Words and photos: James Knox
Originally published in Issue #39
My fascination with riding a bike started early. I learned to ride when I was very young on a full-sized bike while my brother pushed me down the steep driveway and I managed not to crash. At age 10 I took over my brother’s paper route with my Schwinn Stingray and quickly earned enough dough to buy one of the very first mountain bikes available—a Ross Hi-Tech. I added wire baskets for the papers and pegs and BMX finger brakes for fun. I loved going fast. When I got back into bikes 15 years ago, racing with the weekend warriors, I started thinking how I could connect bikes and my work again.
At first, my job as a newspaper photographer was a big obstacle to that. Covering breaking news on the early shift has been my bread and butter at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for the past 20 years. It seemed impossible to ride a bike to a fire in a town 50 miles away and get there in time to get pictures of anything more than the structure in cinders.
Plus the hills in Pittsburgh can make a grown man cry. We have some of the steepest streets in the nation, maybe the world. Canton Avenue in Beechview is a whopping 37 percent grade, and it’s paved in cobblestones. Getting a call for breaking news and getting there quickly via Pittsburgh’s terrain is a daunting task. I had to get creative. I lobbied my editors to allow me an experiment: I’d ride my bike from my house to all my assignments for a month. They gave me a week. They also gave me a blog to document my progress.
I was determined. I had to carry close to 30 pounds of gear to do my job. At minimum, a camera body, two lenses, a flash and my laptop, plus all the cords and card readers had to come with me. I bought special commuter cycling pants and shirts from Levi’s commuter line. I used carabiners to secure my camera bag, which also holds my laptop, to the rear rack. I purchased a Wald folding rear basket for overflow, packed my lunch every day and carried the full load of assignments. The bosses did me a favor by not giving me assignments that were too far outside of the greater Pittsburgh area.
What did I learn? It can be done. I ate doughnuts every day and still lost weight (seven pounds in one week). I packed all of the essentials to do my job, kept out the elements and still looked professional enough to cover a mayoral press conference. There are some things you can miss while walled up in a car. I found several feature photos because I was rolling through a section of town not usually traversed by car. Using the awesome local trail network, you can get all over without sharing the road. And the looks on people’s faces when you tell them you’re riding your bike everywhere as a photographer are priceless.
I’d come full circle: I once got paid to ride my bike to deliver newspapers and now I get paid to ride my bike to deliver the news itself.