Made In America: Rivendell Bicycle Works

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Since founding Rivendell Bicycle Works in Walnut Creek, California, in 1994, Grant Petersen has sold thousands of dapper lugged-steel Rivendell frames. At least, he thinks it’s in the thousands — he doesn’t really keep track.

“My estimate isn’t going to be a whole lot better than a random street person’s shot in the dark,” he says. “We have never counted. There’s no policy against keeping records of that, but I don’t do it myself, I don’t delegate it to anybody else, and I’m not sure what I’d do differently if I knew the real number. Slack off? Crack the whip? Puff up with pride or worry about why so low? The bikes are out there and they’re good ones, and that’s the thing that matters. Good-looking, good-working bikes that fit, are safe, and will last.”

The for-real number of Rivendell frames is probably around 5,000 to 6,000, as far as Petersen knows. He’s a bit of an icon, some say the Yvon Chouinard of the cycling industry. He’s commuted only by bike for the past 32 years, even when his rides to work stretched to a hilly 20-plus miles. The first sentence of his 2012 book, Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike, is: “My main goal with this book is to point out what I see as bike racing’s bad influence on bicycles, equipment, and attitudes, and then undo it.” He coined the term s24o — meaning “sub-24 hour overnight,” for bike camping trips that can be pulled off close to home, in less than 24 hours.

Rivendell began at the end of Petersen’s 10-year career as product and marketing manager with Bridgestone Bicycles USA, which closed its doors in the U.S. in 1994. Petersen had hefty influence in the American arm of the Japanese company and under his direction produced bikes that were long-term functional, not flashy, as well as creating catalogs that became collector’s items. When his career at Bridgestone ended, Petersen started Rivendell in his Bay Area garage with $89,000 that was “a mix of retirement money, savings, loans, and money raised by selling stock to friends.”

Rivendell carries on Petersen’s vision during his 10 years at Bridgestone: unique, tasteful lugged-steel frames look good and work well — and inspire devotion in their owners. The Rivendell Owners Google Group has more than 2,000 members. Rivendell frames start at just over $1,000 and go up to $3,000, and most are made in the U.S.

The Atlantis, the first Rivendell production bike, has remained almost exactly the same since 1999, is built to be a do-it-all bike, to fit 26-inch wheels. It comes in one color:  the “Atlantis creamy greenish blue.” Or for a few hundred dollars more, you can have it painted “any color you want (that we approve).” The Flickr group for Rivendell has more than 600 Atlantis photos. One customer’s testimonial: “I ride my Atlantis with such a sense of joy, it is spiritual.”

The current Rivendell offices are in a 5,000-square-foot building in Walnut Creek, six contiguous 24- x 40-foot spaces in a metal building intended for car repair places —  “with all the absence of amenities that implies,” Petersen says. Temperatures at the facility are hot in the summer and cold in the winter, not quite cracking 60 degrees most cold days. The company breaks even, and has made a profit three of the last 15 years.

“Our big mission is getting people comfortable on bikes and in a frame of mind that’s comfortable, happy, and not even defensive about not racing.” he said in a 2008 interview with BikeRadar. Petersen’s personal philosophy confronts our adopting of bike-racing elements for everyday riding: He questions everything about bike racing culture  lightweight frames,wearing cycling shorts, clipless shoes, tight jerseys, gloves, and even helmets, and a look at any of Rivendell’s frames, and the other products sold on the Rivendell website, reveals that: tweed, wool, no lycra, no chamois, no jerseys.

Rivendell bikes are built for a couple thousand dollars or more and intended to last 20 to 30 years, not built for several thousand dollars and be the fastest, sexiest thing on the market for a year or two. Five of eight Rivendell frames are still built in U.S. facilities, along with its custom frames (starting at $3,500). The rest are built in Taiwan, a fact appearing on Rivendell’s website. The decision on where to manufacture, Petersen says, is entirely based on quality as it relates to quantity.

“When your business is making 100 bikes at a time, there’s two ways to look at it,” Petersen says. “Suspiciously, like ‘Oh, they must be taking shortcuts and multiplying them by 100 to earn a big gain in efficiency’ (or something). Or you can look at it this way: When you’re doing one of something and you screw up, the stakes are low. With a hundred, they’re high, so you make sure every duck is lined up. Systems minimize surprises — here in America or there in Taiwan. When we have lower volumes and require more flexibility in the designs and shorter delivery times, we build here.”

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