In Mid-June I went to California to squint and sweat while my brother, smaller than an ant, walked across the stage at Cal Poly SLO. Apart from my familial duties, I had another agenda for my trip, to trick my brother into driving me up to Walnut Creek, outside of San Francisco, to Rivendell Bicycles’ HQ.
My introduction and subsequent fascination with lugged steel bikes began a little over a year ago, when I was hired on at Gravel & Grind as a barista. I had been cycling as a commuter and mountain biker for about two years at that point, and was totally hooked. I was under educated, but hooked nonetheless. I was curious to learn more about bicycles, and having recently graduated with a Bachelor’s in geology, I was still yearning for the learnin’. My persistent inquiries at Gravel & Grind lead to the formulation of a casual but comprehensive course of study in bicycles that we lovingly refer to as “The Curriculum.” The Curriculum includes reading assignments, essays, pop quizzes (mechanical and theoretical), discussions, lectures on history as well as hands-on apprenticing under day-to-day tune-ups and custom builds. Prior to working at the shop I had stumbled upon Grant Petersen’s Eat Bacon, Don’t Jog, and Just Ride. I was sold on the philosophies of those two books. However, the curriculum showed me the depth of Grant and Rivendell’s influence on our shop’s aesthetic, and philosophy. We beeswax our bolts, put leather saddles and racks on almost every bike, are concerned with comfort first when fitting, make deliberate choices on the products we stock, pursue innovations at every opportunity, and then pass that information on to our customers.
It was an honor and pleasure to visit Rivendell. Headquarters is tucked away in a little industrial area of Walnut Creek. It fills six pretty sizable storage/garage units.
We started with introductions, toured about half of the facilities, played around on a Hubbuhhubbuh tandem and weird tiny bike. Will took me, my brother and his girlfriend out for a toasty ride through Shell Ridge (the closest location to Rivendell for a S24O camping trip).
We returned beet red, and I sat down with Grant Petersen, the founder of Rivendell, in the only room with AC for an interview. Grant was incredibly easy to talk to, a true wealth of information. He spoke just how he writes in the Riv Readers and his books: talking with him felt familiar. My questions and comments are in bold. The first set of questions were from my time in California, and the final three I sent as follow up questions via email.
How has living in California influenced Rivendell’s frame geometry and design? Do you take into consideration other landscapes and terrains when you’re developing geometry?
Within a 20 minute bicycle ride from where we are right now (Rivendell HQ Walnut Creek, CA), nobody can out-hill us, we’ve got plenty of flat roads, 11 mile climbs that climb 3600 feet on road or dirt. Almost 360 degrees from where we are (there is good riding) with the exception of directly north. We have really good variety around here…. You’re here on a hot day and the hills are crisp and crunchy and about ready to catch fire but it’s not always like that. March, February, April oh my God, it’s beautiful.
On the east coast we have incredibly hard, rocky, jagged terrain.
Yeah, and I remember Fat Chance Bikes were famous for having high bottom brackets, low drop. So yeah, I guess you could have less bottom bracket drop for something like that, you could also just ride bigger tires. Some bicycle people have the belief that anything you can walk over you should be able to ride a bike over but I don’t think so. I think feet and legs are far more versatile. In my own riding, I don’t mind getting off my bike if its terrain that’s clearly unsuitable for riding a bike over. If you’re on a solo ride, are you going get off your bike or try to pedal it? People tend to do more extreme things in groups. The bike is a good companion for walking. If there’s 30 second descent on one bike and it’s a 23 second decent on another, if you’re enjoying the descent wouldn’t you rather the 30 second ride?
Women’s fit. How do you take that into account with geometry or components as well? I know the Albatross bars are nice for helping aid in reach, because women tend to have shorter torsos but do you have anything you feel you’ve done specifically with women in mind?
