (speaking truth to power through stories and songs), The FITT Insider newsletter/podcast (the business of connected fitness), The Huddle Up newsletter (business of sports), Stratechery, the Strictly VC newsletter, The Bloomberg Business of Sports podcast with Jason Kelly and friends, The Good Grief podcast from Blake Kasemeier, The Career Salon with the HR Twins (from my colleague Camille Tate and her twin sister Carla covering the workplace, career, hiring, DEI, AR), Matt Stephens Unplugged (interviews with pro cycling and pro-cycling-adjacent personalities), Colby Pearce’s Cycling in Alignment, The Beyond the Peloton podcast and newsletter (in-depth analysis and commentary on pro bike racing), Longform (journalists and journalism) and Citius Mag (running, culture, society).

At night in the interstice between reading the last bedtime story/doing the last dish and falling asleep, I watch TV. Sometimes mindlessly. Often Guy Fieri. If I don’t have control of the remote, I’m probably watching hip husband/wife duos blowing out the wall between the kitchen and the living room to create--are you ready for this--a more open, modern floor plan. If I’m alone, I’m going down a YouTube wormhole, often related to communications, behavioral psychology or bike racing. 

What’s the last great book you read?

I completed my MFA in creative writing at CalArts in ‘99 and used to really enjoy writing and reading fiction, but over time I had a harder and harder time getting into it to the point that I almost exclusively read nonfiction for years. For a reason I can’t remember, about a year ago, I gave the short story collection, Arrival (Stories of Your Life MTI), by Ted Chiang a shot. I’ve never been a sci-fi or fantasy reader and I’ve always preferred novels vs. short stories. 

But Arrival did it for me and my only regret is that it didn’t just keep going. From there, probably because an algorithm kept recommending it to me, I decided to roll the dice on scifi again and jumped into the Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin. You know what? The algorithm was right. I slowly nursed the first two books and picked up all kinds of phrases I now love and enjoy using with other friends who have read some or all of the trilogy such as: give the order to rehydrate.

It might just be because I’m a total stranger to the conventions of near-future, speculative, and science fiction, but these books took/take my mind to new places and make me consider the world in a different way. That’s exciting, that’s what I love about reading and I hope to find more books that do the same because I am a picky reader.

Side note: I bought what I thought was the third book in the trilogy when I finished the second one and a few hundred pages into it, I realized that what I thought was the anticonfluential, nonlinear narrative of the third and final book in the Three-Body Problem was actually a different work from the same author. It’s called Ball Lightning, and I found it interesting enough that I didn’t just stop reading it (my general reading strategy for books is that if I don’t find what I’m reading to be interesting, I stop and read something else). 

What’s your reading strategy when you pick up a print copy of your favorite publication?

There’s usually a cover line for an article I want to read and I go to that and read it, then work my way around from there. Growing up, magazines were my portal to a different world. They changed my life. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have a checking account until later in my lawnmowing career, but I didn’t have subscriptions to most of the magazines I read regularly. I was not a proficient BMX freestyle practitioner, but Freestylin’ was my favorite magazine, especially the writing of Andy Jenkins. It helped me think beyond where I was and got my dreaming about southern California and a way of life not oriented around a human being’s proficiency at ball sports that was vastly different from the reality of my grade school life.

God bless my patient and loving mom who would drive me to the Ward Parkway Mall to go to the Town Crier magazine stand at least twice a month to check to see if Freestylin’, BMX Plus, BMX Action, or, later, Thrasher or Transworld were on the stand. Then, when I got into riding geared bikes in eighth grade, it was about going to Gary Gribbles Sports, also at the mall, which carried VeloNews (back when it was tabloid-sized on newsprint), Winning, and other endurance sports magazines. Magazines were my window into worlds outside of my surroundings. Reading them and the piles of books my mom would give me over the years + encouragement from my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Sosinski, who complimented an essay I wrote about my mom’s chocolate chip cookies, and the support of my high school journalism teacher, Mr. Bubalo, made me want to pursue a career as a writer.

