A Lafayette man has turned bicycling convention on its rump by making bikes that are fun to ride.
Photography by Martin Sundberg
Grant Petersen has just returned from a ride halfway up Mount Diablo when we meet outside his shop, his gray-flecked brown hair still damp with sweat. “I’d like to see what you’ve already written for the article,” he says with a cautious smile. The seemingly light request speaks to a deeper shrewdness. Petersen has built a career championing a joyful, forgotten way of thinking about bicycling, and he’s not about to let a reporter make a hash of his ideas.
Petersen, 53, is both lighthearted and deadly serious in his devotion to designing what many consider the most beautiful bicycles in the world. Not the fastest or the most advanced, but beautiful and, in a way, humble. “Bikes today look mean, like weapons,” he says. “It’s all about this hyperaggressive approach. Aluminum this and carbon fiber that. A bike ride means beating your friends.”
As Petersen sees it, the industry lost its way when it began catering to the minority of riders who actually race, resulting in featherweight bikes with cramped angles. Racers endure discomfort in the interest of speed, but the majority of consumers who buy these machines—middle-aged men and women with disposable income to burn—will never enter the Tour de California and will wind up stashing their bikes in the garage to gather dust.
Petersen prefers a gentler, more old-world aesthetic aimed at enjoyment and practicality rather than aerodynamics. His lugged steel frames are hand-brazed, a lost art perfected decades ago, when a finely crafted bicycle was comparable to a work of art. Although customers may gush over how Petersen’s Rivendell bikes look, they spend big bucks—prices for complete bikes range from $1,500 to $5,000—for the ideas that go into them. Petersen stretches the front of his bikes upward for a more relaxed position for the rider, for example. He drops the center of gravity to hug the curves. You can take his fastest bike down a fire trail on Mount Diablo, or you can ride his Mixte, what the uninformed would call a granny bike, on a tour across the country. Former president Jimmy Carter rides a custom Rivendell, which he bought a few years ago.
Growing up in Lafayette, Petersen was equally particular about his boyhood equipment: He fished with flies while his friends used worms; he quit the Boy Scouts because they wore canvas rather than leather belts. As a young man, he worked at REI in Berkeley until a lucky break landed him a job at the U.S. headquarters of Bridgestone, Japan’s largest bicycle manufacturer. After just a few years, Petersen became an influential designer for the company, and by the early 1990s, his bikes attained cult status.
In 1994, he started Rivendell Bicycle Works out of his garage with $89,000 in loans and credit card debt. Today, the company does more than $2.2 million in business a year and occasionally turns a modest profit.
In the meantime, Petersen has become an oracle of sorts for a small segment of the bicycling world. In a self-published national newsletter that is largely responsible for his near-religious following, he cites studies disproving the theory that clip-in pedals increase efficiency. Or that neon spandex makes you faster. Throw on the Chuck Taylors, he says, and a seersucker shirt that billows in the breeze. Remember what you wore as a kid when you fell in love with bikes in the first place. “Riding a bike as an adult is fun, as long as your adultness doesn’t get in the way of it,” he says. “Kids don’t posture and pose. It’s more fun when you ride without worrying about how you look or how fast you’re going, or how you compare with others.”
For the first eight years, Petersen says, his business was one bad month away from closing. He now has a six-month cushion, and he knows that he can call upon the faithful if his fortunes grow lean. He cites an example he calls Harry Potter Day, when sales hit an all-time low and vultures seemed to be circling above his shop. Petersen mentioned the financial strain in his newsletter, mailed out on the day the first Harry Potter movie was released. It contained a small plea saying, in effect, that if anyone was holding out from buying something from his catalog, now would be a good time to call. The response was overwhelming: His sales tripled over the rest of that month and continued to go up for months afterward.
In the context of cycling’s long history, spanning well over a century, Petersen considers the current emphasis on speed and adrenaline an aberration. It began around the time Greg Lemond became the first American winner of the Tour de France and ebbed for a while with the popularity of the mountain bike, only to skyrocket with Lance Armstrong’s string of victories.
Petersen’s rejection of this paradigm has not helped him win acceptance among the mainstream industry tastemakers who have made a killing on the trend, hawking everything from low-carb sports gels to wireless heart-rate monitors. A recent review of a Rivendell in Bicycling magazine called it “quirky to the core.” Other magazines have called him a “retrogrouch,” a label that, to this day, rankles him.
Petersen’s ideas have often inspired controversy even among his most loyal customers. A few years ago, Petersen introduced a line of bikes designed around the size of a wheel, called the Bombadil 650B, last used by the French for bike touring decades ago. The wheels allow bikes to ride fast on paved roads but are stout enough to handle dirt trails. What’s not to like? Yet the reaction among some factions of the Rivendell faithful was something akin to when Bob Dylan went electric. The same customers who had rescued the company just a couple years before wondered aloud on chat boards why Petersen would invest their hard-earned dollars in quixotic projects that would appeal to so few.
“You have to be just as careful with the ones who adore you,” Petersen says, choosing his words carefully, “because they think they know you. I very much appreciate people feeling ownership over the business, but it can get annoying.”
Three years later, Petersen’s French-styled touring bikes are flying out the door, not only from his shop but from other shops that have taken a liking to the idea. Chalk it up as another surprise success for an idea that appeared to be marketing suicide. Now, Petersen has designed an entirely new wheel, the 603A, this one never used in the annals of cycling. He emerges from his shop with a prototype—he wants me to see it firsthand. He holds what looks like an ordinary wheel embraced by a tire that has been cut and stitched to fit. He’s grinning like a kid now, all the early caution of our conversation gone. “Just wait ’til they get a load of this,” he says slyly. “This one will send ’em right over the edge.”