Rivendell Bicycle Cult… I mean Company

If you’ve been reading my blog you know that I’ve been essentially riding with the goal of being a faster cyclist most of the time, I don’t race, I ride a light aluminum racing frame with a somewhat aggresively low position, have special shoes to ride in, ride 23 mm tires and have 20 indexed gears to shift; that puts me square in the sights of Rivendell Bike Works targets as wrong about everything.

A typical Rivendell

OK, quick primer, Grant Peterson worked for Bridgestone Mountain bikes in the 80s until they went out of buisness then he started his own company, Rivendell Bicycle Works, which focuses on recreational touring type bikes and gear. He doesn’t actually build frames, he gets them built by builders in Japan, Taiwan, and Waterford in Wisconsin, which is no different from just about every other bicycle company.  What sets Rivendell apart is their philosphy on bicycles, gear and riding, which could best be summed up as everything you think you know about cycling is wrong, we’re right.

On the Rivendell homepage you’ll find a series of articles that explain the Rivendell philosphy and deride the direction that cycling has taken in the last 30 years.  The basic thesis is this, bicycle riding has become dominated by the racing aspect of the sport, it has corrupted the design of bicycles, gear, clothing and in turn made bicycling into a uncomfortable, dangerous, sport, instead of a healthy recreational pastime.  In a great many ways Grant is right even if some of his statements are over the top, but that doesn’t change the number one reason I’ll never own a Rivendell, but first lets look at some of his arguments.

Frame materials,

“Weight has been overemphasized by the media, and manufacturers have responded with frames and components that live on the brink of failure.”

OK I’ll agree with the weight part but I have to take exception on the brink of failure part.  Rivendell believes the best choice for a frame material is steel, and makes a pretty good argument.  At one time I was a true believer in steel, I owned 3 steel bikes and while I don’t currently own one I think that steel is an excellent material and probably makes the strongest most durable bike.  I also don’t think that aluminum and carbon bikes are living on the brink of failure.  It’s true that aluminum bikes will eventually break, probably much sooner then a steel frame, you’re not gambling with your life when you ride aluminum or carbon bikes and components.

Drivetrains

Friction shifting is shifting without indexing. In indexed shifting, there are notches in the shift lever that regulate the movement, and when everything is in harmony, a skill-less person shifts perfectly.

Rivendell drivetrain philosphy expouses gearing is too high, you don’t need all those gears and friction shifting is better then indexed.  I agree with the gearing is too high and I’m not the only one judging by the popularity of compact cranks, I never thought there would be advantage to 10 rear cogs until I started riding it, you can tell the gears are more closesly spaced and I think that is nice.  As far as friction shifting goes, if you’re just tooling around or touring then I guess friction shifting would be fine, but I would never run a bike without indexed shifting again.  When I got my first bike with STI, (shifting on the break levers) it was like a revelation.

The list could go on:

Bike shoes and clipless pedals, worthless
Skinny tires, all tires should be 32mm or larger
Saddles? they better be Brooks
Clothing, if its not wool don’t wear it 
Fenders, every bike should have them, whether you ride in the rain or not

Here's a Rivendell trail bike, if I had trails like that I could take the big tires and suspension fork off my mountain bike and ride all day.

I’m glad that a company like Rivendell exists, I’m glad that they have the balls to say everything they believe about cycling, and keep a fading style of cycling and bikes alive, but I’ll never be a customer of Rivendell, just as I’ll never be a customer of Harley Davidson.  What could Rivendell and Harley Davidson have in common?  They both are trying to sell you a lifestyle, their particular cultivated image, which in Rivendell’s case is exactly opposite of the current trends. 

You can't aruge that lugged steel bikes aren't beautiful.

That wouldn’t bother me so much if there bikes were affordable, but their entry level frames are a 1000 dollars and while we could sit around and argue the benefits of lugged steel and artful design, the fact of the matter is I can’t afford 1000 dollars for a frame.  Their typical build costs about 3000 dollars, that’ll get you a 26-27 pound bike with all the technology of something that cost about 800 dollars in 1985.  I guess giving the man the finger and bucking the trends isn’t cheap?

