London, England – Writer & Cyclist
Imagine having a conversation with someone possessing equal parts child-like spirit and Elder-like sagacious wisdom. That’s Max Leonard. He’s a published author, frequent contributor to publications like Rouleur and brands like Rapha and Strava, relative nomad, cyclist, and ever-student of his craft. Since 2009, he’s chosen a path most of us romanticize about but few of us actually are able to endure. A life on the road, with few familiar faces or places, bringing experiences to life through words for the world to enjoy. It’s not easy. But for Max, uncertainty is fuel. It’s in this world of extreme contrast that Max finds creative stimulus, perspective, and growth. It’s where he does his best work, holding up in the middle of nowhere. It’s home, as long as he has his bike. Reflecting on Max’s interview, his commitment to his craft, integrity, and sheer hustle serves as an awesome reminder that great is never a given. It must be earned. I hope you thoroughly enjoy all that Max has to share and give through his Somewhere.
TSP: To start Max, would you mind telling us where you've been?
ML: I’ve made a living from words since I left university and I’ve been a more-or-less serious cyclist for about the same period of time. But it was only in 2009, during a cycling trip across the Alps, that I realised I wanted to make those experiences central to life, not just a diversion from it.
That wasn’t straightforward: there aren’t all that many remote high mountains near London, where I live. So in the past few years I’ve been fairly nomadic, criss-crossing Europe by car and by bike, working a bit in the pro cycling world, looking for places to ride and write, and mining the seam of inspiration that has come from it.
It happened that as I tried to specialise, the rest of the English-speaking world was getting interested in cycling too. I’ve surfed the wave, and I still can’t believe my luck. Writing is a nice way to exist; writing about a passion, even more so. In the past few years I’ve written several bike-related books, including the Rapha City Cycling Europe guides and, most recently, Lanterne Rouge: the Last Man in the Tour de France. I’ve also written lots of articles for mainstream and niche publications; worked with brands like Rapha, Strava and Cinelli; and I’ve done some ghostwriting too, though that (thankfully!) hasn’t (yet) been about bikes.
TSP: What is it about writing, in general, and writing professionally that’s so magnetic to you?
ML: That’s a difficult one to answer. I think it started at university. I studied French and English, and I had a very inspiring French professor – she was actually a professor of philosophy as well – and several times, when she was handing back my essays, she would say that my thinking wasn’t great but that I was a good writer. I think that I always saw that as a compliment: I mean, she was a professor of philosophy, she had high standards on both counts.
I’ve never had a proper nine-to-five, five-days-a-week job, so I have no ‘normal’ routine to which to compare my life. The freedom and the lack of structure suit me in a way; or at least, some people deal with that well and others don’t, and that’s as much part of the job as the art. Do you choose these things by following your talents or does the life you lead choose you?
Also, I’ve come to think that I’m creative in the sense of generative; but I’ve never really accepted the idea that what I do is always – or even often – truly artistic. And that’s fine with me. Writing is a craft, and I’m pleased that when I’m doing client work I can do something that will make a difference to their business, website, product… there is a lot of satisfaction in making something that will help other people. Inspiration and creative opportunities come and go, but honing a craft will see you through all times, I think.
TSP: Have you experienced any sacrifice, discomfort, angst along the adventurous trail you’re journeying down? What keeps you going?
ML: I think some of my friends look at my Instagram from their work desks and assume I’m deliberately trolling them. The pretty places and amazing views, and riding your bike on a Tuesday morning, are the social-media-friendly aspects of what I do—but there’s a lot that’s not so jealousy inducing. You have to be on your toes all the time. I think you learn quickly there’s no point doing anything by half measures. That’s true in your own work or client work (what help is it to anyone doing something for a client if your heart isn’t in it?), so I’m always pushing a bit harder, to do a bit more. I’m usually the sole driving force in my work, there’s no office support, or a project team to hold me to a deadline. And always being your own cheerleader, often when you’re feeling at your most drained and least certain of the value of what you’re doing, is tough.
Then there’s insecurity, and uncertainty about money. Endless cheap hotels and cheap food; living out of a bag in a hire car; not seeing family from one month to the next; missing weddings, or a friend has a baby and it’s seven months old before we meet. Going hours out of your way just to spend an evening with good company or a familiar face. Goodbye stranger / It’s been nice, / Hope you find your paradise. Boo hoo, I hear some people saying, and on one level they’re absolutely right. Yes, these are things that I have chosen, and things I have found I am willing to put up with… I read this article the other day on recognising and negotiating (with yourself) the things you will and will not do in life. It turns a few things on their head, and I found it refreshing.
In truth, I find the dislocation and vulnerability productive, just as I find other things tough to deal with. Boredom and discomfort aren’t to be avoided: for me, at least, they’re necessary states on the way to somewhere good, where you are open to experiences and emotions you might miss when you have all your wits about you.
