Book Review: 'Just Ride' by Grant Petersen
By Gary Boulanger,
Grant Petersen is a hard man to define. His views on bicycling have run counter to conventional industry wisdom for nearly 30 years, which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who really knows the California native. Call it survival, cunning or instinct; either way, his latest book, 'Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike' (Workman Publishing, 212 pages, $13.95) is consistent with the belief system of a man I’ve known since digesting the indelible prose from the Bridgestone Cycles catalogs he developed during his 10 years as both marketing director and product manager for the small but influential company, located a mere 26 miles from Petersen’s Walnut Creek homebase.
Bridgestone Cycles closed its doors permanently for multiple reasons in late 1994, but only after Petersen developed a fiercely loyal customer base with his Bridgestone Owners Bunch (B.O.B.). Club membership was open to Bridgestone bicycle owners, and discounts were playfully offered to members with "Bob" derivatives (Robert, Rob, Roberta, Roberto, Robin, etc.). The B.O.B. Gazette was an extension of the well-written Bridgestone catalogs, where Petersen and other contributors openly communicated their views on what made cycling wonderful. Much of what the gang wrote about focused on fun and health, with a light dose of technical jargon about bicycle design, componentry, and competition. He was (and is) transparent about every aspect of bicycle development, sourcing, marketing and racing, and it struck a chord with many.
A page from the 1993 Bridgestone catalog.
Petersen discovered his voice at Bridgestone, and his style of sprinkling opinion with experience often planted seeds of joyous discovery for those seeking a unique and sublime cycling experience. At the same time, though, his writing confounded and angered some journalists, Bridgestone salespeople, and independent bicycle dealers who didn’t appreciate Petersen’s upstream swimming approach to get more people riding bikes. The B.O.B. Gazette allowed him to speak directly to a devoted audience, which formed the foundation of Petersen’s new company in late 1994, Rivendell Bicycle Works, and whose database he was able to inherit after Bridgestone shuttered for good.
Rivendell was the perfect transition for Petersen, which allowed him to publish catalogs in his own style and voice, plus continue to offer the unique products he felt strongly about at Bridgestone, with no corporate strings attached. He pioneered many things in the early Rivendell days: consumer-direct sales, membership and its privileges, and diaries/blogs (in small print form in his Rivendell Reader, an offshoot of the B.O.B. Gazette). Some say he kept Brooks leather saddles afloat, and ushered in the current handmade bicycle movement by keeping the home fires burning with his singular focus on lugged steel bikes during the steel-to-aluminum-to-carbon phase. Ditto saddle bags and wool clothing.
Northern California has been a hotbed for road racing for decades, and Petersen was part of that scene. There’s a photo of him beating former 7-Eleven/Motorola pro Norm Alvis up the popular Mt. Diablo hill climb event, proving he was no slouch on the bike. But Petersen understood early on that for a company like Bridgestone to survive and thrive in the United States against Schwinn, Trek and Specialized, a different approach was necessary, and it was a battle not be be won on the podium. This meant a focus on the rider and his or her needs. In other words, Petersen was quick to key in on the ‘why’ factor for Bridgestone (then Rivendell), providing compelling reasons why consumers would choose his products over the multiple competitors on the market. His straight-talk approach cut to the heart of what makes cycling so attractive to kids in the first place: adventure and freedom.
In many ways, Petersen has been peddling adventure and freedom since his early days working at REI in Berkeley before hitching a ride with Bridgestone in 1984. His new book encapsulates a lifetime of what that adventure and freedom has meant to him and the thousands of people he’s influenced through his writing, marketing and product development.
The 212 pages include counter-intuitive advice culled from years of practical use (leather saddles versus gel, lugged steel frames versus carbon, larger tires versus skinny, wool and cotton clothing versus Lycra, platform versus clipless pedals, etc.). He provides advice on proper diet, riding techniques, clothing, gear for bike camping, and bike fit and positioning. He practices what he preaches, and there’s plenty in the book that might prove unpopular with conventional thinkers (helmet use, blinky lights, charity rides, etc.).
Mind you, the nearly 58-year-old Petersen has been working with bicycles and bicyclists his entire adult life, so he’s perched solidly on a legitimate platform. Some dismiss him as a retro-grouch and a Luddite, but my observation has been that Petersen is more of a romantic, harkening back to the days when fendered British three-speeds with waxed-cotton saddle bags ruled the land. He’s an encourager, and he astutely debunks many misconceptions fostered by an industry quick to hitch its marketing wagon to racing, only to repeatedly see its heroes crash and burn amid this month’s doping scandals.
'Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike' is refreshing in its content and belongs in every library and school across the country, to be discovered by young cyclists looking for an alternative view. Buy it if you need a reminder of what it felt like the first time you rode a bike, or buy it for a friend who’s been blinded by the carnal racerboy tendency to tear his pedals off with every ride. Either way, Petersen offers a peek into a different insight that’s worth digesting. He's the Pied Piper for the Un-racer.
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