My Nashbar touring frame and fork cost 150 dollars and was made by human robots in China, it might break in 5 years, but I’ll still have 850 dollars left to buy another one.  After buying all the parts I needed for the bike I had about 600 dollars invested, and my integrated shifters and brake levers were cheaper then the bar end shifters and brake levers Rivendell specs for their bikes.  If you wanted steel and a little more quality you could buy a Surly Long Haul Trucker and get a whole bike for less then some Rivendell frames. 

SO I guess to sum it up, Rivendell makes nice bikes, their ideas make alot of sense, but there is nothing wrong with having a fast bike with modern technology and bicycling isn’t or at least shouldn’t be such a polarized community.  There’s no damn law that says you can’t dress up in lycra with stupid shoes and pretend to race one weekend on carbon fiber, and then wear flipflops, wool with bluejeans and take your steel bike camping.  If you want that steel bike to be a Rivendell my advice would be to start saving.

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About Matt Gholson

Cycling, school teaching, husband.
This entry was posted in Bikes and components, lifestyle, Rants, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Rivendell Bicycle Cult… I mean Company

  1. Yea for Surly LHT’s. Yea for fenders and fat tires on steel bikes. Boo for expensive cycling stuff. I wouldn’t own a HD either. I probably wouldn’t own a Rivendell. But they’ve got a point about cycling being taken over by racing pretenders. Most riders don’t ride 30 miles a week let alone 30 at a time and certainly not at peloton pace or spacing. So why do they pretend they do? Cycling marketers have sold us a bill of goods and we keep buying to “be like Lance, or Levi, or (fill in the blank). Boo on that.

  2. Matt Gholson says:

    I added that LHT bit for you, but also kind of wish I’d gotten one instead of the Nashbar.

    YOu and Rivendell are right and you could probably find that marketing has done the same thing to every hobby, sport, past time, people who are into bowhunting regularly buy bows that cost 1000 dollars, kids wear basketball shoes that cost 150 dollars and never get on the court.

    I think many people would enjoy cycling much more on bikes less inclined for racing, even though I’m griping about Rivendell bikes being so expensive its a shame that other then finding older used bikes, its hard to find a bike like that. Most bIke shopes have race bikes and dopey comfort hybrids, but nothing for serious miles.

  3. Steve says:

    Very interesting and thank you for answering my question! 🙂 I enjoy my road bike (and even my hybrid when it isn’t breaking) but I increasingly find myself interested in classic steel touring bikes. I like the history aspect along with comfort and durability these bikes promise. Unlike you, I lack the ability and tools to build a bike from scratch, so I am interested in models that are ready to ride out of the shop. I’d need to see the bikes in person, but the LHT doesn’t appear to me to have the same classic lines that the Rivendells have. However, you make an excellent point that $3K is a lot to spend for a classic line.

  4. JC Wise says:

    I’d get one if they had Gripshifts. they would totally fit a mustache or bullmoose bar. you forgot to mention cork grips and tape. SWEET!!! that’s got to be worth something.
    jc

  5. J says:

    You fail to realize that some people like to buy things made by people earning a decent wage, and from countries without repressive governments. Grant’s pushing his opinions gets a little tiring and I must admit that he’s mostly preaching to the choir, but the frames are top notch. The frames built by Waterford are cheaper than ordering straight from them because Rivendell purchases them at higher quantities. Most people like to focus on Rivendell because Grant spouts his opinions, but there are other steel bikes out there that costs thousands more.

  6. fred says:

    Peterson makes many good points on his site but they are totally obvious to anyone who have commuted for years or think for themselves. I find it amazing that anyone has to be told you can commute to work wearing street pants and regular rubber sole shoes… duh! But many people are slaves to those around them, so I guess it is needed.

    He really lets the commuter down advice-wise. What to wear in the cold and rain of everyday cycling? How to manage bike security? Does anyone really believe that anyone is commuting on a $3000 prissy RIV, and locking it on the streets of NYC? Does he even know about grippy BX pedals which work in the rain (which he admits is dangerous on many of the pedals commuters use without clips).

