Biking’s Philosopher Crank

Photograph by Cody Pickens

On an overcast spring day, Grant Petersen is standing in the showroom of Rivendell Bicycle Works, part of a backlot strip of auto-body shops in the Bay Area suburb of Walnut Creek. Part jock, part geek, Petersen is clad in a fitted shirt that clings to his muscular torso and thick wool socks held in place by Teva sandals. Lining the walls of his shop are Rivendell’s bikes, each designed by Petersen and handmade with steel tubes connected at the joints by ornate lugs, an old-fashioned, labor-intensive technique. These are anti-racing bikes: Their relaxed geometry puts the rider in an upright, less aggressive riding position, and they’re fitted with wide tires, fenders, leather saddles, racks for bags, and swept-back handlebars. Though they have modern touches, at a glance they look like something out of a 1970s pastoral scene – you can almost picture Ryan O’Neal pedaling one over hill and dale with Ali MacGraw riding the handlebars.

Petersen, 58, is the leader of a new movement in cycling that has earned him the label “retrogrouch.” The term has less to do with his demeanor than the fact that he prefers the strength of steel and the look of leather to the latest in racing technology – and more important, that he doesn’t hesitate to speak out against the commercialism he believes has infected modern-day biking. For nearly two decades, while the cycling industry has pushed pro-racing-style bikes, gear, and training methods on amateur riders, Petersen has been preaching the opposite: that long, Tour de France–style training rides aren’t good exercise; that superlight (and superexpensive) carbon-fiber frames are prone to breakage and impractical for non-pro cyclists; and that, for most people, a more comfortable bike means better riding. The culmination of his evangelism is a new book, ‘Just Ride,’ which dispenses with nearly every principle of high-level bicycle training in favor of his eccentric advice on everything from how to pedal (mash, don’t make circles) to how to eat (don’t carbo load) and even how to dress for maximum bike-riding fun (wear loose clothes, rubber-soled shoes, and wool underwear, which “doesn’t get clammy”). The idea behind all of this, Petersen writes, is to get people to “enjoy bikes again, the way you did as a kid, before you got so serious.” He calls his disciples Unracers.

Aware that this message will repel the majority of those who spend weekends swathed in Lycra training for their next century ride, Petersen manages his expectations. “I’m not anticipating a positive response from the bike world,” he says of the book. But he feels strongly that “the practicality of being healthy is really the driving thing, and the bike industry has given a lot of bad advice, diet-wise and even riding-wise.” In the chapters on fitness, he writes that “a lot of bike riders, especially serious racer types, believe that all precious exercising hours are best spent riding their bike.” This, he says, doesn’t make sense, for reasons that seem elementary to him: pedaling is an efficient exercise that muscles get accustomed to very quickly; riding on a smooth road isn’t load bearing and so doesn’t fend off osteoporosis; “long, hard rides trigger a release of cortisol, a hormone that inhibits your body’s assimilation of calcium,” not to mention that they wear you down, physically and mentally. “Altogether, if you ride so much that you have no time or interest or energy to do any other kind of exercise, you’ll be a foam-boned, hunched-over weakling after 30 years of it.”

Though Petersen is warm and engaging in person, his particular worldview and the judgmental tone of his writing can be polarizing. Skim cycling blogs and forums, and you’re sure to find vitriol being hurled in his direction from riders who’ve spent the past 10 years emulating Lance Armstrong. “Who is the intended audience for this book?” asks a recent post about ‘Just Ride’ on “It’s just contrarian drivel.” But within the industry, he’s highly respected. Longtime industry analyst Jay Townley describes Petersen as “the champion of a new movement.” Eben Weiss, author of the famously critical blog BikeSnobNYC, calls Petersen’s book a reminder of “how fun cycling can and should be.” Even Mike Sinyard, founder of Specialized, which makes precisely the type of carbon-fiber racing bike Petersen decries, has kind words: “Grant cares very deeply about what works and what doesn’t. Whenever I want to know different things about a bike, I check with Grant.”

Before founding Rivendell, Petersen made a name for himself in the U.S. bicycle division of Bridgestone Tires, where in 1984 he got a job doing data entry and answering customers’ technical questions. While the Japanese company owned a quarter of the bike business back home, it had been slow to expand to the American market, even during the bicycle boom of the 1970s. Petersen started making suggestions to the engineers in Japan. “I had my own ideas about bikes,” he says. “I had raced a little. I was a bike snob, I guess.”

