In the Beginning
Rivendell Bicycle Works has existed barely ten years — and beginning even before its founding — has managed to engender almost continuous controversy, as well as outpourings of both unadulterated love and scorn.
In 2006 it comprises merely ten people, plus a contract framebuilder and a painter for custom bikes, and a contract factory in Japan for production models. It has recently announced a French-style frame to be mass-hand-produced by Maxway, a respected Taiwan factory.
It does nothing more radical than many other artisanal “bicycle ateliers” do, yet internet forums flame with contrary opinions over this tiny company, and both supporters and detractors have a tendency to get a little bug-eyed when engaged in frank and open exchanges of opinions on the matter.
Rivendell builds bikes and sells parts, which is not particularly unusual in the bicycle business. So why, then, all the fuss?
Photo: Bike Rider
Perhaps it is simply that Rivendell, by virtue of its very existence (even if it didn’t regularly and emphatically speak its collective mind) exposes some of the gentle delusions (and sometimes outright lies) that the bicycle industry in America lives by in these early years of what will probably become — with the help of companies such as Rivendell — the Bicycle Millennium.
The bicycle industry in the U.S. sells Technological Advancement! It sells Power and Mastery! It sells Big Air and Daredevil Skills! It sells World Conquering Fitness! And it sells a lot of racing bikes to people who don’t race.
It also reluctantly sells a whole lot of lumbering, ill-fitted hybrids as city bikes to people who barely know how to ride; and it introduces its children to cycling on the garish, barely-functional imbecilities excreted through the just-in-time supply guts of Toys “R” Us, Wal*Mart and their ilk. (Even though they do the important work of introducing many young riders to bicycles).
Whether you spend thirty dollars or three thousand, whether you buy TIG-welded Chinese steel or carbon fiber hand-laid in Midwest clean rooms, if you buy your bike through any sort of mainstream purveyor, you are most likely to end up with a bicycle you will rarely use. Perhaps even never use after the first few disappointing weeks of semi-use.
If you’re lucky and persistent enough to stick with bicycling despite the difficulties of buying a reasonable bike in the U.S. and riding it on the public ways, you will — if you haven’t much money — end up buying a used classic built between 1965 and 1985, or you will — if you do have money — go to an artisanal framebuilder and wait several months to get your new bike as built to your needs.
Oddly enough, Grant Petersen, founder of Rivendell, feeds both those channels; custom and high-end production bikes through Rivendell, and classic 1980s designs through the dwindling but revered remnants of Bridgestone’s bicycle production during his stewardship there in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Defining the Bicycle
A quote from Rivendell’s website says it rather nicely and plainly:
We’re a ten-year-old manufacturer and mail-order bike shop for bike riders who prefer traditional, classical bicycles and parts and accessories to today’s ever-changing high-tech fare. Sometimes people hear “classical” or “traditional” in the context of bicycles, and think turn-of-the-century highwheelers or ’50s ballooners, or English three-speeds, or restoring vintage racing bicycles. Those are good pursuits, but they’re not our deal.
We just like to ride bikes, and are more influenced by the pure, practical, and beautiful design ethics of the ’70s to late’80s. We offer gear for cyclists who can’t relate to the aggressive, thrill-seeking and/or body-shaping approach that passes as normal today. Our bikes are designed and built to withstand a lifetime of long, hard, fast riding and racing, if that’s what you’re up to, but we don’t go out of our way to appeal to the rambunctious, speed-before-all crowd.
Sounds innocent enough, you’d think. But Grant was famously labeled a “retro-grouch” a decade ago by a glossy bike rag editor for the crime of recommending lugged steel frames, 36 spoke wheels and the infamous moustache handlebar for workaday bike commuters
Some even blamed the moustache bar for the closing of Bridgestone USA, since a couple of Bridgestone models came with this elegant sort of curving flat bar. In fact, Bridgestone closed the U.S. bicycle division when the dollar fell too far against the yen to keep it profitable.
Grant kept up the tradition of neotraditionalism with Rivendell — in fact, he now had the opportunity to run free with the concept, since it was all his show. So Rivendell offers not just lugged steel frames, but elaborate, nearly Victorian curlicues on the lugs.
It lists not only the moustache bar but two or three new curves of traditional (non-ergo) drop bars. It even sells you a $2,300.00 custom frame, then suggests that you dress it with a twenty-dollar wire bike basket (made in a Kentucky hollow!) for shopping trips.
Frankly, this shouldn’t bother anyone. If people want to buy it they will. If people don’t want to buy it, the business will fail. But they buy it.
There’s a considerable waiting list for custom frames and production models often sell out in two or three months. It’s not a megacorporate business. It’s a mom-and-pop bicycle design and marketing firm, and it just gets by. But it offers something few other entities in this advertising-addled world do, and what it offers is just plain wonderful for real-world riding.
One of Grant’s — and therefore Rivendell’s — fundamental dogmas is tire clearance. He feels that even a sporty bike should give you room to put a largish tire on. We’re not talking huge knobbies or anything here – maybe a 28mm or even 32mm tire instead of the 20-23mm tires common on sport bikes today. With room for fenders in case you commute and have to ride in the rain. And to allow you the freedom to ride a gravel road if life takes you somewhere interesting.
Photo: Egan Snow
You can always use a small tire if you want to, if you only ride fast on smooth roads. But on most modern road bikes you can’t find (or often use) anything else. And most modern hybrids are something you wouldn’t want to ride long or far, as they’re just not comfortable after the first two or three miles — the upright seating puts all the load on your back, the handling is heavy and they are molasses slow.
