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Pilgrims Progress

Published April 12, 2011


I came to Rivendell like a refugee, dragging my belongings behind me in a red roller borrowed from my wife.  A January fugitive from Seattle, I was seeking sunlight and perhaps a bit of enlightenment.  Having taken the BART train directly from SFO to Walnut Creek, I dodged SUV's while jaywalking across busy suburban streets.  Whenever I extended my stride, the roller would bounce off my heel and go into a Dutch roll, trying to twist out of my grasp.

We are all seekers after efficiency, if only out of laziness. It occurred to me that two big wheels, preferably attached to a bicycle with a stout wire basket, would be more efficient than the tiny plastic ones squeaking and scraping across the rutted pavement behind me.  As Grant Petersen has noted in the Rivendell Reader,  even a cheap, neglected bicycle is much more efficient than walking.

My bicycles aren’t cheap, but they have fallen into disuse, which is the most shameful neglect of all. Efficiency, fitness, and eco-consciousness are great reasons to ride, but terrible motivations.  They make me think of Al Gore. I want to be responsible, but I don’t want to feel responsible. I want to feel like I’m getting away with something. I want to have fun.

Tucked between a Hertz agency and a Toyota dealership in a nondescript industrial suite, Rivendell isn't easy to find. Like so many other destinations in my peripatetic life, I came at it with the right intentions, but from the wrong direction. With my goal in sight,  I fetched up against a concrete block wall. Faced with the choice of backtracking several blocks or scaling the wall, I hesitated and then tossed the roller over and made an undignified scramble after it.

There was no mistaking Rivendell. Perhaps a dozen bikes were parked along a stretch of alley fronting the industrial park, with not an ounce of carbon fiber among them.  Entering the first of three open doors, I found myself in a showroom surrounded by A. Homer Hilsens, Bombadils, Hunqapillars and Atlantis's. My eye was immediately drawn to a grey and red Hunqapillar. It had mustache handlebars, big, 29'r knobbies mounted on 700c rims, and was topped, of course, with an inviting Brooks saddle.

"Want to take it for a test ride?", asked Keven, a tall, clear-eyed young man who had been talking on the phone behind the counter.

"Well, of course."

"Take off your shoes," he instructed, in a friendlier tone than the TSA lady had used at SEATAC earlier that morning. He handed me a ruler with a measuring tape hanging down from the middle of it.  “Straddle that ruler and pull it up against your pubic bone," he said with a straight face. They don’t waste time getting acquainted at Rivendell. Keven knelt down and held the end of the tape to the floor. "You sure you got it all the way up against the bone?” he prompted. I heisted the ruler up until a thrill of pain reminded me of the overzealous inseam measurement a tux shop tailor had administered before my senior prom. Old humiliations lie in wait for decades to surprise us anew.

"Ninety-six and a half," Keven announced. I exhaled and handed him the ruler, feeling relief intermingled with senseless pride at having put up such a big number. "Bet they don't see a ninety-six and a half every day around here", I thought as Keven adjusted the seat post on the Hunqapillar. "Take her out for a ride," he said.

The ride more than made up for the discomfort of the fitting. The Hunqapillar was agile, responsive and great fun to ride. The big tires soaked the roughness right out of the rutted alley and the strong frame, with its extra diagonal top tube, kept things in line and stable. The Portuguese cork grips at the ends of the mustache bars seemed to reach out to my grasp like the extended hands of an old friend. This was the bike I'd been wanting all my life without knowing it.

When I returned, I did shake hands with an old friend, because Grant Petersen had appeared in the show room. I’ve known Grant for more than twenty years, going back to his Bridgestone days. Over those two decades we've only met a few times, so I'm probably taking liberties in calling him a friend, but like thousands of other readers of the Reader, I feel I've gotten to know him pretty well.

There’s a joyful sense of purpose about the Rivendell headquarters.  It’s a  functional, friendly and open place, without a trace of pretension.  It’s hard to tell the customers from the employees. Everybody looks as though they’re ready to head out the door for a ride.  I asked Grant if those smooth, rolling trails in the background of photos in the Rivendell Reader and the web site were really as nice as they appeared. “They are, and they’re right out there waiting for you,” he said,  sweeping his arm toward the open door.  

As Grant and I talked about old times, the phone began to ring and a young guy rode in the door on an orange Sam Hillborne, rolled up to the counter and answered it without dismounting. "That's Tom Ritchey's son," Grant noted, after he rode out again. "He could have done that behind his back." I told Grant I've visited countless bike businesses over the years, and could name only a few where everybody seemed so glad to be there. "I can’t believe I get to come here everyday and work with all of my best friends," he replied.  

While we were talking, another pilgrim arrived dragging two suitcases. He was a business guy named Ryan who also turned out to be from Seattle. We compared notes on bakeries and bike routes, two things that seem to go together. As devotees of Bakery Nouveau in West Seattle, we recognized each other as kindred spirits.  While Keven put Ryan through the inseam ritual,  my eye drifted back to the Hunqapillar.  I could see myself riding it on a pastry tour of Berkeley, rolling proudly from the Virginia Bakery, to Sconehenge, to Crixa Cakes.  Nodding at the Hunqapillar, I asked Grant if I could buy it.

“Sure,” he said. “We could build one up for you.”

“Actually, Grant, I mean that one right there, right now. It’s perfect.”

“Can’t do it. That’s our demonstrator. We don’t sell our demonstrators.”

“But you’re denying yourselves a lot of impulse sales,” I whined as I scanned the room full of bikes, which had suddenly become even more desirable for their unavailability.

“Think about it, Steve. If we sold a demo bike to anyone who wanted one, then that Hunqapillar wouldn’t have been there for you to ride.”

I took consolation knowing I still had my Rivendell Redwood in the garage at home, which I bought right off the floor from Bill Davidson of Elliott Bay Bicycles in Seattle a few years prior.  Fortunately, some dealers aren’t afraid to take advantage of an impulse buyer.

Mass production and distribution conspire to separate products from their stories, and things separate from their stories lose their meaning. They become just a pile of parts. Everything Rivendell sells, from a Nitto stem to a bar of Grandpa’s Pine Tar Soap, comes with a story. You may not be able to buy a demo bike on impulse, but if you’re lucky, you’ll leave with a renewed enthusiasm for riding, and with a complementary bar of Pine Tar soap imparting a pungent scent to everything in your suitcase.  Just watch out for the guy with the ruler.


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