1995 Rivendell: Turning the Tide

1995 Rivendell: Turning the Tide

When Bridgestone USA closed in 1994, many mourned the loss of what they saw as the last bastion of sensible design in the quickly changing world of bicycles. They rejoiced when later that year, Bridgestone’s marketing manager Grant Petersen started Rivendell Bicycle Works. The new company’s first project were three hand-built frames, the Road, Mountain and All-Rounder.

Looking back, it is hard to appreciate the significance of these first Rivendells, because what they championed has become commonplace. They were a turning point in the decline of custom steel bicycles in the U.S. By the early 1990s, steel was rapidly being replaced by aluminum and titanium among high-end bikes. Almost overnight, steel was relegated to inexpensive production bikes. Sure, custom builders still built beautiful steel bikes, but more and more, they seemed like hold-overs from a glorious past when great champions still won big races on steel bikes. It was a dying craft – the idea that young cyclists might pick up the torch and become framebuilders seemed almost laughable.

Then along came Rivendell and made steel cool again. “Steel is still the best choice for frames,” was the message, “and now steel is better than ever before!” It was a breath of fresh air welcomed by all who harbored doubts about the “newer is better” ethos that had taken over the bike industry. For Grant Petersen, it may have been the logical next step – to take the customer base he had built at Bridgestone in a more up-market direction – but it also legitimized and revitalized the entire genre of hand-built steel bikes.

The Rivendells were also the first bikes in more than a decade to feature a headbadge. Fitting for a purely ornamental part, the headbadge was perhaps the most over-the-top part of the frames, with cloisonné inlays that were devilishly difficult to produce. In the days before Internet marketing, Rivendell published the Reader, a zine that detailed all the trials and tribulations of the young company. It is telling about Rivendell’s influence that headbadges have become a must-have accessory, even on mass-produced frames.

During his Bridgestone days, Grant had been a defender of lugs against the encroachment of less-expensive TIG-welding. At Rivendell, he coined the slogan: “I ride lugged steel, and I vote”. The lugs of the first “Road” frames were based on a design Richard Sachs had carved for Bridgestone. They had lingered in a drawer for years, perhaps because they would have been too difficult to braze on a production line. Playful and yet elegant, they’ve rarely been bettered. They were perfect for a bike named after a mythical place taken from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. With that headbadge and those lugs, it almost seemed like the frames were made by elves.

The elves who made the first Rivendells lived in Waterford, Wisconsin, where Richard Schwinn had resurrected the old Paramount shop after the first of Schwinn’s many bankruptcies. The Rivendell frames were built to order with a wide choice of sizes, braze-ons and colors. The basic frame design was fixed, an evolution of the much-loved Bridgestone RB-1. To many, the early Rivendells were the bikes that Bridgestones should have built, had price not been a concern.

These first Rivendells were dream bikes of their era. The tubing was the best of the best, Reynolds’ mythical 753, the first “supersteel”, custom-drawn to Rivendell’s specifications. Grant even had special stickers made, with French lettering referring obliquely to the great French constructeurs, recently discovered by another Grant (Handley), in whose bike shop Planetary Gear Grant Petersen sometimes hung out.
The early Rivendells were as sensible as they were beautiful. They were designed for performance. Clearances were optimized to fit the widest tires with the then-available brakes. A head-tube extension enabled a comfortable riding position. Braze-ons for racks allowed converting the bikes for touring. These were bikes intended to be ridden, bikes that promised to go wherever their riders wanted to take them – racing, touring, exploring, even commuting.
Everything that followed – the steel bikes from Surly, Soma, All City, etc.; the renewed popularity of handbuilt custom bicycles that since has swept the world; the comeback of classic components; even Compass Cycles – can trace its roots to the moment when Grant Petersen stood up and said: “I love steel and lugs. Why not?”
Further reading: The full story of the first Rivendell Road lugs is told in the Summer 2017 Bicycle Quarterly.

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Comments (38)

  • Mark V Hillman

    Beautiful, with a single top tube…

    July 22, 2017 at 11:26 pm
    • Robert Hoehne

      nearly all Riv bikes have a single top tube, just the super size ones tend to double up

      July 23, 2017 at 2:08 am
  • Jan Olov

    Beautiful. I am proud owner of a Rivendell custom, from 2002, Curt G, build.

