Grant Petersen’s Just Ride

I imagined that I would hate this book and roll my eyes at pages of dogmatic anti-dogmatism that Petersen is infamous for. At the very least, I thought I’d react more or less the way I do to everything on the Rivendell website: their stuff and the justificatory storytelling behind it is harmless even while overly shrill and defensively self-assured, the bikes are great looking but excessive in the wrong respects—i.e., they’re pretty but don’t do anything that plenty of other bicycles do without the annoyance of 650b wheels and pointless heft over cost ratio—and Petersen himself, to the extent that his personality comes through, seems like he’d be irritating to hang out with.

I was completely wrong. Just Ride is terrific. It’s filled with ingots of wisdom, it’s smart, and the plain, direct writing is a pleasure.

The book is a collection of 89 short chapters, not unlike blog entries or letters from a thoughtful friend with lots of thankfully well informed opinions on cycling. The entry titles give a decent sense of the scope of the book. A selection: “Shift with your legs first,” “Don’t overthink your underwear,” “Helmets aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” “Gloves: the least necessary accessory,” “The fork: looks, and steel versus carbon,” “How to make your family hate riding.” Nor is it just a compendium of things that are obvious that you might read solely for the enjoyment of having things you already knew confirmed, though it is a lot that, too. Petersen is self-aware enough to confess when one of his opinions is just irrational aesthetics (“The deal with leather saddles,” “Beausage (byoo-sidj)”), but much of the book distills and makes accessible empirically grounded advice (“Carbohydrates make you fat,” “Drink when you’re thirsty, not before,” “Helmet laws have unintended consequences,” “Q-factor”—a term Petersen coined).

Of course, it’s written from a distinctive perspective about bicycles and riding. It’s a set of attitudes that emerges from the cumulative effect of the sections, what Petersen calls a velosophy. (Okay, that made me wince, as did the repeated invocation of the unracer as the book’s normative target category.) He views bicycles as fun, practical, easily integrated into normal life with normal clothes and habits.  But the conception goes well beyond treating bicycles as commuter tools that disappear in the cultural landscape the way they may be treated on the Dutch view. Petersen can see that one might gather some camping gear and head out into the hills for an overnight (“The S24O”), or ride a bike across a continent on dirt roads (“The clothing ruse”), or just geek out on bikes as technology and form. Any bike can do anything, but some bikes are more versatile than others and the most important thing is the psychology one comes to the enterprise with. Petersen is right about all of that.

If there’s one strand that I find silly and distracting, it’s the use of bike racers as foils. Sure, Petersen is trying to dislodge some of the influence that bike racing has on how Americans who like bicycles think of them. But wearing racing kit, riding a Dura-Ace equipped carbon fiber bike, bending low to achieve an aerodynamic position in and out of a pace-line, having a bike in your collection that emphasizes light weight and high tech: these come in for disproportionate criticism in Just Ride. Bike racing is flat out fun when it doesn’t take over one’s life, and the social, team, and embodied striving aspects are a source of fulfillment and discipline. Training for bike racing can inspire community and exploration and enduring pleasure just in the fact that it requires focus. One of the deep truths about happiness is that it is correlated with achieving a high level of expertise at something that, when done well, reaches a fluidity and chance for losing oneself in it. Bike racing, even—maybe especially—at the amateur level can crystallize that possibility for cyclists. None of this excuses the painful Fred excesses of the amateur racing scene, but Petersen makes it seem like there’s nothing redeeming about it, and in that I think he’s absolutely wrong. Petersen’s misplaced biliousness about racing is easy enough to ignore, though. I agree with him on most every topic he writes about and I race bikes, and have for twenty five years.

This is a great book. Read it.

15 thoughts on “Grant Petersen’s Just Ride

  1. I just read a comment on a cycling blog (blush) where the commenter said “I was riding bikes before I could read.” We all were! And that is the elusive quality that I set out to define when i started writing about cycling. But what with the various “schools” and the never ending marketing of the the simple act of owning and operating a bicycle it is easy to become confused and take up horseback riding or video games instead.

    I agree with your assessment of the World According To Grant. I steadfastly refuse to align myself with any faction of cycling but if I were somehow forced to join a side I would probably be more of a Petersonite. But I am a little amused? dismayed? saddened? by a Web Place that makes a great effort to point out that “special’ cycling clothes are not necessary but sells cycling clothing all the same, at prices comparable to their counterpoint products in lycra.

    And the real truth is that some clothes ARE better for cycling than others. You and your current posse realize that there are materials and cut of cloth that are better suited to long days in the saddle than others. My own look, which I frequently describe as “Homeless Guy,” is not an affectation; I really do get my clothes at thrift shops and were I to attempt any definitive “style” it would be that of Messenger, because that is what works for me and is a natural extension of my Goodwill philosophy, both in clothing, cycling, and attitude toward my fellow cyclists. “The Goodwill Messenger…” hmmm…sounds like a blog post or a movie starring Kevin Costner.

    OK

    That Racer thing is too bad. Through confusion or bad writing on my part a lot of my readers are: Roadies. Occasional Racers. Peacocks of the Peloton. Charity Riders.
    I don’t know why they come to the Trailer Park, but I love them all and would be one too, sometimes, if I could afford the bicycle and the shoes and the clothes and if I could sober up long enough to get in some quality “training” miles instead of the “junk” miles I am so dearly addicted to and get such pleasure writing about.

