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On Biking: "Just Ride" urges less racing and more cycling for fun

Posted by Emily Files  August 15, 2012 11:07 AM

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Training rides. Time trials. Wattage. Carbon fiber this. Ultralight that. Aero anything.

My beef with cycling culture is its obsession with speed and performance. What happened to casual fun? Fast is great and distances can satisfy, but do we have to go hard every time we go out?

Racing, I think, has introduced a lot of unusual, specialized flavors into good old vanilla cycling. Vanilla is getting harder to find. Too bad, because I really love vanilla.

Fortunately Grant Petersen, the founder of California-based Rivendell Bicycle Works, is urging non-racers like me to ride on our own terms.

In his book, “Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike,” Petersen says professional bike racing has corrupted a beautiful thing. Racing's influence on equipment and attitudes, he says, has made recreational riding harder to enjoy. Petersen pushes back so forcefully against racing culture that you can hear the Tufo Elite Jet Tubular Tires exploding.

For starters, he asks cyclists to skip the “ridiculous outfits” when shorts and a T-shirt will do. Skip the high-end gear, too, he says, unless it's absolutely necessary.

Out on your bike, Petersen doesn't want you obsessing over your time. Suffering in the name of speed is plain silly, he scolds, and anyone who thinks they have to suffer to benefit from riding has it wrong.

“That's your inner racer talking,” Petersen writes, “and you need to shut it up."

Don't sign up for any ride you have to train for, he counsels. Don't ride if it feels like work.

“Whenever you feel guilty for not riding longer or harder, or for not going on the longish ride that's not real fun, but others are going on it, get over it,” he advises. “A bicycle should make your life better, not take it over and boss you around.”

As for cyclists who ride as far and as hard as they can because they believe that it somehow “supercharges their health,” Petersen says they're off track, too. Riding that way can tone muscles and toughen a cyclist mentally, but there's a limit. What will overly intense riding do for a you? “Grind you down.”

Petersen's manifesto is this: Bikes are toys, so keep it fun. As a non-racer and true vanilla cyclist, I couldn't agree more.

But “Just Ride” doesn't stop here. Petersen raises two other provocative matters, starting with helmets.

“Any protective gear you wear or use—a hazmat suit, a bulletproof vest, a parachute, snake-proof boots, or a bike helmet—increases the likelihood of you taking a risk. That is the point: protection, so you can do the thing that would be dumb to do without it...”

So wear a helmet and misjudge your safety, or go bare-headed, ride accordingly, and hope for the best? The author leaves it hanging.

Petersen is provocative about sharing the road, too. He suggests that cyclists be what he calls “carefully unpredictable.” So while a car is still a little ways behind you, wiggle a little bit, or swerve for a second.

“Look unsteady or oblivious,” he writes. “Your goal isn't to freak out the driver. It's to appear slightly unsteady on the bike and unaware that a car's approaching so the driver will pass you more carefully. Be aware, ride with precision, but give cars reasons to pass you with a little extra caution.”

I've tested this tactic and wow, it works. Even so, I won't endorse it. Is faking out cars really sharing the road? Can't we do better?

As for his main message--that racing has gotten out of hand—the author acknowledges that “Just Ride” will bother loads of people who race, build bikes, market gear, or promote cycling. But Petersen enjoys being a contrarian. His company, Rivendell, is a small specialty bicycle business that caters to a certain independent-minded segment of the cycling market.

For example, though Rivendell sells tweed mudflaps, the company comes right out and calls them ridiculous, just like “any mudflap that you don't make yourself in 5 minutes out of milk jugs and duct tape.” However, the online description continues, tweed mudflaps “are lovely and fun and glam up a bike in a classy yet innocuous way.”

That's Rivendell. That's Petersen. Not to everyone's taste.

Just the way no single ice cream flavor pleases everyone. I like vanilla, but others think mint chocolate chip is to die for. In the same way, great cycling means different things to different people. I choose not to race, but I know cyclists who live for it.

Read “Just Ride,” then lend it to a fellow cyclist and let the conversation fly. If the day is hot, discuss over ice cream. Your local ice cream place probably has a bike rack outside, and you know how to get there.

Susan Meyers is a Brookline writer. Her memoir about sight and blindness, Check This Box If You Are Blind, was published last year by Climbing Ivy Press.

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