In the early 1990s, mountain biking brought the industry its next commercial boom, and Petersen had the idea to “turn the mountain bike into a fat-tire road bike,” implementing changes that made Bridgestone’s models more competitive. Then he told the company’s president that he didn’t like Bridgestone’s ads. Promoted to marketing manager, he handed his team copies of old fly-fishing literature for inspiration, specifically the 1932 Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. The resulting 1992 Bridgestone catalog was beautifully designed and heavy on explanation: how the bikes were designed; how to buy one; even off-roading “manners” (“Be quiet. Whoops and yelps and howls make you sound drunk, drugged, rowdy, threatening – or all four at once”). This approach to marketing and design ultimately became a prototype for Rivendell. “I got a really good education at Bridgestone,” Petersen says. In truth, he had no direct boss, no one looking over his shoulder. It was all self-education.

After Bridgestone closed shop in the U.S. in 1994, Petersen started Rivendell out of his garage (the name was a double nod to a valley in Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ and backpack company Rivendell Mountain Works). An early model, the All Rounder, was configured to ride on roads or trails, reflecting his principal tenet: versatility. A believer in the importance of informed advice, Petersen also created a zine, the ‘Rivendell Reader,’ which resembled his old-timey Bridgestone catalogs and featured long product descriptions and articles about bike-related topics.

Today, in addition to bikes, Rivendell sells a curated array of components and clothing. Whether it’s a brake pad or a set of wheels, each item on the website is described in Petersen’s distinctive prose – passionate and authoritative, yet almost blasé, all at once. (On the Sam Hillborne model: “Our slam-dunk, more affordable, does-everything-great bike.”) Most of the time, he’s celebrating Rivendell’s craftsmanship or uncompromising commitment to upending the status quo, which extends to his way of doing business. Petersen says that on about 20 occasions, he’s declined a custom order if the specs were wrongheaded. “We know what will work,” he says. Comforting words, no doubt, to customers who are dropping $1,000 to $5,000 on a bike.

About those prices: Petersen maintains that his $1,200 models, distributed through “normal channels” via a middleman, would be around $4,000. He also insists that profit doesn’t drive him. “At Rivendell, we’ve never not done something because of cost,” he says. “We just do it and survive the expense, and then get on with things.”

Rivendell bikes are certainly affordable when compared with top-of-the-line carbon-fiber models, and they’re likely to last a lifetime. For nonracers, Rivendell stands for a locally made alternative to the aggressive, corporate bike culture. And new brands like Linus and Velo Orange are following suit, producing similarly old-fashioned-looking bikes. “All these companies that have sprung up in the past few years owe gratitude to Grant,” says Chris Kostman, a race organizer who met Petersen during his Bridgestone years. “If it weren’t for him, there might not be steel frames anymore, or leather saddles.”

Walnut Creek is situated halfway between Berkeley, near where Petersen grew up, and Mount Diablo State Park, whose scenic trails are one of Petersen’s biggest inspirations. To end up here on a road bike that couldn’t handle the terrain would be “just nutty,” he says as we survey the hills below us, having just climbed them easily on two of his bikes. This loop is a 40-minute round trip from Rivendell, and Petersen and his friends and employees regularly bring tents and stay the night. But today, Petersen seems more preoccupied with fly-fishing, having recently returned from an angling trip to Oregon. “I just love it,” he says. “I used to want to catch the hardest fish that nobody else could catch.” Now, he’s content just to get out in the woods, much as he’s happy not to race anymore, but to ride to and from work, with a detour over these trails from time to time. “No one around here brags about riding sub-six-hour centuries,” he says. “A lot of people just want to ride a bike.”

A Signature Rivendell: Defining characteristics of Grant Petersen’s approach to bike design

1. Fenders keep mud splatters in check.

2. Racks accommodate camping gear or bags for supplies or groceries (these tweed models were designed by Petersen, too).

3. A leather saddle blends comfort and style.

4. Angle of seat tube puts rider farther back.

5. Steel tubes are hand-brazed together using proprietary lugs.

6. High, swept-back handlebars keep the rider from hunching.

7. Clearance for fat tires allows for a softer, more stable ride over different terrain.

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