One final thing: I have stopped giving myself a hard time about periods of doing ‘nothing’. I’ve come to see it as part of the process. I can’t do the intense bursts of creativity without fallow time, times when things just ferment and settle and nothing comes out. Sometimes going for a bike ride, or cleaning the kitchen, or having a bath and reading the paper, is the best thing you can do with a morning. That’s OK.
TSP: Would you mind telling us where you are currently?
ML: I’m writing this looking out of the window of a cheap hotel in a small village about one-quarter of the way up the Col de la Bonette, the highest paved road in Europe. Some of my best writing has been done in cheap hotels, they seem to be productive places for me, though it’s a bit frustrating I don’t get more done at home. Seriously, though: I’m researching my next book, which is going to be about mountains.
I figure there are a lot of books that tell you where the mountains are, or what happened on this-or-that pass in the Tour de France in 1955, or whatever, but none that really look at what drives us to climb them. Tell a non-cyclist that you’re planning to spend your holiday cycling uphill, for hours at a time without a rest, and that when you reach the top it will be cold and wet and you will be at your mental and physical limits, and they will think you’re mad. But cyclists just get it. Further: why have the Dolomites and the Alps become the Wembley Stadium or the Madison Square Gardens of professional cycling? Why do us overweight, under-trained amateurs follow the pros there? What do we see when we do?
Unlike the Lanterne Rouge book, which was a fairly self-contained idea, this one could go a thousand different ways. I’m embarking on a long journey, and holing up in the middle of nowhere is the best way to start.
After this, I’m headed, via several stops, to Eurobike, the world’s biggest bike industry trade show in Germany, and the Vuelta a España, the final Grand Tour of the professional cycling calendar, to do some more book work and report for Strava.
TSP: Do you have a writing process, whether the project is a book, article or personal piece?
ML: In the early stages of a long project I do a lot of reading. Not necessarily targeted at the job at hand, just engaging with words placed on a page by a writer I admire. I do a lot of research, too, and take a lot of notes.
After that, nothing comes out without a lot of organising going into it first. I like to plan something in detail from beginning to end – so this new mountains project is pretty frightening for me, as it’s so open ended.
Then quite a lot of sitting and staring at the screen. But when something does finally come out, it tends to be quite fully formed. The hard work is done, and I won’t redraft much, just edit, refine and reshape as I go.
When I’m writing a lot, I try to only read poetry, that seems to be the most helpful thing.
TSP: Have you ever read Murakami’s memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”?
ML: Yup, love it! I have it with me now. It’s patchy as a whole, but nothing else gets close to describing the similarities between endurance sports and writing – the thought processes and the different things that sustain you from start to finish.
TSP: So Max, why do you do it? What’s the thing that pulls you through those sanity-questioning moments and and up to the top of a peak on a bike?
ML: I really don’t know, to be honest, other than that cycling gives me a lot of time to think about things and that I’ve come to the conclusion that spending my time writing and riding make me happier than the alternatives. These are the things that I find more satisfying than others, and add the most to my physical and mental wellbeing. And I’m sure the two feed off and complement each other. I think what Murakami says about running marathons and writing is equally true for cycling. He explains it the best: the effort it takes to start something big, weather the difficult moments in the middle and reach the top of the mountain, whether it’s a physical or a metaphorical one.
That French professor had something to do with it too. The kind of things she made us read – philosophy and plays talking about commitment, action and authenticity – are all very unfashionable now, but it had its effect. These are the journeys that I’m willing and able to commit to, to see through to the end.
TSP: Can you please tell us where you hope to go next?
ML: It’s a long way off right now, but after this book I want to write a novel. I’ve started before a couple of times and got a certain distance in – far enough to know I want to give it a proper try, and far enough to realize that it requires more time and energy I can usually give. After a day often spent on the most pressing deadline, or the writing I do to pay the bills, I find I don’t have much left to give on the personal projects. Precisely the stuff, in other words, that will fail if you’re not at your freshest and most committed.
Whenever I read of someone who got up at 5am for a year to write their first novel before going to work for the day in a bank, or wherever, I’m always amazed they have found the creative energy. So I guess it can be done, and that when the time comes I just need to man up and get on with things.
In the shorter term, I’m planning on self-publishing a book about WWII bunkers in collaboration with Camille McMillan, a photographer I know through pro cycling… but that’s another story.
TSP: Living a somewhat nomadic life, do you have a routine? Or something you always incorporate into your day or week no matter your location?
ML: Simple: bike riding. I try to ride my bike for at least 10 hours a week. If that’s grabbing a few hours at a time riding on the edges of London, or long days in the mountains, it’s something I try to stick to. Actually, it’s more difficult to motivate myself to get out on the boring, familiar dirty suburban roads to the countryside from London, and to fit it in around all the other aspects of city life. But it’s the closest I come to discipline and structure. Cycling to me is an extended form of thinking, a way of obliquely approaching whatever challenge it is you’re facing and solving it without even seemingly thinking about it. Also, I like the physical work as a rest from the mental work, and have actually been doing a bit of cycle guiding with Rapha Travel. Writers live too much in their own heads, and it’s easy to burn out. Cycle guiding is physically very tiring, but that can be creatively replenishing.
