Journalism: Urbanism: A Conversation with Grant Petersen

Published in, Issue #32, July 2012

A Conversation with Grant Petersen
by Zack Barowitz

   photo/Courtesy of Urban Velo Magazine

The esteemed bicycle designer talks urban cycling, fashion and mountain bikes.

Grant Petersen is a reformed racer and the owner of Rivendell Bicycle Works. We talked about riding in cities, wearing tweed, and the unsung qualities of old mass-production mountain bikes. His forthcoming book Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike is instructive on all aspects of cycling (even racing) and will garner appreciation and infuriation from experts and novices alike.

What are the biggest impediments to urban cycling?

Fear of injury or death, the effort required, weather, the need to dress up at work, the lack of bike parking, and maybe the need to visit clients in other parts of town or in other cities during the day. These are just what I can think of without thinking.

What about bicycle infrastructure in Amsterdam?

Whether you’re talking about Amsterdam or Tokyo or New Delhi or ANY place where bikes dominate. The riders aren’t green, they aren’t necessarily environmentalists philosophically. They may be criminals, or whale eaters, or whale hunters, or drug dealers, but it doesn’t matter, they’re on the bike because the bike makes more sense than the car. It may be the price of the car, or of gas, or that bikes are easier to park, or that car taxes are ridiculously high. The car isn’t a realistic option for them, so they ride a bike.

What do we have in the U.S.? Portland, Oregon. Because of great efforts by the local government and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance to make life easier for bike riders with parking, accommodations, and lanes; 6.5% of urban trips are made by bike, compared to less than one percent in the typical American city. They’re the National Champs, but it still means [the vast majority] of trips are made by cars. Incentives only go so far. DISincentives to driving are far more effective, but I’m afraid it’s kind of late for that, now. People squawk at $4.40 per gallon gas, but it’s still cheap by all world standards except Venezuela’s.

Some advocates are opposed to bike lanes in favor of “vehicular cycling?”

Cities should accommodate and prioritize bikes in all new projects. I like bike paths. I don’t think riders should be required to ride them, but when they go where I’m going, I take them. For many people, it’s the bike path or nothing. You can’t just say, “Get comfy in traffic, like ME!” I think a rider’s responsibility to stay alive is greater than their responsibility to put themselves in harm’s way in the name of “responsible cycling” or “cyclists’ rights.” That is a dangerous thing for me to say, because it can be twisted around, quoted out of context, used as a pull quote and misrepresent the complexity of the issue. So, please don’t do that. All I am saying is don’t freak out drivers, don’t scare or hit pedestrians, and do what it takes to stay alive.

What was your job at Bridgestone?

I was hired as an in-house technical rep to talk to dealers and bike riders, since nobody else “in house” knew about bikes or could talk the language. I did tons of data entry. Later I became Marketing Manager, I wrote ads and catalogues. At about the same time I had a lot of influence over the designs of the bikes and the parts. But the official designers were smart engineering types, who would take my suggestions, most, not all, and turn them into bikes. My “design” roles have always been overstated.

Where did you learn to design bicycles?

I took a mechanical drawing class in high school, and my dad was a mechanical engineer. I used to draw frames on his drawing table. I firmly believe a pencil-and-paper approach helps relationships and proportions sink in more effectively. But, let me say this without sounding overly humble: Designing frames is not that hard. I could teach anybody everything I know in five hours.

Your writing sets you apart from other frame designers. Have you always liked to write?

I don’t know about “always,” but when I was fourteen I wrote an article about a new way to tie trout flies, and submitted it to Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, and Sports Afield. They all rejected it. But at least I wrote it, and it was pretty good for me at the time. I learned more about writing from reading, including reading books about writing. I don’t have sharp skills but I know how to avoid common mistakes.

You have the reputation as an industry iconoclast, yet you are influential in the industry and people tend to agree with most of what you say.

I think it’s natural to focus on the stuff you find outrageous. But I don’t say things that I believe to be outrageous. I have opinions, just as anybody who has a background in any field does. I have experience. If opinions didn’t follow, there’d have to be something missing in my brain. But, I don’t preface every opinion with “in my opinion,” because that’s a waste of time. Just because you like or agree with something I say doesn’t mean you have to join my cult and agree with everything, and I’ve changed over the years.

Does strange clothing, like tweed, marginalize cycling?