    What I don’t like about the RIV site is the use of literacy “weasel words” like his use of “diaper” to describe the padding in cycling shorts. The padding in a good pair of ASSOS bib shorts is so superior to anything that is available in a pair of underwear, that his discussion simply becomes closed- minded and mean-spirited. One can certainly wear a good pair of baggies with lot of pockets while riding, but when going 100 miles put a good pair of modern shorts on first… jezz!.

    We all know, for the vast majority of RIVs sold — they are pampered and represent an addition to the lifestyle of an owner who owns Leica, Rolex, and a perhaps even a Morgan. The rider refuses to loose weight, or do yoga with his wife, but at a proud 235 he wants to ride a little on weekends.

    And I say let him ride on those Big Apple tires, anything is better than not riding, and RIV is getting these folks out there. Some of them will actually become regular riders.

  7. Peter says:

    i own a rivendell…along with a gunnar sport, and a gary fisher for off-road and a 60’s raleigh…..i’ve owned high price carbon also and a surly LHT…i ride about 50-125 miles a week…and i like all my bikes…but the rivendell is my BABY! It gets my attention most rides..i’m not fat, nor am i “pampered” like one of your foolish responders stated…i do own a rolex, but i drive a mini van….so sue me for hard work and good investments….because i have some money, your readers think i should suffer at the hands of 23’s for tires? that’;s ridiculous! I ride with clipless shoes, and most times wear padded mtn. bike shorts…Grant has not once been to my home to toss scornfull looks my way. Rivendell has the best customer service i’ve encountered in any bike shop! They will help you with decisions/advice even if that means directing you to another bike than theirs….Rivendell gives their opinions and lets YOU decide whats best for YOU….If other companies did that, we would all be better off….No one is forcing you to buy Rivendell, especially Rivendell…..happy riding all….and give one another a break occasionally…it makes for a better world.

  8. Matt Gholson says:

    Great Points and no one should ever suffer the undue hardship that comes from riding 23s, that’s why I’m currently riding the new Grand Prix 24s, way better!

  9. Mark Nicholson says:

    I own a Rivendell A. Homer Hilsen with fenders and Marathon Green Guard 42-650b tires that measure about 37mm wide and rides as smooth as that girlfriend who has been begging you to come over and see her for the last week. I commute on it. I ride in the rain on it. I do 50-mile recreational rides on it. I have toured on it. I go to the market and the microbrewery to bring back groceries and beer on it. People spontaneously compliment the bike’s beauty everywhere I go. It is a great bike and one of the things that makes it great is that it can accommodate the wide tires and the fenders. You can’t find that in carbon fiber. And I can change the handlebar height from high and comfortable to low and fast with a single bolt.

    Surly sells 4130 chrome-moly frames that are not only good, they are good enough. I helped my son make a bike with a Cross-Check frame and it can do most of what the Hilsen can do, except the part about the handle bar height. It is not as pretty but as practical; maybe not as fast.

    One more thing: the best empirical data, contrary to popular belief, indicates that fatter tires at lower pressure are faster than skinny tires at high pressure. Check it out.

    • Matt Gholson says:

      When I was doing BRAG someone had an Atlantis and I spent some time looking at it. Very cool bike, I liked it, and I would actually really like to have a steel road bike with racing geometry that I could run some 28 tires on for gravel. I won’t argue they aren’t good bikes, because they are, they’re just massively overpriced.

      I’ve read stuff about fat tires being faster and really don’t know what to make of it. I mean really how fast are you on 42mm tires? Maybe 25 has less rolling resistance then 23 but why do they ride Time Trials on 21mm tires? Rolling resistance is only a small part of the equation.

      • Mark Nicholson says:

        Wind resistance is way more important than rolling resistance. I have 38mm tires on my road bike. Time trials might require a very light tire for acceleration. Once the wheel is spinning, maybe it is easier to keep spinning. I don’t know and, in any event, sometimes what we know to be absolutely true turns out to be wrong. My wide tires handle better on the occasional gravel road and take turns much more confidently on pavement.

