This article was originally posted to my previous website on August 7, 2013. For posterity’s sake I’m reposting it here with that timestamp.
Late last fall, my son learned how to ride his bike without training wheels–just in time for winter. During winter, he outgrew his tiny person bike. So in May, I purchased a new bike for him with the stipulation that I would not put training wheels on it. And within a few weeks, we were riding up and down the block together. Shortly after that, riding around town together. It wasn’t long before we wanted the whole family to join in on our adventures, so I set my wife up with a new bike for her birthday, ordered a bike trailer for my daughter, and bought a bike rack for the car.
This sudden ability to bike as a family was impetus to bring a long-lost friend out of storage: my 55cm 1993 Bridgestone XO–1.
This bike and I have quite the history together. I lucked into finding the frame for sale in 1998 and spent almost half a year afterward sourcing the parts I wanted, buying them as I could afford to. I spec’d the drivetrain and built the wheels specifically for a ride I planned from Portland, Maine to Anchorage, Alaska—a ride I never ended up taking, though I’ve put the bike through many more miles as that trip would have.
The XO–1 is a unique bicycle; only a thousand XO–1s (across all sizes) were made in 1993, the only year it was made with cantilever brakes, so when they go up for sale, they vanish immediately. The bike is legendary enough to warrant a company to manufacture a tribute to the original and if I park it somewhere “bike literate”, 7 times out of 10 there is another bike geek drooling over it when I return. What makes it special? Some combination of its frame geometry, reliable and repairable construction (steel tubes joined by lugs), and its original components make it quirky: a bike that is simultaneously fast and nimble as well as strong and utilitarian. It was and is a bike made to ride both for pleasure and for purpose. It is at home on a road, on a dirt path, down a hill, or loaded with camping gear. The XO–1 and the Bridgestone USA brand eschewed bike trends at the time (and many which have emerged since) by being so resolutely functional, and this is often attributed to the philosophical leanings of Grant Peterson, who ran Bridgestone USA and who now runs Rivendell Bicycle Works.
Image courtesy of sheldonbrown.com, one of the Internet’s greatest cycling resources.
Together, Grant, his philosophies on cycling, his companies, and their bikes are, for some, a religion (and to others, a cult). Grant is someone who, in an age of disposable everything, designs, pedals, and peddles bikes and bikestuffs that can last a lifetime. This is hard to understand if you’re in the market for a carbon fiber bike (which if ridden with any frequency will not last more than a few years), require spandex and special shoes to go for a ride, or need 33 gears and electronic shifting (I just found out about those last two in the last few weeks—WTF?). Bikes like the XO are hard to grok if your primary relationship to your bike is mediated by its spec sheet instead of the simple joy of pedaling somewhere.
Over the years, I think the general populous has gravitated toward Grant’s approach to bikes and to cycling, and this convergence is not unlike the way in which woodworkers and handtools have been rejoined in a renaissance of sorts. Until recently, the term “retrogrouch” was often used to describe Grant, much like the term “neanderthal” is used to describe handtool enthusiasts. But nowadays, bikes of the decidedly non-racing variety and cyclists of the decidedly non-spandex-wearing variety are everywhere, just as many hobbyist woodworkers are returning to handtools and handtool skills as a cornerstone of their craft. As with boutique toolmakers in the woodworking realm, custom framebuilders and cottage bikestuff manufacturers now dot the cycling landscape. Many of those frames are reverting to the kind of bikecraft Grant has always promoted: steel frames hand-brazed by lugs, and many of those bag and accessory makers are working more traditional approaches into their work as well (small gloat: I just scored a few pieces from this fine boutique, a husband and wife team).
In cycling and in woodworking, for at least some individuals (myself included), smart, skilled craftspeople making beautiful and useful stuff that lasts almost forever is a Good Thing in this world. It’s not just the stuff that’s good, it’s the combination of skilled people, the ethos behind that stuffmaking, and the proliferation of not-mass-produced-crap which together make the world an incrementally better place.
So you can imagine the thrill for me in taking my XO out of its box, cleaning and refurbishing its parts, putting it back together and riding with my family. And now, whenever we can, we bike to wherever we can. Parks. Farmers Markets. On Chicago’s spectacular lakefront. Around forest preserves and through one of the area’s arboretums.
Let me tell you–after having lived on top of a big hill in Maine, halfway up a mountain in Santa Cruz, CA, and on top of another big hill in the SF Bay Area, I could not be more thrilled at how freaking flat Illinois is.