I tend to think that bike extremism, in the hardware or clothing, is like a snake that grows from both ends. One end (usually the high tech/innovative end) starts something, and then the other end reacts to it, with the unstated or even unintended goal being a kind of balance in the whole snake. For instance, one-speeds were nowhere until 9-speeds got popular, and now that Joe Schmoe dresses like a European Pro, we have tweed rides as the balance. Balancing kind of requires an opposite extreme, the Tweeders are providing a service. The Tweedies make it easier for bike riders to fall into the sane middle range.

I don’t see any point in costuming up for a bike ride. If you saw a ten-year old kid [in spandex], you’d think, “how sad.” When I see 65-year olds do it, I think the same. But to each his/her own. My everyday “uniform” is totally bike ready, and I don’t mean only for a two-mile jaunt.

What is your all time favorite city bike?

I don’t think the bike makes that big a difference. They all work. But, if you’re asking my own preference, or what I think makes the most functional sense, the most practical sense, I’ll stick out my neck and nominate an all-steel early to late ’80s mountain bike fitted up with a higher and maybe a swept-back handlebar, fenders, rack, and basket. Platform pedals, kickstand, bell, rear view mirror, and some kind of light. It might not suit somebody’s style, and I’m not saying it’s a better style; I’m just saying for me, that’s what I think makes a lot of sense.

The fact is, there are major bargains to be had in certain kinds of used bikes. Any of the pre-’85 Japanese lugged steel road bikes, a decent steel frame that was designed before things got wacky.

Pre-’85? I would’ve set the date a few years later. I sometimes see some decent ‘90s Taiwanese-made road bikes.

OK, we can go a little later, but a five-country monetary re-valuation happened in 1985, and it devastated the Japanese bike industry. Remember the highly ornamented Shimano 600 arabesque and 105 arrow groups? It seemed over the top at the time. But it is high evidence that a strong dollar and a weak yen meant wonderful, unnecessarily artsy things, could happen. The worst Taiwan bikes were the ’86s and ’87s, the rookie years for high volume, imported-into-the-US Taiwanese bikes. It’s not fair to paint them all with the same broad brush, but many of them had problems. By the later ‘80s and beyond, those problems were fixed. By then the lugs were gone. But for urban riding, a lack of preciousness is usually a good thing.

Do you ever think of building cheap TIG-welded mass-market bikes?

I think of it a lot. I thought of when I was in Yosemite on vacation. That should drive home the point. But a good idea isn’t always a good idea. Ideas have tentacles, they affect and are affected by other things outside the main idea, and those things aren’t always obvious. If you could take some of our bike models, fold your arms and blink your eyes like Jeanie, and turn it into a TIG-welded bike with thick, seamed, straight-gauge CrMo steel tubing; you’d have a heck of a cheap, functional bike. But if we did that and they became immensely popular, we’d have tons of competition the next year, and that competition could smother us. We don’t source from China, but that kind of bike could be, and suddenly we’re just an also-ran, an after thought.

What about building a bike that is a bit more theft resistant?

I still have a plan for a cheaper bike for riding in bike thefty areas. Everybody at Rivendell knows about our “cheap bike project.” The idea is to have a super ugly bike with a few manufacturing shortcuts, it would come primered, but not painted. You’d assemble it and then paint it, and not worry about overspray on the rims and tires. Each bike would look already stolen, and could have a unique paint job that made a real thief reluctant to take it, because it would be so identifiable.

It was a relief to me when in your book you confess that you do not like working on your bikes.

The worst part of working on bikes is hooking up the cables. I insist on smoothly cut or ground cable housing, because I don’t like even the remote possibility of a burr damaging a cable. Even in theory. So I grind burrs smooth off the housing on a grinding wheel, and if the heat seals the end and I can’t get a cable through it, then I have to re-cut and start over again. It can take me 30 minutes to hook up brakes. Hate it.

There’s an entry in Just Ride titled “The Predictability Ruse,” where you mention one type of unpredictable behavior–that is to swing out a bit before the car passes you; what other methods do you use?

The key is to look unconcerned or unaware; not to freak out the driver and cause an accident. But there’s nothing to be gained by riding with such an air of confidence and control that the driver passes within inches of you.

I also think that bike riders see cars as inanimate evil polluters and killers, because they don’t see the face and the eyes of the good person inside. They see the grill and headlights as a menacing face out to do them and the planet harm. it’s easy to forget that inside that polluting hunk of metal could be a kind pacifist who does a lot of good in the world. In the absence of absolute knowledge of who’s behind the wheel, that’s a good assumption to make. You can’t get along and do good things if you don’t survive. Cars win every collision.