        I just noticed your mac address, have you seen my post about how much I hate apple stuff, we could have a debate about that. LOL!

      • Matt Gholson says:

        I agree about wind resistance, TT setups like small tires, especially up front just for that reason, acceleration probalby doesn’t matter since they get up to speed and attempt to hold it, what matters is eliminating as much possible drag whether it be aerodynamic or friction or weight, skinny tires are faster but you are of course correct the trade off is handling, comfort, utility. Your bike is the best all around setup for doing the wdest variety of riding. My only disagreement is that fatter tires are faster than skinnies. They may be better in many situations, and it ticks me off that its hard to find a bike that you can even fit 25s in. Stupid bike industry.

    • Tony says:

      Mark – I just picked up a used Cross Check myself… looking to set it up as a good ‘do everything’ bike in an urban environment. I’ve read ‘Just Ride’ and like alot of what I read… and at the same time I think other cycling philosophies are perfectly valid too. If you don’t mind sharing I’d love to hear more about what you did and why with your son’s bike – tony@ad28.net. Thanks!

      • Mark Nicholson says:

        The key step was to leave the steering tube long until we put in the crank, pedals, seat tube and saddle. Once we were pretty sure how high he wanted the saddle, we installed the handle bar stem with enough spacers so that the top of the drop handlebar was a little higher than the saddle. We used a square taper bottom bracket and Sugino 46-36-24 triple crank. Shimano has a cassette with a 36-tooth cog and we used that. He can pull tree stumps with it. We put 32mm Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires on it and Shimano v brakes. You have to get special drop-bar brake levers for the v brakes and Tektro makes those. Tektro v brakes are great but our LBS has the Shimano on the shelf. We should have put a generator hub in the front wheel. I have an Supernova Infinity S on my Hilsen and I can’t feel any drag even when the lights are on. Bontager rear rack.

      • Matt Gholson says:

        I really need some V brakes for my Nashbar Touring bike, the Cantilevers are a pain and don’t have much stopping power.

  10. Tony says:

    Mark – thanks for the details and the email! I’m really enjoying my Cross Check through my first couple weeks with it!

  11. Russell Reid says:

    I don’t remember how I came to this blog, but…

    I have a Rivendell. And a LeMond titanium. And two Trek carbon fibers. And four tandems. And in my immediate family we have much more: full suspension MTB’s, original no-suspension Ritchey steel mtb’s, city bikes and commuting bikes with generator hubs and good headlights, and one of the first dozen Grafteks ever built and custom Reynolds 531 Marinonis with sponsored rider graphics and bikes that my kids rode to school every day through middle school and high school and bikes we’ve toured the US and California and Europe on. I commute maybe half the days of the year on bike; the other half I am too lazy or late or some other excuse. I have brazed and built more than one steel frame, and one tandem, and built many wheels.

    The old bikes are great, and I love them. But the new bikes are better. My wife still rides a 1983 Trek touring 700 series to the grocery store, and she has ridden more lifetime miles than almost everybody who will read this. But when she wants to ride for joy, she rides the carbon Trek Madone I bought her for her 50th birthday, up the mountains and maybe down to the ocean. It has wings, which the old touring bike does not.

    Sorry to have to say it, but the new bikes are better. Brake lever shifters and indexing revolutionized tandem riding, to name just one thing you may not have thought of; you can shift without telling your partner to sit down. And you can climb while standing yourself… I used to tour with a downtube shifter and you have to sit down, shift, and stand back up, at which time you are likely to notice that you should have shifted two gears instead of one. Don’t get me wrong… I love downtube shifters, had them on the 1973 Raleigh Pro I bought used and rode until the frame finally broke, I have them still on my Rivendell. But they are better when you don’t have to shift a lot, or don’t have to shift when standing.