The other thing is yoga. That is really important, for the physical flow and also the mental release. I find it balancing and grounding, and also a time simply not to think.
TSP: Your collaboration with Camille sounds cool. Do you have a band of creative collaborators or tinkerers with which you explore notions, passions, aspirations?
I’ve met a few people along the way who stick out. First was probably Steve Glashier, a photographer and director I used to make music videos with. He taught me a lot about the hustle of the creative life, the not-giving-a-fuck-and-just-getting-on-with-it-despite-everything, and that attitude is probably responsible for my having accomplished lots of the things I have. Then I would say Luke Scheybeler, one of the founders of Rapha and Tracksmith; he employed me briefly but we quickly worked out we were probably better just hanging out, riding bikes, drinking beer, constructing castles in the sky… James Fairbank at Rapha, too, who is a good friend and has lassoed me into lots of grand adventures. I admire him for being the brand director of such a strong company and (still) doing everything with a personal vision and integrity.
Camille is someone I met through Luke; his work is uncompromising, and I think we approach things in a similar way, as outsiders looking into a strange and beguiling world. He’s moving on from cycling now, and I think he views his time in the pro peloton as somewhere between being a war correspondent in Vietnam and Federico Fellini shooting a film about a circus…
TSP: Would you please share how you plan to realize your goals and future aspirations?
ML: Hustle and bloodymindedness, basically. I think that hustle is the most underrated attribute creatives need to have: it is tainted with negative ideas of commercialism, or not being ‘true to your artistic vision’. But everyone’s gotta eat, nothing is made in a vacuum.
Many creative projects are worthwhile in and of themselves, but books are made to be read. I don’t want to be producing something perfect and otherworldly that will then sit in my drawer gathering dust. More and more I think that the skill in getting things done is in making the systems work for you, and using them to carve out a space in which you can do what you want to do. That said (and I don’t want to sound like I’m giving an Oscars speech) I do have to thank some of the people I currently work with: I’m thinking Rapha and Strava. In return for what I give them, they support me – and I don’t mean simply financially. I feel like they have helped me along the way in so many other ways, invested in me as a writer and also a friend.
The other thing I’m trying to do more is say no to things that aren’t directly what I want to do. I think about it as I think about reading books. Outside work I read maybe 20 books a year, if I’m lucky. Say I have 50 years of book reading left: that’s only 1,000 books still to go. So there’s simply not time for crap books! It’s the same with work: time is precious, and if you’re spending time and energy on pointless work, then you’re not giving your best to the things that matter. Obviously you shouldn’t get kicked out of your apartment for not paying the rent, but I’ve found I’ve never missed the money when I have plucked up the courage to decline things. The hard bit is saying no…
Finally, although the next project probably won’t be about cycling, that’s always going to be important to me.
TSP: Ambition is certainly paramount to thoughtfully filling whatever “blank page” life serves up. Is that a learned trait or an innate one?
ML: I’ve never thought of myself as ambitious. I’ve really just followed my nose, and been lucky to have the time and space to do some things I’ve wanted. I suppose I think I’m probably quite stubborn, and, once I start something I feel some responsibility for seeing it through as best I can… I figure that I owe my partners that for my commercial work and, as far as my own stuff goes, there is absolutely no reason people should pay you to do something, and or any reason people should give up their time to read your work, so you’d better give all you can.
TSP: Lastly, please let us know how "we", The Somewhere Project community, can help you make the next step towards your future aspirations.
ML: Doing these kinds of things, essentially on your own, can be tiring and dispiriting. I think I feel this most keenly when I’m traveling: there are moments, usually while driving very fast in a hire car on a foreign motorway when the sun is setting and I have no idea where I’m staying that night, that the whole enterprise seems ridiculous and I think I should go home and do something more normal instead.
I'm not sure that there's anything to be done directly, but it's important to me that things like The Somewhere Project are there.
My writing is not going to change the world. It’s not going to win the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize or much else, so why bother? In those moments, plugging into a community of other people doing their own thing, however small or big that may be, is refreshing and inspiring. It gives you succour and can help you to remember that things are worth doing for their own sake. That you should celebrate the small victories as well as the big. In the parting of the ways, we need to stick together.
TSP: That’s a great question, why bother? As a community of people who’re constantly climbing up hill, trying to do things most might consider crazy, impossible or unconventional, I think we’re all asking ourselves that question. So Max, why do you charge at the day, or stay up well after the midnight oil’s run out?
ML: The best thing I can come up with is: I bother because this is what I can do to make me happier and give me more value than other paths I could’ve taken. That seems self-indulgent, but we need to take care of and feed ourselves first, so that we can then give more to others.
TSP: It’s been a true honor, Max. Thank you. Here’s to taking on the mountains ahead of us, together.
Closing note: If you’d like to read more of Max’s work, here are a few goodies: