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Naomi  The Biking Life

 by: Naomi Bloom  10/1/2003

Rivendell Revealed

OK, first let's make it clear that this is not the Rivendell of J.R.R. Tolkien. It's the Rivendell Bicycle Works of Grant Petersen and his merry crew of bike geeks in Walnut Creek, CA.

I first met Grant about 20 years ago, when he was selling bikes at REI in Berkeley. He had just published a book called Roads to Ride, "A Bicyclist's Topographic Guide to Alameda, Contra Costa and Marin Counties." And he was working on a second one covering Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties.

The books sold well, mostly because they offered information a cyclist can really use: how steep the roads are, how long they are, and what other roads they hook up with.

Not much later Grant married his co-author and life companion, Mary Anderson. By then he was working for Bridgestone Cycles USA, a tiny subsidiary of Japanese giant Bridgestone Cycle Co. Ltd. It was an eye-opening education for a 30-year-old hands-on guy suddenly thrust into a big, conservative company. A company that found it tough to compete with American innovation, not to mention a full-blown American recession.

Bridgestone USA closed up shop in 1993 and Grant began making plans. He wanted to start a different kind of bike company, one where he and a few like-thinking souls could "put our heads together and come up with ideas" about how bikes could do more for people.

He cashed in half his retirement savings and added it to his severance pay. He borrowed from friends and found investors. By October 1994 he had raised $89,000, enough to open for business.

So who is Rivendell?

According to Grant, Rivendell is "about three things, in order of importance: people, biking and bike products."

It's a small company -- only eight or nine employees, some of them working part time. "They never get the credit they deserve," he laments. So he was eager to fill me in on each and every one of them and what they do.

There's Bhima Sheridan, who knows his way around a computer as well as a bike.

That's Mr. Bhima Sheridan, the man points out. "People who aren't familiar with Sanskrit names might think it's not a masculine name." Bhima helped set up the BikeStation in downtown Berkeley before joining Rivendell as part-time inventory manager. Now he not only keeps track of bike parts, he also manages production frame orders, the on-line catalogue and the rest of "operations."

The best thing about his job, he says, is that "we're a diverse group of people who work well together and we all love bicycles!"

Mark Abele runs the business for wool clothing, Baggins Bags and custom frame production. He also assembles the bikes. As Grant says, "Lots of work!"

Before Rivendell Mark worked in food and wine marketing. He thinks Rivendell is a step up because "our customers are very supportive, our staff gets along really well and hey, we're working in the bike industry!"

John Bennett is the outfit's token vegan-Buddhist, says Grant. A former hippie, he's the "spirit lifter" and "funny guy." Oh, yeah, and he runs customer service and membership, which to him means phone sales, photography and "other odds and ends" like buying saddles and fenders. (Credit John with the people photos on this page.)

After working in non-profits with disabled and disadvantaged adults, John is delighted to "learn new stuff and ride with a great group of people. The bikes are pretty nice, too."

Diana Houts started out in shipping and now handles all the Web, mail and return orders. Married with two children, she started cycling some three years ago while recuperating from illness. She applied to Rivendell as a junior college class exercise and ended up getting the job. Now she has the longest ride to work and, says Grant, "does it consistently."

Rivendell's "relaxed and casual atmosphere" keeps Diana pedaling. "All of us work well together and we're all willing to help each other."

A retired airplane mechanic, Rich Lesnick claims that "Rivendell is the first job he's had where he doesn't dread Mondays." He works part-time answering the phone, building wheels and handling promotional campaigns for bike events.

At the airline, says Rich, "I was seen basically as a cog in a machine and not to be trusted. At Rivendell I feel genuinely appreciated and welcome -- I even get paid for working here!"

Grant claims that Robert Kurosawa "has elevated packing boxes and shipping to unprecedented levels. He and Mo have made the shipping department the best-run part of all of Rivendell."

An old friend of Grant's from Bridgestone days, Robert races cyclo-cross -- "lives for it," says Grant.

