Monday, August 18, 2008

An Interview with Grant Petersen

I first learned of Grant Petersen’s work while he was with Bridgestone in the 1980s and 90s. I was working at a bicycle shop, and I sold lots and lots of the bicycles he designed. In a world of cookie-cutter models, Bridgestone bicycles dared to be unique. At any given price point, they tended to favor well-designed frames and sensible components over whatever parts were trendy at any given moment. People who bought Bridgestones from me saw the value in Petersen’s design philosophy.

After Bridgestone closed its bicycle operation in the USA, Petersen founded Rivendell Bicycle Works in 1994. Since then, they have been designing and selling wonderful bicycles, made with lugged-steel frames and equipped with components that make sense. The company also sells a wide variety of practical parts and accessories designed for use in the real world.

I asked Petersen for an interview, and he accepted. I sent him questions and he e-mailed back thorough, extensive answers within two days. I was impressed, but perhaps I should have expected this; Petersen loves what he does, and he has developed a wide range of ideas about bicycle design, the bicycle industry, and other aspects of practical riding. I am grateful that he shared his thoughts with Cycloculture with such enthusiasm.

Petersen on his version of a “Recreational Vehicle”

Q: What are the fundamental design elements of a bicycle that performs well?

A: In any vehicle the performance is in the engine, and that’s up to the rider, not the bike designer. Is a 16-pound bike that can’t take a 28mm tire or a fender or a gouge without being dangerous a “high performance bike?” It’s light and severely limited, that’s it. It won’t perform well on a rough road, or on a wet road, and it isn’t designed or expected to last ten years under the weight of a 180-pounder. Yet that’s what people think of when they hear “high performance,” which is why I’m not a fan of “high performance bikes.”

If the question was “What are the fundamental design elements of a useful, comfortable bike?” I’d say things like a good fit to the rider, the ability to get the handlebar at least as high as the saddle, and “saddle height” shouldn’t be the ceiling.

If it’s a mostly-road bike, it should fit a tire 38mm wide, and with a fender. Most racy-style riders consider 28s fat, but that’s ridiculous. Air is light, free, and wonderful, and the current rage of 23mm tires pumped up to 125psi misses the original point of the pneumatic tire. They’re like light rocks.

A Rivendell Mixte

The frame should be steel, because steel is the safest and best material for bike frames, and the joints are lugged, because lugs are the best way to join tubes. Steel always ages well, even paint ages well. Titanium is a good material, too, but it stays the ghosty same forever, and to some people that’s good, and to others it’s creepy. Anyway, you can’t just take a good material – steel or Ti or whatever, and make a skinny-tire, low-handlebar frame and call it “good.” What’s it good for? If it doesn’t fit, it if isn’t useful beyond racing or some weekend warrior’s fantasy racing and if the buyer doesn’t race, then it’s a nice bag without a bottom to hold anything.

Some of this is just personal preference, and talking about preferences like this comes off as snobby, or trying to impose your values on others, as though they’re the right values. That’s not my intention. I can impose those things on the Rivendell bikes, and I do. I like forks that bend low and tight, with a constant radius, and it’s hard to get that. At certain price points, you can’t. It can’t be done in Taiwan – that I know for a fact, but it doesn’t make the Taiwan bikes ride worse. I don’t have any experience with Chinese bikes, but I don’t see it happening there either, because the process that results in the kind of bent we aim for is a tedious process that quadruples the length of time to make the fork, literally, and when your market isn’t demanding it, there’s no reason to do it.

For the rest of the bike, my preference is for an overall appearance that’s spindly and bird-like, and the decals should be easy to read and basically plain, with some fanciness but not too much, and simple paint jobs. It’s not “high performance,” or “sexy” in the way that revs up the 20-something bike magazine editors, but it’s a useful bike that’ll be safe for many years, and will age well.

Q: Do you have a favorite bicycle in your collection? If so, please describe it.