I think a lot of women’s specific design, and “women’s specific design” is a Trek term, I think, actually. But not pointing fingers, I’ve seen a lot of bikes designed for or by women that by my standards would not be good women’s design. There’s this notion of the “typical woman” which I don’t think really exists. Long legs, short torso, short T-rex arms, and the way that is usually addressed in frame design is a shorter top tube and a shorter stem and that is such a simplistic way of addressing the problem. It seems to make intuitive sense, but it doesn’t. There are so many things going on, and to even answer the question I have to say one sentence then attach another sentence to it and another sentence and those sentences should go together and lead to some sort of a conclusion and make sense along the way but when you’re talking about designing a bicycle for women or to fit women I need like 6 mouths and they all need to cover the 360 degrees of this topic because I really don’t even know where to start. But here are somethings: top tube length doesn’t make any difference in moderate lengths. It’s not relevant. The angles and lengths work together. So, raising the bars up effectively lengthens arm because the more horizontal your arms are, the longer they are. Bar height, arm length, and distance to handlebars is totally ignored in the industry. Almost all women’s specific designS, in a road bike for instance, are going to have at least 74 degree seat tube angles because that allows you to have a short top tube but a sufficiently long front/center. I can’t make generalizations but that’s how everyone does it, and it’s totally wrong. It’s well-intended, and it’s easy to sell because it seems to make sense, but it doesn’t stand up. (Basically he’s saying that steeper seat angles shorten top tubes, but create other problems, knee pain, handlebar/hand pressure, to name a few. -James)
What are your thoughts on super low gearing? At our shop, we do this thing called “turkey vulture” gearing and its 44/24 x 12/40 or even lower if we can make it happen.
I like it, I think it’s great. Why not? I used to think anything less than a 1 to 1 you might as well walk, but then as you ride steeper things and in the dirt, being tired, and you’ve got a load, 1 to 1 is not nearly low enough. It depends on the rider, the load, the hill, and their whole approach. Our bikes go out with 24/32 or 24/34 or 24/36’s . On my Cheviot I have a 40, and it’s all good.
How about some advice for businesses starting up or creating a brand. How do you keep from compromising image and quality?
I’m pretty happy with the way Rivendell has shaped up and gone. When I was at Bridgestone I had a lot of input. I had by far more input than anyone else (at Bridgestone) on the particulars of the bikes and the frames but there was always a Japanese engineering department that was backing me up. The Japanese understood a lot more, even about marketing, than a lot of the Americans did. And that’s why in general I’m not super enthusiastic about dealers. Because dealers want the same bike that Trek has or Specialized has, but cheaper and they want a whole bunch of co-op advertising dollars to go with it. So, at Bridgestone we had a dealer direct model, not a customer direct model, and if you do that the dealers are your customers. If you are a dealer, and I’m Bridgestone or Rivendell and I have 350 dealers, I would have to ask you “what do you want?” And you’d have to ask what the customers want. And they want what their friends have, but they want it cheaper. There was a lot of that stuff at Bridgestone and I always had to compromise. I wanted bikes that I liked because I was also writing the advertising in the catalogues, so I wasn’t going to design bikes and then lie about them. But they always had to satisfy dealers and the sales reps that are coming by the dealers. Sales reps, they just want easy sales. If you ask a sales rep “if you get me a deore XT bike for under $750 then I can sell the heck out of it”, it’s not the answer, you might have to lose money on that bike just so the dealer can sell a whole bunch of them. When Bridgestone closed, I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. I knew the kind of bikes that I wanted and knew that I wasn’t going to compromise that if I didn’t have to. It’s not a fancy position to take. It’s just practical. For anyone making anything, starting a company or designing something. Let’s say you designed shoe laces and you have this idea that’s a little bit off, and if you are convinced that it’s a better way and you have somehow talked yourself into thinking those are the best shoe laces out there, and nobody buys them. That’s a little bit of a problem. You can say “hey, people are idiots, they’re buying the wrong kind of shoelaces.” But if you make shoe laces that are just like everyone else’s shoe laces and still people aren’t buying them, then you don’t even like the stuff you have and you aren’t getting the sales. You lose both ways. So we started this because this is the way we like bikes to be, and it’s not because all other bikes are bad. But we won’t do a bike just like Trek does because they’re answering to dealers and when you’re a certain size you have to be ready for anything. You can’t say “oh, we’re going to get back to our roots, Trek is going to get back to steel frames, the way they make them in 1979.” They can’t do that because they would be stepping on their own bread and butter bikes: the carbon or aluminum. Specialized is the same way. Specialized isn’t specialized any more, they’re quite generalized, but they’re all going to that direction. Specialized is concerned with Giant, is concerned with Trek. And they don’t want to be giant and lumbering. They want to be big and agile. They want to be the first ones to do anything, but they’re never the first. S/G/T were the last ones to go to 650b mountain bikes. Then Giant went to them 100% and Specialized is still testing meanwhile everyone else is already doing that. When you’re big like that maybe you have to be slow but we don’t have to do that.