Later I would write for Bicycling, pen an At The Back column and a few other pieces for VeloNews (a life goal for me because it was the closing column on the last page of the mag, which I read religiously as a teenager), and write for many of the magazines that I loved. Today--most people don’t care about magazines. Somehow random magazines show up addressed to us in the mail, but I know we didn’t sign up for them. I do buy print publications periodically, usually, zines or limited-edition runs like Raze, a ‘zine from Mark Twight’s Nonprophet project, or Defy Apathy, a print project exploring the dimensions of the construction of truth from filmmaker/photographer/writer Eric Matthies. 

Who should everyone be reading that they’re not?

The local free weekly, classifieds, or print zine. Where I am, that’s the Free Press. The experience of holding physical newsprint may be dying, but the awkward fumble of holding paper unlocks a different connection to place and information that’s worth having. 

What is the best non-famous app you love on your phone? 

It’s not an app, but my favorite feature is the off button. Like everybody, I’m posthuman and simultaneously love being connected to all knowledge in the world while also knowing I use my phone way more than is healthy for me or the people around me.  I’m not great at using the off button. But life is always better when I turn my phone off and tune into life as it happens. As Daniel Tiger says, enjoy the wow that’s happening now.

Plane or train?

I would prefer to teleport. Until that technology works, I would never pass up a chance to ride the Durango-Silverton or Cumbres & Toltec narrow-gauge steam railways. 

What is one place everyone should visit? 

The physical location of a friend or family member you love. 

Tell us the story of a rabbit hole you fell deep into. 

Ethnographic nonfiction that takes readers deep into subcultures like Karl Taro Greenfeld’s Speed Tribes or Simon Reynolds’ Generation Ecstasy has long been a favorite genre. Most wormholes take me into similar worlds, often via YouTube. The Formula 1 series on NetFlix did so and even led me to dig back through the WITI archives for everything written about F1 here.

As a journalist, I persistently scanned for whatever was happening at the fringes of culture / in the underground that might bubble up and become something big or that was really odd but intriguing that I would then try to get someone to pay me to go live/write about. That’s how I ended up in Miami in 2007 at a tattoo parlor where the followers of a self-proclaimed antichrist were all getting 666 tattoos. That’s not my gig anymore, but I still love seeing what is bubbling up in subcultures or areas of life that I don’t experience directly daily. 

Ever since I wrote about Jay Cutler, now a multi-time Mr. Olympia (the highest achievement in bodybuilding, the equivalent of a Super Bowl win or Olympic gold medal), back in 2004 at a time when he’d twice been runner up at Olympia, I’ve had a different and high regard for bodybuilding, its relative merits aside, as one of the most all-consuming and challenging of sporting endeavors. I’ve written about Tour de France cyclists, UFC champions, NASCAR drivers, and pros in mainstream sports. But none had a regimen as extreme as Jay who lived like a human side of beef. He trained an hour a day, then had to restrict his movement and consume a diet blander and more monotonous than any regimen Jack Dorsey has ever tried. Jay would get up in the middle of the night to do cardio or eat extra pounds of orange roughy so his body didn’t start consuming his own muscle in the night.

That experience led me to one of the deepest rabbit holes I’ve gone down via the YouTube vlog of the Synthol-swollen, Frankenstein-ian bodybuilder Rich Piana, RIP. Before his passing, Rich made a name for himself through his rambling videos about his training and the parts of bodybuilding that until then most people in the sport had taken great pains to avoid speaking about.

Rich was that rare combination of subject matter expertise, eccentricity and an innate gift for a story that made him like Hunter S. Thompson and Chris Farley rolled into one repping out on the lat pulldown machine at your local gym. Rich had a true gift as an entertainer and his rambling content, including his marriage in a sleeveless tuxedo and matching shorts, was without parallel. I never met him, but I wish I had. (AV)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Andrew (AV)

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