A: I like all my bikes, or I wouldn’t have bought them. I do buy them, by the way, and I’m not rich, so I can’t buy indiscriminately. I don’t think I have a favorite. I’m riding an A. Homer Hilsen a lot, and a Bombadil prototype, and my old custom with the 71.5-degree seat and 85mm of drop. I experimented with it, and found out some limitations of Shimano front derailleurs from it, but – well, I also love my Atlantis, with Albatross bars, and my Mercian tandem. They each have a specialty, but they all work well for lots of things.

Q: My favorite bicycle is my old Kabuki/Bridgestone Skyway 12, which I have set up as a commuter/shopping bike. The frame is made from high tensile steel tubing with bulge-formed lugs, but the geometry is wonderful. It is a 67cm frame with a 61.5cm top tube, so someone put some thought into the frame design. This bicycle proves to me that a bike can be both inexpensive and wonderful. I think that model was released before you joined Bridgestone, but please correct me if I am wrong. In any case, while you worked for Bridgestone, you designed some remarkably great bicycles with low price tags, such as the BUB and the MB6. Is there any chance that you will design and market Rivendells which are even less expensive than the $750 (for frame and fork) Bleriot?

A: Yes, before my time, but I’m familiar with the bike and the bulge-formed lugs and all. I’m shocked that you got a 67, because I didn’t know you were that tall – 6’4” at least – and I didn’t know B’stone made them that big. [Editors note: I am 6’6” and extremely grateful that B’stone made some large road bikes “back in the day.”]

A bike or frame’s cost is mostly in the labor, not the design. The dollar is weak, and labor rates all over are going up, and transportation costs and other boring things affect bike prices just the way they affect everything-prices, and in 2009, bike prices are going to either jump up 25 percent, or the manufacturers are going to look for more ways to cut costs.

In our case, the cost of Japanese-built frames rules out selling them wholesale to dealers. We could sell at our cost and the dealer margins still wouldn’t be satisfactory. Everybody wants to be the last guy to buy at the old low prices, but these days, a bargain on a bike means that somebody along the way lost money on it. If bikes are your deal, pay what it takes.

A Rivendell Bleriot

Q: Imagine a world in which you could build bicycle wheels of any size at the push of a button. Is there a formula or a process by which someone could calculate the perfect wheel size to match any given frame size and intended purpose for each bicycle?

A: Well, the “perfect wheel size” implies some kind of sweet-spot performance boost that’ll come of it… or maybe I’m inferring that. Wheels go like this: Smaller is stronger, bigger rolls over bumps easier. Smaller tread gets more wear because the tires roll around more often. In the end, I’d say “the perfect size” would be the one that allowed the most pleasing bike proportions – for instance. I don’t mean to say aesthetics should drive everything, but the actual performance differences between 650B and 700C, for instance, are hard to nail down. You may prefer one or another for emotional or romantic or traditional reasons, or because you swear to God you can detect a favorable nuance in one and not the other, but chances are you’ve had some wonderful rides on both, and so you actually could defer to the super-subjective area of aesthetics.

Right now, if you get a 51cm 700c bike, the head tube is dinky. The frame is well-triangulated, which is good, but the head tube is too dinky. And on your Kabuki, the head tube is really long, and you lose triangulation and gain some kind of funny look there. And, if the bike is in the high-60s, it seems the wheels should be bigger than 700c, maybe even three inches bigger across. Big bikes grow in height way more than they grow in length and wheel size, so the proportions are completely different than they are for small-to-medium bikes. If I were rich, I’d get those wheels made and design big bikes, and I mean bikes in the super high 60s and low 70s, with lengths in proportion to their heights, and arrange for the wheels to match.

You know, things get wacky on small bikes, too. On a small, low-to-the-ground bike with small wheels, you have to counter the tendency of the bike to fall fast, which is what small bikes do, like a short pencil stub trying to balance on your finger, compared to a long rod. Plus, they react more dramatically to wind and road influences, and the usual result is a snappy little pinball on wheels. The best way, I think, to fix that is with a long wheelbase, usually in the back half of the bike. You can’t create a long front-center without making the bike nutty forward of the bottom bracket, but you can absolutely just lengthen the chainstays and make the bike less jerky that way. There are no drawbacks, either. We did this on a 48cm custom bike with 26-inch wheels and 46cm chainstays, and it works great.

A really large A. Homer Hilsen frame with twin top tubes

There’s also a more practical side to it that most riders who don’t design bikes aren’t aware of, and that’s the angle formed by the seat tube and down tube. Like, on your monster Kabuki, it has a 61.5cm top tube, for instance. Well, if you need a bike that big and you have three-speed style bars that sweep back, you could probably survive even better with a 65cm top tube. I’m not saying your bike doesn’t fit, I’m just using it as an example. But, with a 65cm top tube, the seat-tube to down-tube angle would open and would have ruled out any bottom bracket Bridgestone had access to. Or it may have required it’s own special box, or something. Sixty one and a half on a 67 seeeems a little out of proportion, just a hair. I’m guessing. But the bike speaks for itself, and I’m being the way I don’t like others to be –letting the numbers define the bike. I’m sorry! [Editor’s note: Petersen is, not surprisingly, “right on the money” in this response. The top tube on my Kabuki is too short, but it is far better than the old 67cm Fuji frames which had 59cm top tubes. I even had a 67cm “Terranaut” with a 56cm top tube at one point! When I designed my own frame, I spec’d a 63.5cm top tube and I certainly could have gone a bit longer.]

Q: Do you have a long-term plan for Rivendell? How do you see Rivendell progressing over the next 5, 10 or 20 years?

A: There are certain things that I want to accomplish while I’m here, and I’ve done some of them. It seems like lugged steel bikes have become art objects, and I’d like to make some that medium people can afford and ride. But as I said, that’s hard to do, and it’s especially hard to do Not in China, and the only thing we sell from China is a measuring tape. But – I want to have more Taiwan-made bikes, three or four models, so you don’t have to be rich to buy one. And I’d like to have a lugged tandem. I want to introduce a new wheel size that’ll be misunderstood from the start and raise a ruckus among those who don’t understand it.

I feel most strongly about racing’s influence on bikes and on riding, and the perception of riding among non-riders who might want to start, and somehow, I don’t know how, I want to influence a trend toward just riding. Not putzing around, necessarily, but a kind of riding that’s acceptable to most people, that isn’t redlining your heart rate and keeping it there long, and going faster than comfortable and longer than comfortable. Just riding like kids ride, but as adults; wearing clothes that work but don’t look the racing part. I want that to happen, and Rivendell doesn’t have to lead the charge, but I want us to play a role.

I would like to retire in 2018 or so. I’ll be 64 then, and that’ll be enough. I may not be able to afford to, but if I can, I’d do it, and Rivendell would keep going. It’s hard to talk about ten years from now, because you know, every month is a struggle. Not every day, but every month.

There’s a lot of work to do, and I’m not all that organized. I want to do a nice lugged tandem, and I want to establish some solid vendors, so when I’m not here, whoever is working on the bikes will have an easier time of it.

We have a good group here, and I want them to continue to want to work here, and I’d be sad if I thought my leaving would kill the company. I don’t manage the day-to-day, but I work here and do some stuff that everybody else does, and some things that only I do, and I want to shift the ratio. We have people here who could take over, easily, and if that’s what they want to do, that’s what I’d like to happen.

Eventually, Sara Lee or Beatrice Foods buys everything and turns it into a women’s clothing supplier, but not while I’m alive, anyway, and I plan to live to 85.

Rivendell’s Logo

Q: What is your favorite part of running a bicycle company?

A: "Running" would get a laugh from anybody who works with me, but I know what you’re asking, and the answer is developing the bikes and getting happy people on them. I like getting somebody who loves to ride but has been uncomfortable on a 56 onto a 61, or whatever size here fits him.

And I like the Reader, but I hate laying it out, but we just got a new guy here, Dave, to help with that. I like the people I work with. There’s no politics, no backstabbing, no nervousness. We have a vast range of personalities and histories, but everybody is really, really good at what they do – at what their main job is, anyway. We all do many things, but everybody has a specialty.