    Skinny high pressure tires are faster. Not easier on your butt, by any remote stretch, but faster. Anyone who says otherwise has not raced sufficiently, nor even time-trialed significantly; the difference in tires is obvious. I’m an engineer, and I believe in tests, but tests always involve assumptions. Might be that if roads were perfectly smooth, and in the shape of steel drums, and more importantly if riders rode so smoothly their tires did not bounce with their cadences, fatter tires would win. Higher pressure tires are faster, however, and hoop stress ( which is linear in diameter ) makes it impossible to safely run 125psi in fat tires. My guess is that the dominant factor in tires is response time, which you have never seen measured in tests of tires. (Rolling resistance also matters, however! ). Drop a soft, elastic, low-pressure 12″ ball from 3 feet up, measure the total length of time it is in contact with the ground. Then drop a hard, elastic, super-ball sort of ball of the same weight from the same height and measure the total length of time it is in contact with the ground. There will be a threefold difference, or more. If the tires are that gushy they absorb intentional thrusts along with pavement bumps. And worse, they are torsionally gushy: just as they deform ( a lot! ) when you go around corners, they deform torsionally when you torque them with each pedal stroke, pushing back the opposite way when the driving force diminishes. Too much of that is bad. Large diameter tires have a lot of that. You gotta have large diameter tires to mountain bike terrain like Truckee, CA, but they eat energy on flat roads. You can hear the energy loss!

    For interests’s sake, sew-ups are functionally different, because their elastic contour is a circle instead of roughly half a circle. Their pavement response and other responses are different.

    Really good bikes are more responsive, and therefore more fun, and people who are less dedicated or just have less time end up riding them more than if they had less fun bikes. That’s a good thing. Full suspension mountain bikes are complicated, but they allow you to do stuff that is impossible on our old Ritcheys, not to mention not beating up your arms and wrists nearly so much.

    Most new stuff is awesome. That is not to say there is not a lot of myth and stupidity out there… there surely is! But fast road bikes are awesome.

    You don’t really need to ride in lycra, either, but if you have any clothing flapping you will be a lot slower, and it is hard to have smooth non-flapping clothing and still move freely without elastic, and lycra is just elastic ( rubber ) woven into nylon fabric. Cleated shoes beat the pants off tennis shoes, and modern cleated shoes beat the pants off the old Sidis I used to nail cleats onto in the basement. I still have those old Sidis, and they were way better than tennis shoes. But I ride new sidis and clipless pedals, a word which makes no sense unless you are old enough to remember steel toe clips.

    Bike clothing has its place, though I have to admit that I could do without wannabes wearing sponsorship logos while surging ostentatiously past old ladies. I have ridden with a number of the world’s best riders…many times… and I can promise you that whenever someone tries to drop you at a pace he or she cannot sustain, only to impress you somehow, that rider has never actually been any good. That is a display of ignorance and ungracefulness, not prowess. A good rider does not mind you doing your best, is glad you are out there, and does not mind you sitting in behind so long as you don’t cause somebody to crash.

    Some new stuff does not prove out, and much of it is too expensive, but the only newfangled thing that truly sucks is flashing white headlights that say in effect “in your face” while they blind drivers, pedestrians and fellow cyclists.

  12. vandickie says:

    Luv most of the comments-pro and con. We lived out of a vw van for awhile out of necessity. Now at a place where a rivendell is couch change. Luving my pugsley so a LHT would probably be the way for me. As far as your HD comments, I have had the pleasure to own or ride just about everything out there. Yes there are technically better mc’s, but who would you rather ride- Carmen Electra or Hillary Clinton? One is smarter but the other is way more fun. Which is the point. Just thinking about my Road King makes me happy. A Rivendel might do the same.

  13. Bruce says:

    Well, I just bought a used Rivendell Atlantis and its AWESOME! Best bike I’ve ever owned. Should have bought one new when I first started looking had I just listened to Grant. Instead, I’ve owned a good 15 bikes trying to get the right fit. Buying and selling everything along the way. I toured the coast of California this summer and stopped by Rivendell with my other bike- Surly Long Haul Trucker. Grant and the rest of the crew were so cool to me and treated me great. Not sure why so many are against him. Point being that if you listen to his years of experience then it will save you money in the long run. Bottom line- if you are not a believer, then you haven’t ridden one of his bikes.

