Grant Petersen is on a mission. The mission is to blow up the unnecessary but pervasive and powerful influences from the professional racing world on bicycling. He hopes to bring us back to the simple joy we had riding a bike when we were kids.
In terms of equipment, attire and bicycles themselves, for example, bicycle riding has been overrun by the idea that we need specialty shoes that lock into the pedals, unflattering scuba suits refitted with taint padding, and expensive carbon fiber racing bikes that literally crack under pressure. If one is a racer training for actual racing pursuits, these things might be justified. But for the rest of us (“unracers,” as Petersen calls us), these accoutrements are unnecessary and expensive.
Grant Petersen has been riding a bike every day since April of 1970. He’s been a racer and has pedaled on tours, trails, commutes and even a cross-country ride in 1976. He worked at the U.S. headquarters of Bridgestone Cycle, Japan’s largest bike manufacturer, from 1984 until they closed the U.S. office in 1994. He then opened up his own bicycle business: Rivendell Bicycle Works in Walnut Creek, California. His mission with the book is to address stories and complaints from his customers and friends, and to explode the bad advice and ill-informed “wisdom” people have reported to him during his decades as a bike professional.
The short chapters of this brisk book are nested in eight parts of bicycling and its philosophy as Petersen sees it: Riding; Suiting Up (clothing); Safety; Health and Fitness; Accessories; Upkeep; Technicalities; and something the author calls “Velosophy,” which is essentially a cycling philosophy from the perspective of a non-philosopher.
The author humorously brings us back down to earth with bicycling, or at least back down to our non-Olympian, non-Tour-de-France plane. All the fuss about the lighter bike made of carbon fiber, for example, is bullshit for the unsponsored non-professional. As it turns out, he demystifies the myths about the ridiculous quest for the ever-lighter bike and clearly explains why a bike frame made of good old fashioned steel is the way to go for us unracers.
As a reader and cyclist who likes to look good on the go, I was particularly amused by the chapters in the “Suiting Up” section of the book. His take on unracers donning racing gear is hilarious. It reminded me of my years as a golfer, watching amateurs new to the sport blow ridiculous amounts of money on the most expensive clubs, bags, balls, clothes and shoes, thinking it would make them better or at least “real” golfers.
Without a doubt, the most controversial chapters of the book are the ones about helmets. Ostensibly, it may seem like Petersen is anti-helmet, and it would be easy and convenient to brand him as such. (For the record, he’s not.) What he does do is bring up an interesting point about the illusion of helmets’ safety, backing up his argument with indisputable physics. And he’s not shy about reminding us how ugly helmets are. After outlining his argument, he pointedly asks: “Are we safer wearing a helmet and overestimating its protection, or going helmetless and riding more carefully?” I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s safe to say that he makes his own opinion clear while letting the reader arrive at his own conclusion.
Essentially, Petersen remains consistent with the title of the book: just ride. If you enjoy riding a bike, as a casual enthusiast or committed rider, or if you think you might want to re-engage in bicycling but are put off by the gear, garb, and bad practices of Lance Armstrong wannabes, I think you’ll get a lot out of this book. I certainly did.
Below is a fantastic 15 minute interview with author Grant Petersen on WNYC with host Brian Lehrer from July 23, 2012.