Q: What is your least favorite?

A: I don’t like the fame and the fallout from being semi-famous and stating a point of view that inadvertently but inevitably steps on somebody’s toes or challenges their long-held beliefs, and the next thing you know they think I’m a jerk. It makes me want to die, or at least quit, and it happens a lot. I don’t like people talking about me behind my back, but it happens constantly, and I hear about it from well-meaning people who “think I should know” that somebody on some chat group is mad at me or something. I’d much prefer to be anonymous, which is why my photo hardly ever shows up, except when it has to.

And I don’t like being misrepresented or misunderstood. I feel like I’m stuck because the business (and the Rivendell Reader) depend on me being public with these points-of-view, but they’re points-of-views that make people not like me, and that is a drag. They don’t know me, but they know they don’t like me because I like lugs and steel and they think that means I think they’re dumb for riding something else…or something.

My friends know I’m scared to death of carbon forks, because they fail so suddenly and so frequently, but if I say that on some kind of stage, then everybody who makes them for living or sells them or just bought a bike with one will – well, they’ll all gang up on me and call me names, and that hurts.

A stock Rivendell frame being brazed in Japan

Q: Do you have any favorite frame builders, other than those used by Rivendell? Which other people in the bicycle industry do you respect to an especially high degree?

A: I don’t like the question much, because if I name names but leave one off, that guy gets bummed. I got bummed when a friend and famous builder posted a link on his site to other frames, and we weren’t listed. I know he didn’t mean anything by it, but it hurt my feelings, and I don’t want to do that.

I like that there are more lugged steel frames out there. I would like to see more steel bikes of any kind sold in normal bike shops, but “steel” means “death” to a typical modern bike retailer. All people know is they don’t want steel, and carbon is cool.

One company I like that doesn’t make lugged frames, is Surly. I like that they’re making useful bikes affordable for anybody. They’re plain and smart, down-n-dirty or at least frill-less, and there’s nothing stupid about them. These days, that’s saying a lot. Soma is less well-known, but has done the same in a smaller way. The Fuji Touring bike has certain things going for it that are good and surprising, for being a big company bike in the year 2008.

Q: You were one of the world’s biggest proponents of moustache handlebars for many years. I have not heard you say much about them lately, nor have I seen as many moustache-bar-equipped Rivendells as I would have expected. What are your current thoughts on moustache bars and handlebar types in general?

A: I love the bar, and I have it on one bike. When I get a Bombadil, it’s going on that. You’ve got to get it high enough and close enough, but when you do, I think it’s as good as any bar out there. Drop-bar fans felt threatened by it, as though it was trying to lure them away from drops, and it’s not. It pretty much is a drop bar, just one that’s been run over by a truck. You still get the curves that give you the hand positions. We sell a few hundred a year, maybe almost 300. That’s not bad. That style of bar has been around since 1907; I didn’t invent it. But the one we sell – the one I designed for the Bridgestone XO-1 – is a really nice variant.

Nitto “Moustache” handlebar

I like drops, Moustache h’bars, and Albatross-style bars, with a sweep-back and a rise. If I had one bar to ride forever, it would be an Albatross bar. I have it on two bikes now, including a tandem, and I imagine it’ll be the only bar I’ll be comfortable on when I’m old. Also, I’ve been saved by Albatross bars two or three times when I’ve had injuries, so I will never forsake that bar.

Nitto “Albatross” handlebar, CrMo (Rivendell also sells an aluminum version)

I’m not a fan of straight handlebars, like normal mountain bike bars. I think they’re fine, but the wrist position isn’t normal. I like flat ramps on drop bars – the ramp being the part just behind the brake lever.

Q: Do you see any newly developed bicycle parts or components which are catching your eye?

A: Tektro is coming out with wide-opening sidepulls that open wide and clear huge road tires – up to 37mm – and these brakes are totally underappreciated. The Silver brakes started it, and then without any provocation (that part’s a guess) they redesigned some of their other brakes and put on the same kind of quick-release, and I think it’s just fantastic.