    Your “One of the deep truths about happiness…” segment strikes at what I believe to be the arete of cycling, and life. The reverse snobbery of the ethnocentricity rampaging through the cycling world is unfortunate and while I am fairly removed from all this, I see it when I am Out There. I seldom wear a helmet, but when I do, all the passing group rides smile and wave. When I am instead pedaling by in flip flops and bandana, I apparently become an invisible non cyclist.

    I can go on like this all day, and frequently do. But I’ll stop. Say Hi to the gang for me and tell Cass I am looking forward to his new blog.

    tj

    • Well done Joe. We all love it and hate it. I race all kinds of things, including red lights and Lael, which means I win a lot.

      TJ: Regarding the “reverse snobbery of the ethnocentricity rampaging through the cycling world”, I agree with your description. It’s unfortunate the diplomacy that is required on the inside. Even in flop-flops and bandana, if you were to put some (empty) panniers on your bike, everyone would think you are on a bike tour. That’s how I get away with it.

    • tj-
      I see your point about “special cycling clothes” and the possible hypocrisy of Riv denouncing bike clothes yet selling “bike clothes”. But besides the MUSA series pants/knickers/shorts, the rain poncho, and some accessories, most of the stuff I wouldn’t define as “bike specific”. Wool base layers are good for a lot of things beside cycling. I own a set of MUSA knickers, and while yes they work great for cycling, they don’t look that out of place off the bike. I look at it this way: It’s bike specific in the sense that it works well on the bike, but it’s not stuff you want to take off as soon as you get off the bike because it’s uncomfortable and/or awkward looking.

      • Hey Shawn! I wasn’t thinking “hypocrisy” as much as I was pointing out what I like to call “delicious irony.” The cycling world is rife with the stuff.
        Far be it from the likes of me to pass judgement on anyone, needless to say a mighty icon of the industry like Mr. Petersen.

        tj

  2. I enjoyed the book, mostly. There are things I disagree with, but I wasn’t expecting to agree 100%.

    I think the whole “un-racer” thing stems from the fact that people like Grant were once racers, and now they are reacting against that culture. So in that context, it makes sense. But as someone who was never a racer, and never wanted to be, I don’t have that hang-up.

  3. I have a Grant Peterson Bridgestone X0-2 that I ride just about every day. I am somewhat of a Grant Peterson fan. I find it suspect though, that there are graphite manufacturers that are starting to offer 25 year warranties on their frames. Rivendell: No warranty. If you believe in the product you make, you should warranty it.

  4. Joe, my feelings towards Grant/Riv pretty much mirror yours so I’ve avoided buying the book. Now, maybe I’ll have a look at it. I was big fan of Grants back in ’87 when I was riding an MB-1. I followed him to Riv for a few years and it seemed to me he just became more and more weird. In retrospect maybe we both were but in different directions. Thanks for the review!

    • Yeah, back then I saved up all my earnings from a summer job, and it came down to two bikes for me: an MB-zip and a Wicked Fat Chance. Man, I loved those Bridgestones, but the local shop carried Chance’s bikes and, being in New England and all, it tipped the balance. The Wicked is still maybe my favorite riding bike of all time, but that’s probably just nostalgia talking. (Hm, you’re making me think I should ride that bike a bit more. Let’s plan a vintage bike bikepacking trip! Half kidding, but only half…)

      Anyway, I do feel a bit sheepish: I should have had more firmly in mind that someone can come off as cranky and overly opinionated in writing, sometimes that’s handy to make a point, but in reality anyone with as much experience in the industry as Petersen ought to be taken seriously.

      I still think that what he says about carbon fiber bikes and forks is a wild exaggeration, I don’t know that I agree that siting as far back behind the bottom bracket is the best way to go, and I’m very unlikely to shellac my handlebar tape. But just about everything else seems about right…

      • Yeah, I’m no expert with CF and don’t ever foresee myself ever getting any carbon fiber, but methinks Grant exaggerates on it a tad too much as well.

        My biggest disagreements with the book, however, weren’t the bike stuff but his health and diet stuff. I trust him more on bike stuff, as he’s worked in the industry for 30 years, but he’s no dietitian, and just because it “works for him” doesn’t mean it’ll work for everyone. (And I’m sorry, but backing up your health/diet info by “look it up” doesn’t mean anything, as you can find stuff proving that every diet works like it’s intended, and conversely, every diet is bad for you.)

        As for shellacking handlebar tape, don’t knock it until you try it… ;-)

    • Cool, Jill, and thanks for the kind words. I really do think it’s a fun, quick, and illuminating read.

      I hope you’re well and thriving, and I hope that we cross paths again soon. Don’t even dream of passing through New York City without letting me know.

  5. i think the whole “unracer” thing stems from the marketing companies have sold bicycles as racing machines, and lots of people who might buy bikes dont buy bikes because they dont want to race, and lots of people buy “racing-ish” bikes that are so hyperspecialised that the bike cannot really be used for anything other than emulating lance (minus the blood transfusions, of course), in other words, most bikes these days are not bikes that you can “just ride”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s