  14. Ted says:

    After multiple Cannondale aluminum road bikes, and two of their mountain bikes, a steel Colnago Super that I built from the frame up (including wheels), a Centurion Ironman, a Surley Steamroller kickback 2-speed I also built, a Raleigh Twenty, probably a few I have forgotten, and more thousands of miles than I’d care to guess (nearing 10,000 on the Colnago alone), I’m looking at a Rivendell.

    Two, actually.

    I like them. I always have. I don’t care what anyone at the company says about shorts or shoes, or anything else. I don’t care who “serious” riders think they are for. Every type of cyclist seems to have an annoying opinion about the other types. I just like bikes that I enjoy riding.

    The price has me looking to see if there are other options, but there don’t appear to be. I’ve got the Surley, and like it well enough, but I don’t want another.

    I will say this, we have six Brooks saddles right now – one for every bike. That’s the first thing I add to any bike I pick up.

    • Matt Gholson says:

      Thanks Mark, I seem to see this wide tire debate pop up every now and again.

      My own internal testing shows that 25mm tires are best, but 23s are good too. 28s are OK and anything bigger then that is for touring.

      Now this is completely non scientific and completely circumstantial, but I keep hearing how everyone should be on big fat 30 plus tires if they want to go fast. I hear this from the Rando/Touring/Retro crowd. I pass alot of these guys on group rides going 15 mph.

  15. tubasti says:

    I love my practically frozen-in-time 35 year-old Masi for shorter, flatter rides, but when I want to ride far, high, or fast, I’ll take carbon frames, compact gearing, and 10- or 11-speed cassettes with indexed shifters. I’m kind of old and overweight, and I need that gearing to take me where the Masi could when I was young and thin.

    Yes, I could see myself riding a Roadeo if I had the cash lying around, But Greg LeMond’s Washoe also looks good, or maybe I could have Giovanni Pellizolli make me something with the modern conveniences that looks vintage Italian.

    As for a Sam Hilborne for touring, I could build up a Univega Gran Turismo for a third the cost and it would still look prettier.

  16. Aaron Wemer says:

    I get why compact cranks are so popular, but a triple can be built with the same cog spacing and larger range with cheap 7 speed cassettes. I’ll make the argument that triple cranks are the financially-challenged equivalent of 10 and 11 speed cassette drivetrains.

    I also appreciate the ease of index shifting, but friction is still around because it’s very cross-compatible and durable. It literally won’t die. I’ve never had a friction component quit working, but have had over a dozen index-related failures. Friction shifting is another champion of the cycling-poor.

    The benefit of wide tires is proportional to the quality of roads in your area. I couldn’t stand 23’s where I live due to chip-seal, cracked roads and pot holes common to rural Ohio. I can also comfortably ride the rail trails with my 35’s. Again, wealthier areas often have smoother roads. Seeing the trend?

    I agree with you that where Grant goes wrong is in repackaging economical cycling sensibility to relatively rich people as if it were a hot new trend that only they can afford. The culture and bikes he sells are already out there in various forms in co-ops, lbs’s specializing in used bikes and gear, online groups and everyone out there living the philosophy. For a lot less money, too. My NOS 1985 Fuji touring series IV cost $600 eight years ago. Barring a terrible accident, I’ll have it for life.

    In his defense, his brand is personalized with a unique asthetic but to my eyes it looks a little too bourgeois. I suppose that’s intentional.

  17. SF says:

    I bought an A Homer Hilsen last year and use it for commuting and club rides on weekends. I selected the Homer because it was one of the very few bikes that fit me. I am 6′ 6” tall and found nothing from the big brands that came close to the frame size I wanted. The Surly LHT and Lennard Zinn’s big KHS Flite’s look like good alternatives, but I did not have an opportunity to test ride those. Also the LHT is not as big as my 67 cm Homer.

    I will say that I am pleased with my Homer. The only things I changed was switching to drop handle bars. I have the albatross handlebars a try and I like the drops better because they are faster. Having said that, the albatross are easier on the hands. So if speed is not your thing, then some form of upright handlebars is the way to go.

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