Back to the advice for starting up. I was lucky that we didn’t make any big mistakes early on. One thing you do is don’t copy people who can out price, distribute, promote you or squash you. By doing lugged steel frames, who’s our competition? I personally prefer that kind of frame and even if we had all kinds of competition we would still differentiate ourselves with the kind of lugs, and the design of the frames and other things. But just lugged steel frames in 2017, who’s our competition? Giant? Specialized? Trek? No, no, no. But for building a brand, you have to pick something that whoever your competition might be, is not interested in. For us lugged steel is perfect. Because for them to have lugged steel they would have to sell it against their other bikes, and to do that they’d have to say “steel is safer and is going to last 20-30 years.”
It would be contradictory to everything else that they’re doing
Yeah, so they can’t do that. Which is fantastic! So, who is our completion? Is it Surly? They build like 40,000 bikes a year and they’re good, sort of down-and-dirty, no nonsense bikes. But basically, we’ve recommended Surly for the last 15 years because if you can’t afford one of our bikes but you still want a safe practical bike you get a Long Haul Trucker and put Albatross bars on it. Fatties Fit Fine, up to 35-38, that’s not a bad bike! But I think it’s good to pick something you aren’t going to get beat up on. And do a good job. And a lot of it is the people. Like we’re at Gravel & Grind because of Will. There was general attraction, but Will is a great guy and he does a pretty good job with communication, Roman is super good too. You have to have a niche and then you have to have good people who understand it and communicate it across age boundaries.
If you had to own just one bike what would it be?
Do you want to elaborate on that, are there any specific things about that bike?
I can put a 2.3 in tire in there if I want, but I just ride the stock tires. I can ride trails on it, I can commute on it, it’s fast enough that I can ride it on the road. I realize that was a fast answer, but 5 months ago I would have said my Clem 52, but I can’t quite say that because it doesn’t have all the lugs that I really like. The best riding bike that I probably have is a Cheviot 60, because it’s got a long wheel base which just makes everything fantastic. I like all the bikes, but I would say the Appaloosa.
If you weren’t selling bikes what would you be doing? Also, when you’re ready to retire what’s in the future for you?
I don’t know what I’d be doing. I’m not one of those guys thinking “ah, I could have made so much more money if I had gone into another industry!”
You’d do it all again the same way?
How far back could I go? If I go all the way back to high school I’d say, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d be more academic and might have gone into teaching. I might have gone into metallurgy, I like it a lot and I know quite a bit about it for someone who’s not a professional in that field. I like writing a lot, it’s tough to say. I’d be a free-lance writer. I like metals…I like reading, you can’t make a living reading…
Yeah, you wouldn’t be an editor, certainly not. (me laughing at my joke falling flat…)
Yeah, bikes work out for me. I really like it so I think I’d be a sad hobo without bicycles. I wouldn’t have the money to do anything else, I don’t know where I’d be living, I wouldn’t have had two children. I might not have gotten married, but I probably would have,. When you get married you ideally have some sort of path planned ahead of marriage, like how is this going to work? So, bikes gave me that, and I really like bicycles too. It’s my business and my livelihood. But I really, really like bicycles, riding them and everything about them and I think they’re fantastic and I’m happy to do it. And I’d be a hobo without it.
I feel that. So, what about the future, what do you think?
I’m not ready to retire, I still like coming into work. If I had 5 million dollars I’d still come into work every day. I don’t know, my wife would like us to retire. She works with the business, she does the book keeping and the legal stuff and all that, pays the bills. But she’s cool with the way things are going. There’s no pressure, she’s great. What I’d totally like for Rivendell, the young guys here could take over the business and not mess it up, and I don’t think they will, I would like them to eventually own the business. But they don’t have enough money to buy me out. And I wish they did. I don’t want to waste their time here. You know, if they’re in their late 20’s now, I don’t want them working till they’re 35, then we close up and they don’t get anything out of it. And their resume makes it look like they’ve been messing around with bicycles their whole lives. And bicycles are a great thing to mess around with. But it may not look good on a resume. But they’re all doing more stuff now than they were doing last year, each with a lot more responsibility. I don’t hoard all the fun stuff. Will, Roman, Mark all designed frames—but it has to be a Rivendell frame, not just going crazy.
