Bicycle guru Grant Petersen is flipping the middle finger at racing culture and reviving the lost art of cycling for fun.
You might have heard about a little drug scandal in professional bicycle racing. But while the masses paused to analyse every tearful confession, one man simply shrugged and kept right on pedalling.
Grant Petersen is a bicycle designer who has worked in the professional and recreational side of the industry for over thirty years.In 1994, when his then employer Bridgestone closed their US offices, Petersen started Rivendell Bikes.
His ethos was simple: to make bikes for people who didn’t need to be at the front of the peloton. In other words, bikes for us. Last year he went a step further and preached the gospel of recreational cycling in his book, Just Ride, in which his goal was to “point out what I see as bike racing’s bad influence on bicycles, equipment and attitudes, and then undo it”. You couldn’t accuse the guy of being unambitious. But then, when Dave Eggers reviews your book for The New York Times and calls it “a wonderfully sane, down to earth and frequently funny guide to riding, maintaining, fixing and enjoying your bicycle,” why bother with self doubt?
What is it about racing culture’s influence on recreational cycling that you’re so against?
The clothing, equipment and intensity. Otherwise-normal adults are like kids looking at pro racers as adult role models, wanting to be like them and believing that, ‘Hey, if BW [Bradley Wiggins] rides spandex shorts with a cream-slathered chamois for his ninety-mile rides, I’m going to benefit from the same thing on my two-to-thirty mile rides.’ It’s not so. [...] The clothing has an insidious effect. It’s not just function. It affects your attitude on the bike, too. It’s what I call, ‘The uniform effect,’ which just acknowledges that the clothing you wear affects your behaviour and attitudes. If you wear leather and chains and big old boots, you tend to walk around like a bad boy… [So if you] dress like a racer you tend to ride like one… The racing bike is just an extension of the clothing. We’ve all heard the expression, ‘To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ Well, to a man or woman on a racing bike, every ride tends to have an intensity it wouldn’t have if the bike were more humble. So in that way, racing clothing and racing bikes make it difficult, even unnatural, to enjoy a bike ride – to go casual.
So, for someone who wants to get into biking, what is a good mindset to approach it with?
Hmmm. Well, I think ‘mindsets’ aren’t all that easy to change, not when there are all these ‘go faster, harder, longer, sweat more, survive the brutal ride, you hero’ messages coming at us. I think maybe with the recent happenings, or de-happening, in the racing world, maybe there will be a groundswell of anti-racing – or as I call it, unracing. I think it has to be triggered by an event, because things left alone to drift in the wind always seem to pick a lousy wind to drift with. Racing’s like the predator that doesn’t leave any meat for the scavengers. It does take over, and it does tend to wreck things. It’s not just bike racing; all competition does that. [...] The world culture idolises sports heroes, and the ones idolised are the rich and famous pros, and so often now taking drugs is just levelling the playing field. Screw that, though. Get off that field altogether.
The ‘trickle down’ model of consumer culture – which sees pros used to advertise products, habits, and lifestyles that then become part of the cultural DNA – is common to many outdoor lifestyles, especially the so-called ‘extreme’ sports that we’re more familiar with, like skateboarding and surfing. What impact does that cult of celebrity have on the average Joe?
You know, I’ve never been able to figure that out, how it happens that some people get so wound up in copying and others don’t. It’s the same people who wear those gigantic ‘Number One’ foam hands and waggle them at the cameras while making goofy faces… I don’t mean to say it’s wrong or dumb, just that I don’t get it, and so I have a hard time relating to it… although I’ve been thinking more about it lately. […] I think it goes something like this, but I’m not sure: there is survival value in an infant pleasing its parents, and the pleasing can take many forms. As the child matures and is in transition between being dependent and independent, they look for other role models, sometimes healthy ones and sometimes not, but always a bit older, though not ‘parents-old’. If you’re a young adult, you may want to copy sports or pop culture entertainment heroes in their twenties and thirties – the age of physical peak and fame for athletes and pop entertainers, for the most part. But then as the child becomes middle-aged and older, the ‘hero worship’ of that twenty-to-forty age group continues.
“Racing’s like the predator that doesn’t leave any meat for the scavengers.”
We don’t model our ways on the grey-haired and decrepit. In bike riding, we look at pro racers and think we can fend off old age by dressing and riding like them, and it’s confusing because riding is healthy, so there is some truth in it, but riding long and hard like that is unhealthy and unnatural, so there are also a lot of lies. The thing is, there are no famous recreational riders or bike commuters or ambling tourists to emulate. So, why copy anybody? Why care what any other rider rides or wears or does? It’s nutty, and the point I make in Just Ride - the reason I even wrote it – was to point out the dumb folly in following racerly ways.
What was your take on the whole Lance Armstrong debacle?
I was never personally affected by Lance’s lies, and I feel sorry for those who were, but I’m not on the ‘Hate Lance’ bandwagon, either. Modern pro bike racing is a brutal, physiologically unnatural and unhealthy sport that stresses a body far beyond what’s healthy, and calls the winners heroes and role models. You have to be naïve – which isn’t a crime — to expect all of that speed and glory to come in a bottle of water and strength of will. Lance’s job was racing, and during the years he raced, doping was a requirement for success against other dopers.
[…] I’m as weak as the next guy in the way some deep part of me likes to see the cocky champs fall. On top of that, I think racing’s influence — of which Lance was the master of selling – has sent a lot of sincere, middle-aged, racing wannabes down a path that’s bound to fail them. All racers in the Tour de France (which I refer to as BORAF – Big Old Race Around France – since it’s no tour) have exceptional genes, top coaching, the raciest equipment, but their job is to perform feats of endurance that the human body wasn’t made for. So it’s no surprise that drug use among pros has reached the point where it’s no longer a matter of gaining an edge, but of levelling the playing field — as Lance said in his curiously abridged definition of ‘cheating’.
What does the future hold for you and your bikes?
I have a nascent plan – more like a fantasy at this stage, but I have a plan on paper, at least – to bring together capable Taiwan parts makers into a cooperative Unibrand today, the way SunTour was in its heyday. But its focus would be practical use, not racing. To even say it like that makes me sound megalomaniacal, but that’s not exactly true. So much of what passes as innovation and progress is driven by the needs of bike and parts makers to continue to sell new stuff to people who bought new stuff four years ago that’s perfectly good. They innovate out of panic, but under the banner of striving for excellence and improving the lives of cyclists. [But] in trying to make something two per cent better for the racer – including people who pretend to be racers – they make it worse or wackier for the normal rider.
Just Ride, by Grant Petersen, is published by Workman.