‘Just Ride’ by Grant Petersen – book review

Why do so many explanations of a preferred riding style go on to assert that this personal style is the one-true-path?

Picture of Grant Peterson's book, Just Ride

‘Just Ride’ by Grant Petersen

What is it about bicycles? The versatility of cycle technology explains why opinion on its best use is divided. We’re all free to investigate and define our favourite style – or styles – of riding; but why are theories on the exploitation of the bicycle so often expressed as militant sectarianism? Why do so many explanations of a preferred riding style go on to assert that this personal style is the one-true-path?

A major thrust of ‘Just Ride’ – a collection of short essays – by Grant Petersen is that casual bicycle users are over-influenced – in their choice of clothing, equipment and style of riding – by the very particular and rarefied conditions of bike racing. Petersen is writing as a citizen of the U.S.A., describing the conditions he finds there and offering advice to his compatriots. It’s hard for readers in other territories to tell how valid or necessary his arguments are, or how much they’re just ‘did-you-spill-my-pint’ coat-trailing; aiming to provoke controversy and generate interest.

The nastiest aspect of Grant’s sermonising is his use of the word “ruse” in chapter headings. I think the oldest of these is the “shoes ruse” and the word is probably employed for this poetry alone. It’s one thing to suggest the current orthodoxy – on clothing, footwear, the necessity of being predictable on the road or the importance of weight in choosing bicycle components – is wrong. It’s foolish to the point of paranoia to claim that the people who repeat the current received wisdom are actively trying to trick the public.

A key concept in Grant’s analysis is the ‘unracer’. Grant is an unracer and wants others to copy him. Defining yourself in the negative…
‘who am I?’
‘I am NOT one of those idiots’.
…seems oddly under-confident for such a wise and experienced voice. Maybe Grant’s desire to to tell us what kind cyclist he is not is an explanation of his sectarianism?

‘Just Ride’ is an interesting book, full of interesting ideas some of which might be helpful to you. It’s pleasing to find the home-made mud-flap lauded in a book.

home-made mud-flaps - the next 'big thing'?

home-made mud-flaps – the next ‘big thing’?

Simply considering the way somebody else rides can make you more conscious of your own decisions. The problem is that – although you might imagine that ‘unracer’ is an almost universal category – Grant’s version of cycling is – in global terms – pretty niche. Despite his professed nonchalance he endorses the use of heart-rate monitors and has strong ideas about what bikes should look like. “Crownless forks look bland”. Caring about how your fork looks – as opposed to it’s condition and how it works – seems a long way from just riding? Some of the content reads like comic parody. For example Grant tells his readers to…

“Go to the diabetic section of your pharmacy and get a glucose-testing kit. The kit has a monitor, a finger pricker and test strips. It costs between twelve and thirteen dollars, and you get enough test strips for ten to twenty-five readings. Friends and family might think it’s werid that you check your own glucose. Tough – it’s good to know your glucose levels, and this is the cheapest and easiest way to do it. I check mine about ten times a week, because I like to see the effects of food and exercise.”

…checking your blood glucose may be an interesting idea but how does it fit in with the instruction ‘Just Ride’?

If you fall into the “bike geek” category – where Grant places himself – you might be tempted to follow him and try finishing handlebars with twine – rather than electrical-tape – or even painting cloth bar-tape with shellac like it was 1938. You might just go for a ride instead?

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The idea that modern bikes often have too many gears and too few spokes for the kind of travel they are used for is incontrovertible, but Grant – whose Rivendell Bicycle Works produces bicycles that, at first glance, might be taken for fifty year old classics – makes no mention of bike racing’s most malign influence. The blind insistence – backed by threat of disqualification – that a bicycle has to ‘look right’, a block on experimentation that probably encourages decadent fiddling with spoke and sprocket counts as a displacement activity.
Grant blithely asserts that…

“There isn’t a saddle made that you’d buy as a chair to sit on voluntarily. A bike saddle’s shape is a compormise between the needs of pedaling legs, ease of mounting and dismounting, weight, cost, bicycle aesthetics, and the need for minimal comfort. Minimal.”

Lady in recumbent - Minimal comfort?

Minimal comfort?

Despite his claims to be all about comfort, it turns out he’s just as dogmatic as the blazers at the UCI.

Poynton the way ahead?

The glamour of cycle camping and the practicality of a continuous-flow, low speed environment.

Two short promotional films made me feel more optimistic than usual this week.
An idealised TV advertisment showing the glamour of cycle camping.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2ZsrmHjdCU?feature=player_detailpage]

Note the laid-up Recreational Vehicle at 15 seconds. It’s the only motor in the movie. The RV is not aspirational, it’s not in use, it’s ‘for sale’.

The second, longer and more gritty, deals with highway design, social-psychology and getting rid of traffic lights, an attempt to introduce the ‘Tehran system’ into a commuter town in Cheshire…

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vzDDMzq7d0?feature=player_detailpage]

…moving away from a culture of compliance towards one of consideration.

If nothing else the Poynton film has introduced me to some new terminology. From now on I shall be calling the ‘Tehran system’ a “continuous-flow, low speed environment”.

Of course the ‘Samsung’ film is an irrelevant fantasy – models pretending to have fun on bikes while wearing rucksacks – and it’s much too early to judge the new streetscape at Poynton. No useful evaluation of any highway scheme can be made until the novelty has worn off. The fountain in the middle of the crossroads isn’t even working yet.

Both films are entirely partisan. The first in favour of a brand of battery operated electronic device the second against the ideology of road-safety.

Everybody knows no normal person would go cycle-touring, let alone cycle-camping. Everyone knows that guardrails, traffic signals, obedience make people safe and let traffic flow. But ‘normal’ is defined partly in relation to the outer limits of possibility, and these are always moving.