Panaracer got behind the 650B resurrection, and now others are doing them, too. Velocity made rims when nobody else would, and now there are plenty. It’s a good time for leather saddles. Chris at Velo-Orange is doing great things, interesting and helpful things. Jan Heine continues to make his mark. Kogswell has some neat bikes. Kirk Pacenti is making progress with knobby 650Bs, and whether you agree with that or not (I do, I like it), it’s doing something, it’s contributing. Schwalbe tires are killer. Nitto is still around, making the best of everything. I like the major cargo-hauler bikes, like the Xtra Cycle and the bikes that followed it – Surly’s Big Dummy, and the Ritchey Africa coffee bike, that kind of thing. They’re extreme in a way that makes them not most people’s first choice, but they expand the bike’s potential to new, non-racing ways, and I am all for that.

The “traditional” or classical or snooty or nose-in-the-air bike market or whatever you want to call it, with the burnished wood and wool and fleur-de-lis this and that can get testy and territorial, because there’s this false notion out there that we’re in a niche market, some kind of weird fringe. I don’t see it that way at all. I think the normal bikes are the weird fringe, and these are the bikes that appeal to most people, but they have to be exposed to it, and that’s not happening in the normal bike shops and the normal media. The slicks cover these bikes now and then, when they want to dwell on some nostalgic aspect of them, or the “art” involved, but turn the page and it’s back to carbon fiber, 15.9 pound reality. [Editor’s note: The “slicks” are the major commercial bicycle magazines]

A well-designed and well made, properly fitted and rigged-up lugged steel bike is nearly perfect, but perfection or 'near perfection' or anything like that still can't compete with the endorsement of pro racers and the other things that make single-purpose ridiculous bikes so popular – national distribution, advertising, glowing reviews in the big bike magazines who are supported by the manufacturer's advertisements, and so on.

Tektro “Big Mouth” brake, with 73mm of reach

Q: Any disappointments, parts-wise?

A: I’d like to see Shimano make bike parts that are less extreme. They’re all fringe, everything they do. Extreme fringe racing, extreme fringe downhill, extreme fringe commuting, with the Coasting group and stuff. I’d like to see Shimano make a nice touring or useful road group, based on old things they’ve already done (like the Deore XT crank of 1987 or so), and then add some useful sidepulls or even centerpulls, with reaches in the mid-60s. Market it as a group, and the big makes would design bikes around it, and those bikes would be useful, really nice. Shimano makes wonderful parts, but most of the parts are based on racing or wannabe-racing, or some ultra-techno futuristic commuting fantasy.

Q: Rivendell has been selling the Atlantis for a long time. Are sales on this model rising, falling or staying steady? To what do you attribute this model’s longevity? Any upcoming changes proposed for the Atlantis?

A: It’s a durable bike in our line because it’s useful and we keep it around. It’s hard to not like it – it rides fine, it can fit a huge range of tires, and you can rack and fender it with ease. A bike like that deserves to live, so I don’t kill it. Sales are steady, hardly changing year to year. If we always had them in stock we’d be able to sell 230 of them a year, but it’s often out of stock, so we sell around 150, I think.

The new Bombadil may take some sales away, but as long as I’m here we’ll have an Atlantis, and the stock color will stay the same. We may be selling more A. Homer Hilsens now, though. Just by a little.

Rivendell Atlantis

Q: Do you have something against the letter “e?” But seriously, are there any plans for new contests in the “Rivendell Reader” once we have gotten rid of all those dreadful “e”s in The Raven?

A: I’m a huge fan of the fifth letter, but I’m also a huge fan of writing around it, and I used to think I was good at it, until our customers started submitting their e-free Raven verses, and they put me at the back of the class.

I don’t use “very,” though. I’m not against it, I don’t hate or condemn it, but I don’t think I’ve used it publicly in writing in the past 14 years. Maybe I have, but I don’t think so. It’s a good word to write around. Now it’s a habit and I don’t think about it.

I’m not a mathematician or a scientist, and I’m not a good writer, but I’m comfortable with words, and I like goofing around with them some. I love poetry, certain kinds. I like Poe, Kipling, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Emily Dickenson. I’m always memorizing one poem or another, even long ones. Certain poems, or certain parts of them just make me so happy I want to scream, and it’s especially neat when it’s a poem from 1799 or 1816 or 1848, and you think, “That poet would like to know that the words are sticking, still.” If you don’t like Kubla Khan, The Idiot Boy, The Prisoner of Chillon, and To a Young Ass, and Christabel, then – well, that’s OK, but how can you not? They’re so, so beautiful, and it is neat to think that they’re all written with just 26 letters, and the letters are just curved lines on a page that make us utter this or that, and communicate through the years and centuries.

Cycling apparel, Rivendell-style

Q: What else would you like to say?

A: I’m 54 and looking back. My oldest daughter is a sophomore in college, my young one is an eighth grader. My marriage is terrific. I’m undereducated and am lucky that I can make a living. There are so many things I can’t do that I wish I could, and things I wish I knew more about. I wish I’d paid more attention in school, and I’m glad my girls do. I wish I could read 2 hours a day, but I’m lucky to get in an hour. I love books and bikes, and thank goodness for Rivendell, because I have a family I need to support, and without it, I’d be spec’ing comfort bikes for some market-driven bike maker somewhere, and it would make me really sad.

Q: What do you like for breakfast?

A: Today I had red snapper and blueberries, but my favorite is fried salmon, walnuts, and blueberries, and I eat that at least twice a week, and often three. My daughters don’t eat that way and don’t like the smell of fish, so I fry it in the backyard on my small camping stove. My dog always gets some. I’m trying to get her off of normal dog food, with all the cereal. Dogs are modern wolves, but they have the same needs and physiology of the cave-wolves, and they seem to prefer meat.


horace said...

Wow, great interview!

Barrett said...

Indeed...quite a thinker and "refined-idea" guy. Grant's happy to be viable in the business, and I'm hardly alone in saying the feeling from this end is mutual.

- Barrett

stevep33 said...

I like that Grant is opinionated but also considerate of other points of view. Great questions where RBW is going and what Grant hopes to accomplish. Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

Great interview with a guy I've believed is a genius since 1990. I may have ridden more miles if I'd have listened to GP more often.

Thomas Promise said...

this was amazing, I'm so happy after reading it. How insightful. Thanks.

eddie spaghetti said...

yeah, ever since those cool bridgestone catalogs, gp has been putting out a great message for the cycling public. his is a very important vision to include in cycling's future. great interview.

etallen said...

Great interview. Good to hear Grant's insights. He's a lonely voice of reason in the bicycle industry, creating bicycles that you'd want to keep for ever, bicycles that do most things really well.

Glad to hear that his dog's dietary requirements are high on his list of priorities too.

Anonymous said...

Terrific interview. I've been a fan since his Bridgestone days and my wife is riding the RB-2 that I bought new in '93. I sure wish they'd bring the Quickbeam back!

Unknown said...

What'd be REALLY awesome is if Grant ever made a 'modern' RB-1 or XO-1.

Would LOVE to see those bikes back in production... would probably buy one.

Jana said...

Fantastic interview!

Mark Vida said...

Grant sounds opinionated, yet considerate and somewhat vulnerable here. I really like his tone.

Unknown said...

The more I read interviews and the Rivendell web site, the more I agree with Grant's philosophy on bikes and bike riding. Its the kind of riding that I want to do, the thought of "training" while out on bike rides makes my stomach upset.

This was a great interview, I actually read the whole thing, a rare occurence indeed. Thanks for it.

rob said...

So many similar ideas, I can only respect and hope I am as successful through my life.

Craig said...

Very interesting Q&A, thanks! I'm the original owner of a '93 Bridgestone XO-3 which I hope will be the last bike I ever need to buy. It's served me very well so far.

John Frey said...

I like GP's attitude even more now that I know about R+E Cycles in Seattle and their commitment to enjoyable bike riding. I just bought GP's Just Ride and Eat Bacon books for my 59th birthday