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John Watson of The Radavist: Shaping Cycling Culture

For the past 18 years, John Watson has been transforming his passions into a cultural cornerstone at The Radavist. We sat with John to hear about his journey from architecture to documenting the cycling world—while highlighting a commitment to authenticity and creativity. Do. Not. Miss.

John Watson of The Radavist: Shaping Cycling Culture

When my wife and I moved to Tokyo in 2013, I wasn't yet a fan of The Radavist. In fact, I hadn't even heard of it. It all began when a new coworker, knowing I was "into cycling," suggested I visit a shop called Blue Lug near Yoyogi Koen. I went with no real expectations, but that day is etched in my memory as one of my first encounters with bikepacking, alt-cycling, whatever. The shop, the bikes, the gear, and the people all blew my mind. It felt like something new yet oddly reminiscent of the adventures of my youth in Northern Ontario. I didn't realize it then but my journey back to the dirt had begun. The next day, I started exploring Blue Lug online and stumbled upon a blog called The Radavist.

My first encounter with The Radavist picked up where the Blue Lug visit left off. Here was an entire subculture of dirt cycling that had somehow escaped my notice. At first, I was too busy with my new job to pay much attention, but over the next year, I found myself returning to The Radavist again and again. The site felt like a throwback to the glossy bike mags I loved in the '90s, and with writing that seemed to come from a genuine place. Cycling media at the time seemed either too corporate or too bro-centric, or sometimes both. The Radavist, however, quickly became a part of my Tokyo morning ritual.

There's an expression about "standing on the shoulders of giants," and without John cutting the trail, this site wouldn't exist. Flat out. I admire John. He has built something that's much bigger than a bike blog—The Radavist is a home of culture. Let's go...

First bike memory...

Oh, man! This takes me back. The first bike I owned was a chrome Mongoose BMX that I bought with money from mowing lawns. But the bike ride that sparked an interest in dirt riding was a MTB ride in Vermont with my cousins on their rigid Trek when I was 14 or 15. It was really hard! I remember climbing up steep roads and barely hanging on while riding singletrack. Shifting was so weird, coming from my BMX, but that's where the seed was planted for sure. It was in the Richmond, VT area.

How did The Radavist start?

I grew up in Wilmington, NC and went to architecture college at UNCC and graduated with a 5-year bachelor's degree in architecture. I minored in philosophy/urban studies/American Studies (film.) After school, I went over to The Netherlands to study some of my favorite buildings and realized I wanted to live somewhere that wasn't car-centric. In 2004, I moved to New York City, and in 2006, I began documenting the cycling culture part-time.

Architecture as a profession is relentless: 7 AM to 9 or 10 PM, long hours, garbage pay, and high stress/stakes. My love of bikes and cycling culture was my escape—I'd stay up late and, on the weekends, document stuff with a Canon Powershot camera and write up posts on the Blogger platform. Back then it was called Prolly is Not Probably (2006-2012). Things like alleycat races-unsanctioned checkpoint-format races—local bike rides, bike swaps (shout out to the Brooklyn Bike Jumble), vintage bikes (from the Classic Rendezvous list), framebuilders (Johnny Coast and Seth Rosko to name a few), and a lot of fixed-gear/track bike culture. I mountain biked a lot in college in the Pisgah and Piedmont region of NC and NYC didn't really offer that kind of riding. Brakeless track bikes offered a similar adrenaline rush for me. It was all about line choice when bombing through traffic. I used to joke that the cars were like trees in the Pisgah, but they moved!

In 2008, the economy collapsed. I lost my architecture job, no one was hiring, so I focused on building the website into something more collected and considerate. I sold an ad. Then two. Then before I knew it, I was financially stable and could pay rent, student loan, and all my overhead with ad money. This was when my love of seriously documenting framebuilders began. I went to NAHBS for the first time in 2008, and my mind was blown at the artistry and punk-rock vibe the builders displayed. I felt like I was back in the old art circles I had growing up, screen printing and trading zines or 7” singles.

From there, I moved to Austin, TX, in 2010, then Los Angeles in 2015. We bought a house in Santa Fe in late 2019 and moved there in early 2020, weeks before the pandemic set in.

I really wanted to highlight more people and a more diverse group of opinions, so I felt like leaning into a word that had long fascinated me: atavism.

(i.e., an individual or character that manifests atavism: a throwback. From Merriam-Webster: These days, one might describe a building that looks like it's from an earlier era as an atavism, or (though some people might cringe at this) apply the word to activities like reading actual paper books in the age of electronics.)

That's how The Radavist came to be: radical atavism. The platform grew into a series of stories from different walks of life. It's a brand, first and foremost, with a lore and ethos.

The website name is intentionally flexible. It can be whatever I feel like it needs to be. Its branding is intentionally non-cycling-related. We don't put things like crank arms or wheels on our merchandise. The Radavist is an idea, an experiment, and an entity that, like the creatures and animals that emblazon its merchandise, can evolve and adapt with time.

Rewind 10 years, are you where you imagined you'd be?

Honestly, yes. In some ways. I always envisioned doing this for as long as I could. I never thought I'd be working with such talented people or that my future wife would have such a crucial role in how the website looks today. Cari, my wife, designs everything that goes into the world with our name on it. The two of us built The Radavist's visual identity from inspiration found while on our desert 4x4 touring trips nerding out on everything from signs to ephemera and tourist trap shops along scenic byways. Even the jackal logo is inspired from an old Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm beast. Nerd shit. Deep-level nerd shit.

What's the toughest part of running The Radavist?

