Words & Photo | Gary J Boulanger
If you appreciate gravel riding, leather saddles, or steel frames, send a postcard to Walnut Creek, California's Grant Petersen. His lazer focus on getting more people on bikes dates back to his days riding across the country in 1976, when thousands loaded their bikes Tom Joad style and discovered the nuances of the United States en masse. This led to a job at the Berkeley REI, followed by 10 years working for Bridgestone Cycles USA, where moustache handlebars and a yeoman's approach to bike design and sales made him a folk hero. That, and his penchant for Bob Dylan, wool jerseys and a fellow named Pineapple Bob.
Today, Petersen, 58, is best known as the one sweating the details behind Rivendell Bicycles Works, a quirky mail order company inspired by Patagonia and the once-defunct-now-back-in-business Rivendell Mountain Works. His pied-piper following encourages most people while enraging others, usually a result of Petersen's straight and forthright approach to developing products and offering opinions on bikes, bike fit, and bike use in general, which goes against 95 percent of the status quo. I once came across two letters from the presidents of Specialized and Trek, dated late 1994, letting Petersen know how much they admired his work at Bridgestone, and that he was welcome to work for their companies; all he had to do was name his salary and pick a title. He chose to launch Rivendell, and begin his long, happy journey upstream.
His 2012 book, 'Just Ride', was well received, prompting many to rethink their approach to cycling.
Talk about a stumpjumper!
1. Despite Petersen's professional disdain for modern racing gear, he was once a notable NorCal racer in his day, beating future Tour de France racer and Sacramento native Norm Alvis on a hillclimb up Mt. Diablo.
2. Most of Petersen's bicycle design was inspired by Hiroshi Iimura, owner of Jitensha Studio in Berkeley, whose understated approach to bicycle design spoke loudly, and sparked an affinity with Japanese bicycle companies that Petersen still relies upon. Several Bridgestone vendors, including Nitto, MKS, Panaracer and Sugino, became Rivendell vendors, despite the nearly wholesale industry stampede into Taiwan and China. Petersen's cottage business does nearly $3 million annually, working out of an industrial space in downtown Walnut Creek, with 20 full- and part-time employees. The 3,848-foot Mt. Diablo looms nearby, inviting weekly bike adventures from the shop.
3. The legend of Pineapple Bob, made famous in Bridgestone ads of the early `90s, came about organically. According to Petersen, Hiroshi’s daughter, Natsumi, named Robert Kurosawa 'Pineapple Bob' because there were two or three other Bobs that hung around the bike shop. "Robert grew up in Hawaii and his hair shoots out like a pineapple so she called him Pineapple Bob just to differentiate him from the other Bobs," Petersen said in an interview with Chris Kostman more than 20 years ago. "By the way, I don’t call him Pineapple Bob. Mostly his friends call him Robert." Kurosawa, an avid cyclocross racer, has worked in Rivendell's shipping department since 2000.
4. Petersen and Mary Anderson — then his girlfriend, now his wife — collaborated on a book called 'Roads to Ride' in the mid `80s, selling thousands of copies and going out of print. Most libraries stock it, and despite its somewhat drab black-and-white presentation, still proves useful to Bay Area cyclists seeking data on popular roads to ride. The book advance was enough to buy a very nice piano.
5. A few months after Bridgestone Japan closed the San Leandro office that Petersen shared with 15 or so other kindred souls, Rivendell Bicycle Works was established in Petersen's family room and garage. Waterford Precision Cycles, led by Richard Schwinn and Marc Muller, were contracted to build Rivendell framesets, with lugs and fork crown designed by Richard Sachs and cast by Long Shen, sparking a movement that snowballed with Don Walker's North American Handmade Bicycle Show, and the public's appreciation for gravel riding, leather saddles, and steel frames.