Modesto Flores (the Mo mentioned above) is "the most organized of any of us," says Grant. "We all live in fear of getting scolded by Mo, usually for not preparing an order right, or not putting something back where it belongs."

Before Rivendell, Mo played sports and jogged for exercise. Then Robert gave him a Bianchi and he started riding on weekends. Now he has two bikes, one of which is a Romulus.

Mary Anderson is Mrs. Grant Petersen, the business manager and bookkeeper. "She pays our bills and deals with customers and keeps us current with things that corporations have to be current on," says Grant.
Me? asks Grant. "I do the publications, design the bikes, influence the general direction of the company. And lose tools. And make a mess. And forget things. And always unfairly get the lion's share of the credit for whatever success we have. I'm the one who seems to get all the publicity but I could not accomplish anything without the people who work with me."

Let me tell you a little more about Grant and his family anyway. He and Mary have two daughters -- Katy, 15, and Anna, 9. Grant rides with Katy to school. "I tell her she doesn't have to ride to school every day; I don't want her to feel burdened by being in a biking family, but she always seems to want to go."

Katy rides an Atlantis. Anna lusts after a real lugged bike like the rest of the family. Mary rides Anna to school, then she and Grant meet up and ride around town. Then he rides to work. So he spends about an hour and 20 minutes on the bike daily. Weekends he rides with Mary or heads up Mt. Diablo on his own.

Customers count too

It figures that a company like Rivendell would want its customers to have a stake in the business too. So when you buy a Rivendell product -- any Rivendell product -- you have an option to become a member.

For $20 a year (or less, if you sign up for more than a year), you're in, complete with a subscription to Grant's quarterly newsletter, the Rivendell Reader and a $5.00 discount on purchases.

But what about the products?

It's a given that Rivendell fans have their favorite product they love to brag about. Most of them, of course, are the bikes.

But my faves are the Ruffy Tuffy tires. What won me over was the way they cornered on our tandem. "Ruffy Tuffy tires are the skinniest tires we'll ever do," says Grant. "It's a long-running road tire. Every one who's tried them likes them."

Jim's favorite is his Baggins Bag. It's a style that's "been around since the 1930s," Grant says, "and it still works. When we changed suppliers recently, we tweaked the designs to make them just a little better."

Of course, Grant's favorites are the bikes. "Lugged steel bikes have been priced out of people's range," he feels. "But we offer bikes that most dedicated cyclists can afford."

The Atlantis is best for trail riding and commuting, he says. It can take punishment (even from a 15-year-old). "The Romulus is a great all-around road bike," he adds.

"The Redwood is the same bike as the Romulus but it only comes in large sizes, 65 cm and 68 cm, and it's painted light green." Big trees, big bikes, get it?

The Rambouillet is "the most comfortable road bike you can ride. It's great on descents, goes fast if you want to go fast." But if you're more into scenic touring and smelling the roses, it's a really relaxing ride.

Then there are the custom bikes! "Our custom bikes are affordable," says Grant, "$2400 for a frame that will last you for the rest of your life, 30 years or longer."

Business as not-so-usual

Rivendell is "not a financially successful business," Grant admits. But it's debts are now clear and "I like the direction we're going," he says. "I find the work we're doing very satisfying. It's hard, stressful work. I've gained a whole lot of admiration for anyone who can run a business."

One of the things Grant likes best about selling bike products is writing the Rivendell catalogue, the Web copy and the Reader. And he's good at it. You get the feeling he is talking directly to you and you catch his enthusiasm about cycling, bikes and the products he personally chooses.

"I can only sell things I really like," he says. "Everything we sell is something I really like."

And to think it all started with those "Roads to Ride" books. They're now out of print. But Grant owns the rights to them and would like to update and republish them. He just doesn't have the time. No wonder. With Rivendell in your back pocket, and kids to ride to school with, who has time for anything but what you love most?

Naomi can be reached at naomibloom@earthlink.net

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