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A Conversation with Grant Petersen

Zack Barowitz

The esteemed bicycle designer talks urban cycling, fashion and mountain bikes.


Grant Petersen is a reformed racer and the owner of Rivendell Bicycle Works. We talked about riding in cities, wearing tweed, and the unsung qualities of old mass-production mountain bikes. His forthcoming book Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike is instructive on all aspects of cycling (even racing) and will garner appreciation and infuriation from experts and novices alike.

What are the biggest impediments to urban cycling?

Fear of injury or death, the effort required, weather, the need to dress up at work, the lack of bike parking, and maybe the need to visit clients in other parts of town or in other cities during the day. These are just what I can think of without thinking.

What about bicycle infrastructure in Amsterdam?

Whether you’re talking about Amsterdam or Tokyo or New Delhi or ANY place where bikes dominate. The riders aren’t green, they aren’t necessarily environmentalists philosophically. They may be criminals, or whale eaters, or whale hunters, or drug dealers, but it doesn’t matter, they’re on the bike because the bike makes more sense than the car. It may be the price of the car, or of gas, or that bikes are easier to park, or that car taxes are ridiculously high. The car isn’t a realistic option for them, so they ride a bike.

What do we have in the U.S.? Portland, Oregon. Because of great efforts by the local government and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance to make life easier for bike riders with parking, accommodations, and lanes; 6.5% of urban trips are made by bike, compared to less than one percent in the typical American city. They’re the National Champs, but it still means [the vast majority] of trips are made by cars. Incentives only go so far. DISincentives to driving are far more effective, but I’m afraid it’s kind of late for that, now. People squawk at $4.40 per gallon gas, but it’s still cheap by all world standards except Venezuela’s.

Some advocates are opposed to bike lanes in favor of “vehicular cycling?”

Cities should accommodate and prioritize bikes in all new projects. I like bike paths. I don’t think riders should be required to ride them, but when they go where I’m going, I take them. For many people, it’s the bike path or nothing. You can’t just say, “Get comfy in traffic, like ME!” I think a rider’s responsibility to stay alive is greater than their responsibility to put themselves in harm’s way in the name of “responsible cycling” or “cyclists’ rights.” That is a dangerous thing for me to say, because it can be twisted around, quoted out of context, used as a pull quote and misrepresent the complexity of the issue. So, please don’t do that. All I am saying is don’t freak out drivers, don’t scare or hit pedestrians, and do what it takes to stay alive.