Aside from the normal stresses of being a small business owner, like bringing in enough money to pay our staff in a rough time in the bike industry, it's gotta be staying unique and different. When I first started documenting bike camping, framebuilders, people's personal bike builds, and bike rides, there weren't a lot of websites doing that sort of content. Now, there are tons! Which is great but it makes the act of offering something unique all the more challenging. [Editor's note: 🙇]

Cari and I often reference Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour concept, first discussed in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Distilled, it essentially proclaims that when you have 10,000 hours in something, it becomes second nature. This is how I'm able to work within the different realms of content production (documenting showcases/events/rides) and running a business (steering the ship, so to speak). I spin plates.

When I see something lose its luster or get watered down/emulated (from fixed gears to gravel racing) I move on, turn the ship, and sail it in a new direction, which can be confusing for the readership but over the past eighteen years, I've been relatively accurate in my reading of the bike industry and the fans whose bike experience grew along with the website. I'm not doing this to be a part of the status quo, I want to bring a creative approach to everything we do.

Tell us about burn-the-church-black-metal. What does it do for you? What's the one song to convert us all?

Well, let me say I do not condone the acts of the one individual who is responsible for the Stave Church burnings in Norway. I think the genre-True Norwegian Black Metal-jumped onto the global metal scene in 1993 when that happened but the artist who was responsible is a horrible human. He was and still is homophobic, xenophobic, and considers himself a literal Nazi. Therein lies the problem with Black Metal (and Industrial/Neofolk or other fringe genres)-darkness gets conflated with literal evil and darkness has more depth than that.

My interest in black metal is more fantasy-based or inspired by the natural world. Bands like Arbor sing about themes from The Lord of the Rings—“We raise our swords! at the Battle of Osgiliath!” Bands like Ash Borer or Wolves in the Throne Room are inspired by nature in the PNW mountains. Some LPs that have been on high rotation for me are less aggressive and harsh and more d-beat crust and punk-inspired:

Solar Cross - To the Ever Gleaming Pinnacle of Timeless Mastery
Arbor (US) - Behold... The Age of Pagan Blood
Fellwinter - Dawn of Winter
Weathered Crest - Blossoming of the Paths
Ash Borer - The Irrepassable Gate

I'm also really into 1970s/80s Jamaican dub/reggae, industrial/noise, doom, stoner doom, some death metal, and Cari's primo selection of non-dark tunes.

If you could only ride one bike forever...

I'd probably choose the Desert Moose, my Sklar tourer. It has 29x3” tires, touring accouterments, a titanium frame, a steel fork, a titanium post, titanium bars (DOOOOOOM bars), and a 1x12 drivetrain. If I had to get rid of everything else, I could do all my rides on that bike. Sure, it's going to be ridden differently on singletrack here in Santa Fe than it would on singletrack in San Francisco, but I embrace its nuances (no dropper post, no suspension) and hone in on that experience. The steel fork flexes, the 29x3” tires soften some of the chunk and the ti bars and post keep my contact points feeling fresh, even after 14-hour days on it. Plus it descends doubletrack like a jacked-up Javelina!

I think people will do anything they can to not buy a mountain bike, and rightfully so; the marketing of mountain biking is diametrically opposed to its roots as a vessel to transport you deep into the woods with your friends—to soak in nature, understand it, learn about it, not to dominate or “slay” it. Instead, it's all decimation, glorifying habitat degradation, busting thousands of years of cyanobacteria growth for “Rampage,” skidding corners, hitting massive gaps or jumps, wearing full-face helmets and pads. You don't need all that to enjoy mountain biking. That's why our slogan is “shred lightly.”

What happened with The Pros Closet?

Well, I signed an NDA and can't really talk about it. But I can say this: there was a lot of money floating around in the post-COVID bicycle economy, and a lot of people thought it would last. I'm just glad to have the brand back and am grateful to them for letting that happen.

Can you show us one of your favorite photographs and tell us the story behind it?

I immediately think of my friend Nick, tucked into an aero position on a bike tour in the Texas Hill Country. We were bombing a road, and I had my Leica M7 in my handlebar bag. I reached in, rode without my hands on the bars (the M7 is a manual-focus film camera), metered, stopped the lens down, and fired a single photo. It still, to this day, is one of my favorite cycling photos because of the moment, and what it took to make the exposure and the subject. I loved bike touring with those guys.

If you weren't running The Radavist, what would you be doing?

I would be bike touring a LOT more! I love it. With friends. I find great joy in riding throughout the different ecoregions and ecozones of the American West. I'm drawn to the landscapes, the flora/fauna, and it's when I feel most like myself when I'm in these places with familiar faces. It's the best way to spend time on a bike.

As far as work, I'd probably focus on non-profit environmental projects that focus on desert ecosystems. We just launched a documentary video on biocrust, or “Cryptobiotic soil,” as it's more commonly referred to. It's a different take on what a science documentary can be and I'm super stoked to work with such talented people on the project. Sinuhe Xavier and Dr. Kristina Young made that project shine.

I'd also like to write more for myself. Shoot more photos. Sell more prints. Build more with my hands. Try to divide my love of bikes and the work I do to make a living. And disappear from social media entirely… It really is the worst.

What are you most proud of and where is it all heading?

I'm most proud of our team at The Radavist and the work they crank out. Full stop. There are some incredibly talented people working with us and it's been both Cari's and my motivation to be able to pay them more. It's not easy running a bike company right now, but our readership and advertising partners have stood up and helped us get through this rough patch.

We're doing some really wonderful projects behind the scenes. The “From Biocrust, With Love” documentary is just the beginning. I'd like The Radavist to go in the direction of being 100% readership supported and we're working towards that with our Group Ride subscription plan.

Thanks, John! 🙇‍♂️

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