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.