    July 23, 2017 at 1:35 am
  • Mike Anderson

    Nice to see Grant get some well deserved credit for his strong convictions and intellectual honesty which no doubt inform his pragmatism on all things bicycle related. I have been a member of the Unofficial Cult of GP since the late 1980s and still have one of his last Bridgestone catalogues which I still refer to from time to time. Though appearing to come from two different angles in order to address the needs of sensible cyclists, Rivendell and Compass share many of the same fine attributes. Keep up the good work, and thanks for the piece on the lovely Rivendell.

    July 23, 2017 at 2:06 am
  • Michael D. Schmidt

    This is an excellent piece of journalism which reminds us all what Grant Petersen brought to the table.

    July 23, 2017 at 4:09 am
  • Derek Z

    Thank you Grant!

    July 23, 2017 at 6:23 am
  • james mason

    Grant was able to articulate what a lot of us felt but kept to ourselves. The bike industry will cook up all sorts of innovations but the basics of the bicycle will stray only so far from the minimal formula. With bikes simple and sturdy will always be the best.

    July 23, 2017 at 6:50 am
  • Ayjaydee

    And I find it so typical to find those who are jealous of his well-earned praise. Just the other day I saw a guy downplaying his bikes and his status in the bike world with the only thing he could come up with: “He’s grumpy”!! LOl

    July 23, 2017 at 9:27 am
  • James Cloud

    I’m a proud owner of one of those original Rivendell Road Standard bikes which I bought in 1996! It’s a great bicycle and my favorite of all time (and I’ve owned some very nice bikes including a Pogliaghi Supercourse bought in 1973). Grant Petersen deserves all the credit he’s given for keeping steel frame bicycles as a great choice in a world of other materials like carbon fiber.

    July 23, 2017 at 9:35 am
    • Joni

      Mine was delivered in January 1997. #90 ALL Rounder. Still love it to this day!

      July 24, 2017 at 10:04 am
  • James Cloud

    Just as an aside, I think you should have given Marc Muller primary credit for reviviing the Schwinn Paramount after the Schwinn Bicycle Company spun that iconic bike off into it’s own distinct division at Waterford. He was given free rein by Edwin Schwinn, the then president of Schwinn, in the development of the Schwinn Paramounts from 1980-1994. Later, after the demise of the original Schwinn Bicycle Company, Marc was one of the co-owners of the Waterford Bicycle Company along with Richard Schwinn and another partner. (Source: http://waterfordbikes.com/w/culture/paramount/paramounts-in-waterford-1980-1994/)

    July 23, 2017 at 9:56 am
  • Nick Sanders

    Grant should get credit for swimming upstream on many elements that are now widely embraced, including larger volume tires, 650b, bags on bikes, wider handlebars, lower gearing, etc…..
    Other windmills like cloth bar tape and leather saddles remain on the fringes for the faithful ..
    But I am grateful he stuck his neck out as far and for as long as he did! Thanks, Grant!!

    July 23, 2017 at 10:05 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Leather saddles are incredibly popular these days. I remember when I was the only member of the Seattle Randonneurs with a leather saddle (and no Camelbak). How times change!

      July 23, 2017 at 12:22 pm
    • feldmanbike

      Leather saddles are something beyond a fringe item–there are saddles being made by Sella Italia, Sella San Marco, Rivet, Berthoud, and a revival of the old Ideale designs in France in addition to Brooks staying in business. Saddles are a particularly lousy area for fraudulent, marketing-driven “innovations” and the small market is actually for $500 carbon-railed fantasy objects. I find it really amusing that Brooks is now owned by a manufacturer of Italian butt chisels–perhaps the Italian company was hedging their bets, knowing that the organism that sits on the saddle hasn’t changed since the first B-17 was made.

      July 28, 2017 at 4:33 pm
  • Richard

    Nice write up on Rivendell. I didn’t know his earlier bikes were intended as performance bikes. While I enjoyed riding my Homer Hilsen, I always felt it was a little overbuilt for me. I had to work a little harder to make it get up and go. I knew I liked a “lively” bike, but had no idea what made a bike so. Reading articles in BQ on super light tubing and frame flex nailed it.
    Anyway, kudos to Grant for keeping alive lugged steel when the entire bike industry was moving in a different direction.

    July 23, 2017 at 11:51 am
  • Bruce D

    I, too, have a custom 63 cm 2003 Curt Goodrich that is my go-to bike. 32 Stampede Pass tires fit perfectly. Otherwise I’d be bidding on that frame, too.

    July 23, 2017 at 12:13 pm
  • Alan James

    Thanks to Grant Petersen and Jan Heine I now thoroughly enjoy cycling again on lugged steel and puffy tires, may the revolution continue!

    July 23, 2017 at 4:51 pm
  • Bob C

    I have mixed feelings about placing so much of the credit for keeping steel alive on Grant. He was absolutely a loud, persuasive and passionate voice in the industry and kind of a genius in marketing.
    But when you suggest that steel vanished nearly overnight in the 1990s, that doesn’t comport to my recollection at all. Trek was still making almost all their bikes — some of the best steel production bikes in US history — out of steel in 1994 and even as late as 1997 still had a lot of good steel bikes in their lineup (along with carbon and aluminum by then). Trek catalogs are online as a reference. Trek wouldn’t qualify as a minor independent builder (although a lot of custom steel builders learned their craft there and at Match).
    Likewise Waterford was active — that’s where Grant had his early bikes made, as you note — and was entirely devoted to steel bikes. Waterford was a smaller player, but decidedly more than an independent builder. Waterford was founded at the same time as Riv and they both were fighting for steel.
    Indeed, because Waterford was *very* focused on steel for high performance racing bikes you could make a case its advocacy was more vital. Rivendell quickly started to talk about steel bikes as primarily as practical bikes, which is great but it inadvertently minimizing the material’s viability at the high end of performance. This is a space Waterford never conceded (and their bikes are/were superb racing machines).
    In addition, during this time the popularity of steel bikes was actively taking hold among young urban riders by the late 1980s, partly driven by messenger culture. The movie “Quicksilver” was from 1986 and it *followed* the established trend. All steel there. And all hip. This influence continues to today.
    With respect to steel’s desirability for young people, It didn’t hurt that by the mid-1990s as the fashion tended to new materials there were a LOT of truly great steel bikes to be had for a song. That was perfect for young, passionate riders. Notably, many of these urban riders had absolutely no use for Grant and some actively rejected Grant/Riv, apparently because they found him excessively proscriptive (ironically, they inspired him to enter the single-speed movement later…) Also, these urban riders were using baskets on their bikes a full decade before Riv started agitating in that direction.
    Similarly, I assure you that practical steel bikes could be found by the thousands all over cities like San Francisco in the 1990s and through to this day ridden by all kinds of people — influenced by one another and what people rode and what made sense, rather than Grant.
    Even the I-Bob list (though started by Grant and certainly he’s its spiritual father) was active and influential in some quarters by the late 1990s. Sure it tended to follow whatever Grant uttered as gospel (sometimes to comical extremes), but it was its own thing.
    None of this is intended to downplay Grant’s importance. Rather it’s to put it in context and not leave the impression this was one man against the tide. There were a LOT of others on that stretch of road.
    When you say things like “Then along came Rivendell and made steel cool again” I simply don’t feel that’s true — or perhaps too broadly stated. Steel was already extremely cool in a vast subset of bike culture when Rivendell arrived on the scene. If you want to say steel wasn’t cool among racers by the late 1990s, that’s easy to defend — although Waterford fought that fight, not Riv.
    Grant was a leader and a lightening rod, for sure. And in bike industry terms he was a powerful voice against carbon everything and disposable (perhaps dangerous) bike designs. And Riv’s bikes were good. Heck I bought a custom Riv (built by Curt Goodrich) in 2002 that is superb.
    I just think the milleu surrounding steel bikes and practical bikes was significantly richer, more variegated and vibrant than this blog post suggests. Riv was important for sure, but let’s not overplay it. This was a lot more grassroots than it was the result of an inspired campaigner’s efforts.
    I’m unconvinced that companies like Soma would not exist without Grant. I think you can make the case it’s true, but at the same time the bikes I saw on the streets BEFORE (and well after) Rivendell was a force also strongly suggested a Soma would eventually exist. Unquestionably, he was a compelling voice for advocating for steel and practical bikes. But there was a lot happening in that space anyway and like many brilliant marketers/tastemakers he reflected the thoughts of others (Richard Sachs, Bruce Gordon, anyone?) as much as he originated his own ideas. Indeed, please correct my recollection if I’m wrong, but I believe it was one Jan Heine who brought 650B wheels to Grant’s attention, que no?
    I recall hearing the “steel is real” mantra as early as 1995 when aluminum bikes because their time in the sun — and that didn’t come from Riv either, although they benefited from it.. (I believe this expression was first voiced in the mountain bike community after aluminum bikes started cracking under them, but I can’t prove it.)
    Pardon the length of this and I hope I didn’t bore.
    I just want to remind people that there was a lot happening — quite literally on the street — during this period of time. Yes, thank god for Grant Peterson and Rivendell — total agreement there. He certainly challenged the bike industry marketers in ways no one else did. But also thank god for all the others who were just as busy innovating in this space and who were putting persuasive ideas on the street all around us. All you had to do is look at the bikes people were riding.