Seeing the Truth
So Grant says, make road bikes that can go beyond their definition. And this irritates the hell out of those who have defined the modern road bike. What? Steel? Not carbon fiber? What? Elegant and inexpensive quill stems that let you adjust your bike without buying a sack of spacers?
For added emphasis: What? Leather saddles still made to a design over one hundred years old? What? Bar-end shifters instead of integrated, never-quite-in-adjustment brake/shift levers? What? Long wheelbases, instead of ultra-quick handling for cutting off the other guy in a sprint?
Blasphemy! Burn them at the stake! And they label Grant a Luddite. They don’t look at the exotic steels he specs for his frames, or the finely-tuned geometries that make his bikes both quick and stable (as Bridgestones also were).
They just see something that looks quaint, and that is attempting to redefine the market for bicycles, so that they are not seen as expensive toys for overgrown-but-wealthy adolescents, but as tools for interacting with the world, with society, with an economy that doesn’t depend on waste and false obsolescence to keep it going.
The future, after all, belongs to the bicycle. Just not to the carbon-fiber whiz-bang wonder which — for all its speed — is as delicate as the racehorses it has supplanted in our cultural imagination. In a world where the choice has become a bicycle thoroughbred or a bicycle mule, Rivendell sells saddle horses. Maybe the U.S. bike industry is really afraid that people will just notice what’s going on.
What Really Matters
Because Rivendell believes that bicycles are important in the bigger world, it sells bicycle accessories that seem odd to anyone raised on bikeshop glitz and catalog splash ads, and it sells things that have nothing, really, to do with bicycles per se, but everything to do with the way of life in which bicycling is ideally a part.
It sells bicycle bells — not cheap sweatshop-molded tringle bells, but beautiful brass ones from Japan, with a plaintive yet penetrating tone and a simple elegance that enhances the curves of Riv’s Nitto-made handlebars. It sells absurdly expensive cloth and leather saddlebags that will last for two decades of daily commuting.
It sells wool jerseys — not just wool, but plain wool, lacking even a single garish logo! It sells, famously, Grandpa’s Pine Tar Wonder Soap, the best bath bar ever. It sells beeswax in paper cups. It sells hatchets, pencils, erasers and fenders — each one the absolute best of its kind, mostly in the context of adventure cycling but also life at large.
And it has just introduced the Bleriot, a handmade-in-Taiwan lugged steel “camping bike” in the French tradition — one that uses 650B wheels, a size that was always rare in the U.S. but that has never died out in Europe or Japan.
It’s beautiful, sturdy, flexible and relatively cheap. And it will be available through QBP (Quality Bike Parts), meaning any bike shop anywhere will be able to order one, and the wheels for it, if you want. So now there are more choices in front of you than ever before.
And that makes the megacorporate bicycle manufacturers nervous for some reason. And they once again accuse Grant of being a throwback. A throwback to what, you might ask. As it says in the Old Testament, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
In the Bella Cosa book Bicycles (Le Biciclette), you can see a photo of the Coventry Swift Dwarf Safety Roadster, the first modern bicycle –meaning one with two wheels more or less the same size and with chain drive. It came with a suspension fork. In 1880. You can also see a Softride-style bike, though its seat beam is made of laminated steel rather than carbon fiber. (Naturally, Rivendell used to sell this book).
You can read an illustrated article (in the Rivendell Reader) on classic French bicycles, and you will see cantilever brakes on aluminum frames as far back as 1930. You can see that most ancient bikes were welded, and that lugs were a step forward in strength, lightness and style — and you realize that it took welding 100 years to catch up with lugs, and did so only after the development of supersteels such as Reynolds 853.
And after you ride a few bikes of different types, you realize that in many cases, a well-made lugged steel bike just feels better. And it certainly lasts longer. And it’s easy to fix if it breaks — and it’s worth fixing if it does. You realize that future and past trends don’t matter so much, that it’s really bicycling that matters, and that when bicycling matters, oftentimes it’s bicycles in the style of Rivendell that really matter most.
Grant very really, quietly and persistently wants to change the whole wide world. He believes that bicycles can save us from ourselves, from our profligate natures and our self-centered, self-defeating competitiveness. And he is committed to supplying bicycles that we can ride into a better future. Call him Arms Merchant to the Velorution.
This habit of subversion started with Bridgestone and the propaganda with the Bridgestone Owners Bunch (which still lives on as iBOB on the internet). It now continues with Rivendell, its membership program and the aforementioned Rivendell Reader. It’s a revolution that will return us to ourselves. And the movement is growing!
Artisanal companies such as Kogswell, ANT, Vanilla, IRO and dozens of others will sell you elegant and fast commuter bikes, mostly of lugged steel, often with — yes — moustache handlebars, at price points ranging from absurdly cheap to staggeringly expensive. Even BianchiUSA — descendant of one of the original large bicycle companies — is selling a cheap drop-bar fast commuter with only nine speeds! Called the Castro Valley, it’s a fairly steady seller and you can be sure that sales of that sort of bike will rise in the post-petroleum, post-debt, post-consumerist economy.
Concurrently, the fixed-gear fascination is spreading from city to city, with many young people rolling serenely down the street on bikes that can’t coast, bikes that require a real commitment to the bicycle (and its surroundings). Rivendell, of course, now sells the QuickBeam, a ready-made singlespeed/fixie bicycle, and many more have recently jumped on that bandwagon.
Other hipsters buy new-generation Dahon folders that fit neatly in their apartments. Icebike.org gives snow-country cyclists tips for year-round riding. And every day there’s a few more bicycle commuters out on the streets. That’s a good thing for us all. And so is Rivendell Bicycle Works.
Rivendell Ebykr Article References: