An Overview

Rivendell Bicycle Works is a small company in Walnut Creek, CA that sells bicycle parts, as well as hand-built production and custom bicycle frames. Their practical, and trend-challenging attitudes towards bikes and cycling have an impact entirely out of proportion to their market share.

Some History

RBW got started with Grant Peterson at Bridgestone, a small offshoot of the massive Bridgestone of Japan, known here primarily for tires, but still one of the most major players in the Japanese bicycle industry.

Often referred to as the "guy in charge of Bridgestone", Grant actually started out fairly low in the pecking order, but his complaints about the slick but soulless catalogs landed him a job as Marketing Director. Despite his lack of experience with layout and designs, his quirky catalogs are desirable and valuable to this day. If you're wondering why anyone would want to read a bicycle catalog from a company that went out of business over a decade ago, well-known cyclist and mechanic Sheldon Brown has scans of them on his website. Articles range from extolling thrift over consumerism (in a catalog!), to how steel, titanium, and aluminum are mined and processed, to US handmade leather baseball gloves, to beeswax.

His bicycles were no less quirky, and are also highly sought after today. The 1987 Bridgestone MB-1, their top of the line mountain bike, came with road-style drop bars (to the best of my knowledge, the only production mountain bike that ever came with drops.) The 1994 MB-1 did not have a suspension fork, only a suspension stem; Grant felt that suspension forks were ugly, heavy, overly complicated, and only useful for underskilled riders or overly rough courses.

In today's world of downhill-only bicycles with 5 inches of suspension front and rear, it's pretty clear that Grant wasn't ahead of the game on trends in mountain biking. But, even if he knew back then where things were going, he still would've stuck it out. Grant's stubborn resistance to anything he considered overly complicated or inelegant earned him the title of retro-grouch, a label which many now wear with pride. The bikes were difficult to sell to a tech-hungry public, but they inspired a very dedicated following in their day; the Bridgestone Owner's Bunch was a thriving community of practical cyclists, and while it ended with Bridgestone, it lives on in the iBOB mailing list, and it provided a customer base for the fledgling Rivendell Bicycle Works.

In short, Grant was a marketing director who refused to sell what was marketable. The falling value of the yen was the mortal blow, however; Bridgestone pulled out of the US market in 1994. Grant took all his savings, borrowed money from friends and relatives, and founded Rivendell Bicycle Works. Which, sorry to disappoint you, is named after a tent company, not Tolkien.

Beeswax and Philosophy

Beeswax. Yes, beeswax. What the hell does it have to do with a bicycle company? It's the first thing RBW ever sold. Little dixie cups with a few ounces of beeswax in 'em.

Beeswax smells nice, is utterly non-toxic, and playing with it is fun. It's an excellent thread-locker - warm up a bit of it and apply it to a screw or bolt, tighten it up properly, and it won't loosen up. You can use it instead of solder or an end-cap to prevent the cables on your bike from fraying. It is cheap, useful, and stubbornly low-tech: perfect for the retro-grouch.

RBW sells $2500 custom bike frames, and $20 wire baskets. They sell beeswax and Grandpa's Old Fashioned Pine Tar Soap and big fat pencils. They sell what works, and what they like. The end result is a fascinating catalog filled with (mostly) useful and sensible stuff.

Rivendell is committed to cycling not as a extreme sport, or an athletic challenge, but as something enjoyable in itself. While road bikes trend towards super-low handlebars (for increased aerodynamics, and speed), expensive and potentially fragile materials (for reduced weight, and speed), skin-tight clothing (aerodynamics... and speed), and mountain bikes follow a similar trend towards light weight, high tech, and expensive racing technology, RBW sells bikes and bike equipment that encourage riding in comfort, for fun. These are bikes to use and love and use some more, not bikes to dump when something flashier comes out.

Rivendell's bicycles are intended for higher handlebars, resulting in less weight on your arms, less strain on your back, and for many casual riders, and even quite serious ones, a far more enjoyable experience. They emphasize sturdier, more reliable, and often cheaper components. Rivendell frames have clearance for fatter tires; this allows for greater flexibility in riding surfaces and comfort, and makes it easier to run full fenders, for all-weather riding. In most cases, the tight clearances of road bikes add no real benefit; they reduce the flexibility and utility of the bike for purely stylistic reasons.

Rivendell challenges the industry trend towards higher tech without regard to utility, freely mixing technology which has changed little since the 1970s and 1980s with modern technology, choosing that which is reliable, repairable, useful, and minimally complicated.

Reactions and Aesthetics

Grant, and Rivendell, espouse ideas and equipment that are mostly useful and sensible. But with Grant Peterson free to do as he likes, sometimes the quirkiness can get to be a bit much. Feedback from the online biking community is generally strong, which is not to say always good.

For one thing, Grant is a big fan of wool. Thanks to him, so am I. Good wool can be incredibly soft (and I have very sensitive skin), light weight wools are great for warm weather too, not just cold or cool weather, and they don't absorb sweaty stink very much, if at all, unlike most synthetics. But Grant claims that wool can be too soft; he prefers it to be a bit itchy, a bit irregular, a bit natural. Personally, I'll take it as soft as I can get it.

For all his practicality, Grant, and by extension RBW, has a strong aesthetic sensibility. Every bike they make is lugged steel - lugs are the traditional method of joining frame tubes, and while they arguably have some practical advantages, these days, a good weld is as strong and useful as a brazed lug. What they do add is a traditional look, and an opportunity to carve and paint the lug in fancy patterns, giving the frame builder and painter far more opportunity to exercise their skill artfully, not just practically.

Thus, a bicycle frame from Surly might be practically equivalent to a production Rivendell; they both perform the same function, and well, but one costs around $400 and is made primarily by machines in a factory in Taiwan, while the other costs $1400 and is hand-built and hand-painted in Japan. Whether you take that as an argument for or against Rivendell is probably an interesting indicator of your taste in bicycles.

Rivendell Bicycle Works provides both functionality and aesthetics, as well as a refreshing look at bicycle technology. Even if you don't like what they have to say, or what they have to sell, anyone with an interest in cycling would be well rewarded to learn about them and form an opinion. Better you think of them and buy something wildly different, than you not think at all.

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