    July 23, 2017 at 5:50 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Bob, you make good points, and I agree with most of them. I wasn’t implying that Grant was the only one advocating for steel bikes. But as you mention, he was the one who put some marketing muscle behind it. Trek was still making steel bikes, but every year’s catalogue had fewer models, until they were gone. Trek was part of the trend, whereas Grant swam against it. Grant was an influencer who changed the discussion in the bike industry. That he knew everybody from his Bridgestone days helped, and he certainly put those connections to good use…
      Of course, he was not alone. At the time, the framebuilders were afraid that Rivendell might corner the market for steel bikes, until they realized that a rising tide raises all the boats. Grant was visible in the bike industry, where others toiled in obscurity. This isn’t intended to diminish their contribution in any way, but I still feel that Grant turned the tide almost single-handedly.

      July 23, 2017 at 6:35 pm
      • Bob C

        Jan, one thing I’ve wondered about on this topic is something you might shed some light upon. How important is the US market to certain special Japanese manufacturers like Nitto?
        It certainly seems like Grant/Riv were extremely important in keeping visibility on such companies by stressing the high quality of their products. Would they have been in trouble without that advocacy, or are their domestic sales enough to keep them healthy and vital?

        July 23, 2017 at 6:56 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Companies like Nitto have changed tremendously. They used to be suppliers for the domestic market of mid-range and high-end bikes, but most of that has dried up as most bike manufacturers moved to Taiwan and China. Some companies went under, like Tange, the makers of steel tubing. Others, like Nitto, refocused on making only high-end parts, but the domestic market is too small to support them, so export is very important. I think Grant/Rivendell was very helpful in raising the profile of these companies.

          July 23, 2017 at 7:23 pm
      • Ayjaydee

        I agree Jan. There were lots of folks working with steel but none had the clout Grant did when it came to getting the word out to the folks outside the “scene”.

        July 23, 2017 at 8:31 pm
    • Bill Lindsay

      I respectfully disagree with the assertion that Trek was making nice steel road frames in 1994 and beyond. The last pretty nice Trek steel road bike was maybe the 1989 660. They continued to make the stout and competent 520, and still made a few nice steel hardtail mountain frames, but the days of a high end Trek steel road bike were over in 1990. I’d love to see and ride a 753-tubed Trek 170 from the mid 1980s.

      July 24, 2017 at 12:57 pm
      • lop

        Under the LeMond name, Trek made high end steel (True Temper OX and the like) bikes until 2008, at which point the market for steel frames has basically rebounded. They kept making decent enough steel bikes under the Fisher name for a few years after that.

        July 24, 2017 at 1:26 pm
    • lop

      I just want to add that when high end steel bikes disappeared under the Trek name, they continued to by made in Waterloo and sold by Trek well into the 2000s under the LeMond name, which again, represent some of the finest American steel bikes ever made. Also worth noting, Trek has NEVER not made a steel frame, in the form of the 520 (which is fairly Rivendell-ish).

      July 24, 2017 at 1:18 pm
  • Doug Peterson

    When Rivendell first introduced the Atlantis touring bike, it was reviewed by Adventure Cycling’s magazine. The message was clear: this was a no compromise touring bike that could be built up for anything from commuting to going around the world…and it looked great doing so. I bought mine in 2003, and over 70,000 happy miles later continue to enjoy and appreciate it. Grant Petersen is a true genius in his ability to design bikes that work for their intended service, and hold up through all sorts of abuse.

    July 23, 2017 at 6:28 pm
  • Francisco

    It would be interesting to try to situate the ‘revival’ of steel frames in a wider cultural context. In my field, voices defending smaller scale developments, the value of ornament and traditional patterns started to be heard in the late sixties / early seventies and a theory and practice were well established by the eighties (e.g. Jane Jacobs in urbanism and Christopher Alexander in architecture). Cycling seems to have captured this Zeitgeist relatively late, perhaps because of its long period of technical and social stagnation after the second world war. It would be interesting to know which broader cultural trends may have molded the sensibility of Petersen and others.

