Tuesday, December 4, 2012

We're All Doing It Right: Thoughts on Grant Petersen's Just Ride

Just Ride by Grant Petersen
Earlier this year, Rivendell founder Grant Petersen published a book, Just Ride - a collection of short essays serving as a "radically practical guide" to cycling. After reading Just Ride over the summer I was not sure how to review it, so I held off. But at this stage I've been asked so many times whether I've read it, or been told that I ought to read it, that I figured I should share my thoughts. 

To provide some background, I am a huge fan of Grant Petersen's writing; can't get enough of it. I have been an avid follower of the Rivendell Reader and "blug" over the past 4 years. I'll even read the product descriptions on the Rivendell website just for fun. My admiration of his writing has nothing to do with whether I agree with everything he has to say; these are two separate things. But as a writer, I think he is uniquely gifted at creating engaging narratives and at establishing a sense of a shared perspective between himself and the reader. Just Ride has some of that magic, and that's what makes it stand out amidst the other bike books out there. At the same time, the book is quite short and largely reiterates what some of us have already read in Rivendell's literature over the years. I would like more! When discussing the book, Grant has mentioned that initially he had written a much longer, rambling manuscript that he and his publisher later nixed. I can't help but be curious about that earlier version. Maybe a longer, more in-depth book is in the future? I sincerely hope so. Grant Petersen is more than a bike industry guy; he is a writer.

But getting back to Just Ride: I would describe it as a friendly, engaging guide to cycling that is aimed at beginners and those getting back into riding later in life. Just Ride aims to portray riding a bicycle as a fun and uncomplicated activity, and seeks to free it from the seriousness that has been imposed on it by the racing, fitness and advocacy cultures. Each chapter offers advice on some concrete aspect of cycling. For the most part I agree with the advice, and the details I don't agree with don't really matter: You get a handful of bike people in a room and there is seldom a consensus. The important thing, as I see it, is that the advice feels accessible and appealing to beginners and makes them want to start riding, makes them feel that cycling is for them. Once they get into it, they can form their own preferences about specifics. The main thing is to make them feel inspired and comfortable in the first place, and Just Ride does that. 

The one thing that distracts from this, is that the book described as "the manual for the unracer" in fact focuses too much on racing, in my view. Even the term "unracer" itself suggests that racing is really the dominant type of riding, so much so that regular riding must be described in terms of what racing is not. Why not just call bike riding "bike riding," instead of turning it into a negative? It seems that the author assumes his readers have already been inundated by the racing culture and all the lycra/clipless/carbon/laterally stiff clutter that entails. But while this may have been true 5+ years ago, today I think it is far less likely. With plain-clothes bicycle commuting being covered by major US newspapers, I do not think racing is necessarily the prism through which novices perceive cycling these days. By mentioning racing constantly Just Ride makes it seem important, sending a mixed message to readers.

But my more serious critique of the book has to do with its interpretation. Namely, I notice that some readers are interpreting Just Ride to mean that there is a very specific way to "just ride," and that those not following Grant Petersen's advice to the letter are doing it wrong. Seriously: Since this book came out, every time I mention clipless pedals, a carbon fork, padded cycling shorts, riding with a club, or enjoying watching a bicycle race, sure enough someone will throw the book at me - telling me that I must read Just Ride and mend my wayward ways. I am pretty sure this is not the spirit in which the book was intended by Mr. Petersen, but nonetheless that is how some folks are seeing fit to use it. And to them I have this to say: We do not need more "you're doing it wrong" narratives in this crazy, fragmented bicycle culture. What we need is more inclusivity. As far as I am concerned, if you are enjoying riding your bike, you are doing it right - regardless of how high your handlebars are or what material your bicycle is made of. Let's all just ride our bikes in ways that make us happy, and not pass judgment on others. 

Just Ride may be available at your local bike shop or book store, or it can be purchased from Rivendell direct

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