Sunday, August 5, 2012

Grant Petersen's "Just Ride": The Campy Only Review

Years ago, long before my friends and I were old enough to drive, we rode our bikes everywhere. We rode to school, we rode to friend's houses, we rode to the movies. At the time, motocross racing was exploding in popularity, and we updated our Sting Rays to look like the motorcycles our heroes rode, adding nobby tires and sturdier handlebars and number plates with decals on them. Forget that we were just kids pedaling bikes along a dusty trail in a not-yet-built subdivision--we were having fun, and the trappings of motocross racers we followed were part of that fun.

In many ways, Grant Petersen's new book "Just Ride," reflects the spirit of those early days of cycling that most of us share, when riding was done for fun end enjoyment, without the need for 100- and 200-mile endurance tests, superlight bikes, and a seemingly neverending focus on speed.

Petersen speaks at the US Bicycling Hall of Fame
Petersen, founder in 1994 of Rivendell Bicycle Works and before that a marketer and designer for Bridgestone USA, has in many ways never left those days too far behind. Yes, he dabbled in racing (in fact, he competed for almost a decade), but his focus in his Bridgestone and Rivendell years has been on creating bikes that hearken back to an earlier era. (Full disclosure: I own two Rivendell bicycles, and I can attest to the number of comments and questions I get about the bikes, usually something like, "How old is that bike? It sure looks like a classic.")

Petersen's bikes are without exception made of steel tubes joined together with lugs and fitted with wheels and equipment chosen for beauty and longevity, not for lightness. Usually made in small batches, his bikes command high prices and are often prized by collectors. Particularly desirable models are snatched up almost as soon as they are offered for sale on one fan-run Rivendell email list.

For those who are unfamiliar with Petersen or Rivendell, "Just Ride" offers an excellent synopsis of everything the man and company stand for. For those who haven't subscribed to Rivendell's mail order catalog or (more recently) followed his online blog, the book serves as a quick-reference compendium of his ruminations from the past decade or more on a variety of cycling topics.

Whether in print or online, Petersen has never shied from controversy, famously making a variety of pronouncements that -- even among his followers -- promote the type of partisan feelings usually reserved for debates about religion and politics. Helmets are dangerous! Lycra is stupid! Clip-in bike shoes don't work! Your bike's frame is too small,and the handlebars are way too low!

Petersen’s pronouncements go on and on ... There are 89 topics in “Just Ride" on topics as far-flung as tire size and nutrition, all based in Petersen’s extensive experience, and flavored by his obvious preference for simple, low-tech, handcrafted solutions to life's problems.

As a follower, if not an acolyte, of Petersen, I find much to recommend in the book. Petersen's main thesis--that cyclists for the most part tend to look to racers for guidance on how to select and outfit a bike, which results in many riders sitting atop squirrelly, super light bikes when a slightly heavier, more stable bike might serve them better--is right on. There’s a lot to be learned from Petersen about riding a little slower, enjoying the journey a bit more, and letting go of one’s ambitions of winning a Tour de France stage. Personally, I agree with at least 75 percent of his book.

Where I diverge from Petersen is in the attitude he seems to have towards the riders who don't toe his line. Anyone wearing Lycra shorts and jersey, to hear Petersen say it, is just a dumb, fashion-obsessed sheep blindly following the herd. People who wear helmets are placing themselves in more danger (because, by his logic, wearing a helmet makes one feel invincible and therefore more risk-prone). Anyone on a carbon-fiber bike is a tragedy waiting to happen, because, well, those carbon forks snap in two all the time, don't you know? It’s all very, “I know better than you”-ish, very dismissive of the many reasons why people ride the way they do and of the wide range of opinions out there--opinions that aren't wrong just because they don't align with Grant's.

Petersen's most avid followers, however, lap this stuff up. At a recent book-signing event that I attended, the first comment from the audience in the Q and A session was something like, “Say something controversial!” The conversation went downhill from there, devolving quickly into a Hosanna Chorus, with various members chiming in knowingly about how, they, too, had seen through the Madison Avenue hype and wouldn't be caught dead doing what most non-Petersen cyclists do. Wear a helmet? Oh no, whyever would I do that? Like the guy at the local food Co-Op who’ll bend your ear for an hour about why you, too, should drink your own urine, they were happy for the chance to raise a glass of Kool-Aid in the presence of Petersen.

Standing at the front, struggling a bit to keep the discussion in check (we were there, after all, to hear Petersen, not some self-important Know-It-All in the third row), Petersen seemed a little put off. I think that's because he still gets it that biking should be fun. Petersen, I think, still channels that kid that we all once were, when riding was just for fun, and when is was OK to want to be like your heroes and put a number plate on your Sting-Ray so you could make believe it was a motorcycle. Standing there as his audience gleefully drove yet another small wedge between themselves and other cyclists, I think Petersen felt perhaps a twinge of regret at the reality that controversy sells books, and it was controversy his audience wanted and controversy it was going to get. Grant’s sincere desire to, well, have all of us cyclists just get along and have fun riding, took a back seat.

“Just Ride”? Too bad Grant’s audience didn't grasp that simple bit of advice--forget for one day the almost Jihadist rhetorical bombs thrown about on every cycling topic under the sun, and go out for a fun ride. Helmets optional, Lycra OK.

For anyone with an interest in cycling who is interested in sampling a perspective on cycling gear, fashion, technique, and training that’s refreshingly different from the mainstream press, “Just Ride” is your book. Read it and enjoy it--but don't feel bad about disagreeing with Petersen in a topic or two. "Just Ride" is available in bookstores and online at


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