    July 24, 2017 at 7:48 am
  • grant petersen

    Jan, that was so generous and gracious of you. I’m usually too verbose, but it seems inappropriate to say a lot here, and gushing, anyway, would seem in a way to endorse or approve of all those nice things you said, and that has its own weird kickback. Listen—all of you!—Jan and I are friends. I say this because we are sometimes pitted against one another by people who aren’t us. We live in similar world that aren’t totally parallel, and that way, we cover more ground. Our biggest disagreement is on the thickness of tire sidewalls. That is not enough to make me not love Jan! One for all, all for one, here we are on earth, in the forever expanding universe, everybody at the same time, 4.5 billion years after it was made! Go, Jan, go BQ, and go steel.

    July 24, 2017 at 9:52 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Thank you for the kind words. As you say, our worlds complement each other, rather than stand in competition. I have many fond memories of visiting you during Rivendell’s early days. Much of what I learned about bikes I learned from you back then! Some day, we’ll ride up Mt. Diablo again!

      July 24, 2017 at 10:51 am
    • e-RICHIE

      Very nice ^ .

      July 24, 2017 at 2:36 pm
  • Sukho Goff V

    Jan thanks for saying what should be said about Grant in such eloquent terms. He wasn’t the only voice for lugged steel, but his was the most enjoyable voice to read. What he was saying (and still saying) in his inimitable way was easy to relate to (for me) and just plain fun. I, like many people, totally forgot about bikes for decades after getting my driver’s license. Then one day in my mid 30’s I stumbled upon a Bridgestone catalog…and the rest is history. I’m now totally obsessed with steel bikes, having bought/sold/ridden/tinkered with and learned so much about bikes and bike culture in the past 5-7 years. I also became a committed daily bike commuter (only missed one day in 5 years) and remain a huge fan of GP and Riv. In fact, it was by googling Grant Petersen’s name while searching for articles and interviews he did that I stumbled upon a guy named Jan Heine who wrote a cool “People Who Have Inspired Us” piece in his Off The Beaten Path blog in 2011 that introduced me to the wonderfully supple, low-trailing world of Bicycle Quarterly…and the rest is (more) history.
    See you at the Un-Meeting in September!
    (And thanks Grant for doing what you do)

    July 24, 2017 at 1:39 pm
  • Sukho Goff V

    From Bing:
    in·im·i·ta·ble. [iˈnimədəb(ə)l]
    ADJECTIVE : so good or unusual as to be impossible to copy; unique:
    NOUN: Grant Petersen

    July 24, 2017 at 1:44 pm
  • Russell T.

    I recently put a pair of Compass tires on my 1996 Rivendell Road Standard. A great combo!

    July 24, 2017 at 9:56 pm
  • davidmtest

    What a great write-up. People somehow think Grant is grumpy but he’s actually a super nice guy. I just put some 44mm Snoqualmie Pass tires on my Rivendell for the true best-of-both-worlds experience. Jan, think you’ll ever make a >2″ 700c tire?

    July 25, 2017 at 7:57 am
  • Randy J.

    I am the original owner of a 1992 Bridgestone XO1 which is still my main bike. I try to purchase parts/supplies from Rivendell when I can since Grant made a bike that is so perfect I haven’t felt a need for another frame. Quite a legacy.

    July 25, 2017 at 9:52 am
  • Paul

    Being a regular reader of Bicycle Quarterly, I often find myself wishing I could buy a low-trail, super-planing, radonneuring bicycle. But I already own a custom Rivendell, built by Joe Starck in 2001. I had Grant design it as a loaded touring/trail bike, so it’s stiffer than I would prefer these days, and I said that I wouldn’t mind toe clip overlap, and I find that it’s annoying. But for the most part, the bicycle fits the bill, and there’s no denying it’s beautifully made, and it’s comfortable. It’s also slowly be accumulating parts from Compass. The Bon Jon Pass tires make a lot of difference in speed and comfort over the Schwalbes I usually use. I found some old paperwork, and the top tube is an 8-5-8, which makes it thinner than that on the Soma Grand Randonneur. (I’ve lost the final paperwork that specifies the down tube.) So, every time I lose focus, and start thinking that I need a randonneuring specific bike fresh out of the pages of Bicycle Quarterly, I have to remind myself that I’m not making the best of a bad situation; I’m making the best of a near perfect situation. It’s gratifying to see this writeup.

    July 26, 2017 at 8:10 pm

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