Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Book Review: Just Ride

Grant Peterson, Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike

(New York: Workman Publishing, 2012, 212 pp., $13.95).

I’m always on the lookout for good books on bicycling, and Grant Peterson, founder of Rivendell Bicycle Works, has written one that is as enjoyable to read as it is informative.

To my non-bicyclist friends, and even my occasional bicyclist friends, I’d say if you only read one book about bicycling, make it this one.  Peterson will anger some with his blunt manner, but he more than makes up for it with a straightforward, no-nonsense approach to bicycling that is designed to make bicycling understandable and practical for as many people as possible.  This means he is highly critical of a major portion of the bicycling industry that sells racing (and all the high-priced accoutrements that go with it) as the norm for bicycling.  Instead, Peterson aims his advice as the reader he addresses as “the unracer.”  Peterson thinks (and I agree) that most people don’t need a $3,000 – $6,000 carbon fiber racing bike, special shoes, and a full lycra “kit,” just to enjoy bicycling.  In fact, such an approach to bicycling is decidedly impractical if the bicycle is to be used for transportation purposes.  Instead, he touts the benefits of a quality steel frame designed to accommodate racks, fenders, and fatter tires.

He also advocates a more upright riding position for comfort, noting that many bicycle manufacturers and retailers set the handlebars too low, aiming for an aerodynamic riding position suited to racing, but not necessarily comfortable for most riders.  As a bicyclist who experienced neck and wrist pain from a too-low riding position, I think Peterson is correct in this critique.  Try finding an off-the-rack bike at most retailers, and the handlebars are usually set lower than the seat.

A good quality cro-moly steel frame, Peterson argues, will last longer, take more abuse, and carry more weight, making it a more practical alternative for everyday riding.  A rack mounted on the rear of the bike allows the bike to carry all kinds of cargo, and fenders allow the rider to avoid being splashed with mud and road grime, making it possible to wear regular (i.e., non-bicycle specific) clothing.  Instead of clipless pedals and expensive cycling-specific shoes, most people are better off with platform pedals that allow them to wear everyday shoes when riding.  In fact, Peterson argues, unless you’re a racer, you don’t need tight-fitting lycra clothing and clipless pedals.

“When you don’t race, almost every shirt, sweater, jacket, or coat you own is a cycling garment.  You can dress for the weather and your own sense of style, just like you do off your bike.  You won’t look like a racer, and that’s just another benefit.”  (p. 22)

 Peterson’s argument may be resisted by cyclists who have invested a great deal of time and money into bicycling solely as a racing or fitness endeavor, but I think his point is valid and absolutely critical if American society is to expand bicycle riding for practical transportation and reach a broader segment of the population.  By comparison, look at a city like Amsterdam, where more than 50% of the population rides a bike to work or school.  You don’t see most bicyclists in Amsterdam riding carbon fiber racing bikes or wearing lycra racing outfits, because they’re not practical for daily transportation.  So, if we want to keep bicycling the preserve of a relatively small, elite, and affluent segment of the population, the bicycling industry should keep marketing racing as the norm.

Peterson’s most valuable contribution in this book is the idea that most people don’t need a racing bike (or, I’d argue, an expensive full-suspension mountain bike).  Invest in a good, basic steel frame bike that has eyelets and braze-ons for racks and fenders, and “just ride.”  Use your bike to carry groceries or other things that allow you to substitute your bike for short car trips.  If bicycling is to be the real world alternative to short car trips that it can and should be, Peterson’s book expresses an attitude that needs to break through the culture at large.

If you’re looking for an accessible guide to practical cycling, skip the racing-inspired advertising of the big bicycling magazines, and read Peterson’s book.


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