Will was telling me about that with the Roscos, it was kind of a low-risk stab at frame design?
Yeah and they’re all really good. And I would love it if Rivendell was going on in 20 years and those guys were still here, and I don’t care what role I have in it. I just want them to have good jobs for a long time. And for them to make more money. And it’s tough though around this area. They can’t buy a house here, it’s sad because I bought at the right time with some help from my sister, and eventually bought her out, but you should be able to work at Rivendell, it seems like, and buy a house. I would like us to move to Silverton, OR. It’s an hour from Portland, good hiking, beautiful streams, good biking from what I’ve seen. I would like everyone here to move there, and buy a house and keep the business going with less rent on more space. And since we’re mostly mail order anyway, it could still work, we would maybe miss some walk-in traffic, but maybe not. We could give up that anyway. But Silverton is a town of 10,000 people. And we would have Riv-Velo nearby.
So you think Rivendell could thrive somewhere else?
Yeah, but I don’t know whether these guys would move—and some of these guys have just given up on getting a house. But that’s what I would like because I’d like Rivendell to continue. I think we’re making good bikes and I think bikes are important, and that it’s fun. In 40 years when people are looking at 40-year-old bikes there’s not going to be a lot of 40-year-old bikes that are still safe and I want ours to be that.
Explain “trail” and it’s implications.
It’s my least favorite bicycle topic, because I know what I think about it but not how to talk about it. It’s not the same. It doesn’t work to just blurt out what I think, because it gets out of control so fast, and the next thing you know I’ve drawn a line in the dirt and demanded people pick a side, and the thing is, I don’t care where anybody stands. I care about people, I just don’t care where they stand on trail.
I’m a normal trailer, and all Rivendell bikes are that way, too. When I get on any of our bikes, I think holy cow, this is how a bike should be. I don’t pat myself on the back for designing it, I don’t swell with pride, I just think, my god, this is perfect. So why steepen the head tube angle and increase the fork rake so the trail number drops into the “low” category, so we can please those who prefer, for whatever reason, low-trail numbers.
Besides, it doesn’t make sense to talk about trail isolated from the rest of the bike If a wheel goes wobbly, the bike goes wobbly, and for whatever reason that happens—the wind, a bump, how the bike is loaded, the resistance in the headset—whatever makes the bike go wobbly, or even have the tendency to go wobbly—well, trail is a guard against that.
I think it’s a control issue and that makes it a safety issue. The low-trailers say if you load the bike heavy up front, less trail (35mm or so) makes the bike easier to ride now hands or at slow speed up a hill.
Years ago we had an adjustable-rake fork made , so on the same bike, we could make it normal, high, or low trail. I think you can get used to anything, but the low-trail adjustment felt strange to me on fast descents, and no better on slow steep ones.
“Trail” has become a graduate course topic among bike riders who thought they had the rest figured out, and now here comes this new morsel with ties to ancient bikes and ancient wisdom. I’m not reverent enough for that. Also, there’s another steering/bike handling parameter that probably matters more, although it’s far less well-known than trail is. Everybody at Rivendell knows what it is, we have a name for it, and all of our bikes are designed with it in mind. That’s true whether it’s me designing a new model, or Will or Roman or Mark working on a limited-run Rosco Bubbe. Everybody here knows, but I’m not going to say what it is, because it’s another can of worms, and it’ll attract the meanest mathematicians and physicists on the internet. Why do that?
What are 5 frame innovations or component specs that Rivendell has popularized?
Five things. We didn’t invent any of them—of course—but I want to make it clear that I’m no claiming otherwise. We just helped popularize these six things:
- extended head tubes
- lugs and steel
- baskets and bags
- bike camping
- normal clothes
- double-sided pedals and normal shoes or sandals
What books are you currently reading? And what’s the best book you’ve read in the past two years?
Reading right now, simultaneously, all of these:
- White Trash. The Untold History of Class in America. (by Nancy Isenberg).
- When Breath is Life (by Paul Kalanithi). It’s by a brain surgeon who gets cancer and dies. His wife finished the book. It’s famous. I’ve already read it once, but I got a copy for Will, and on the way home from the bookstore I started reading it again (I was on BART), and I’m going to finish it again.
- Ike and McCarthy: Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy. I’m on Ike’s side.
- And last week I finished, for the first time, Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery.