Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Grant Peterson's Racing Acumen

If there was a Review Board certifying the accuracy of a book's comments on The Tour de France and bicycle racing lore, Grant Peterson's "Just Ride" would not earn its seal of approval.

Despite being the long-time editor of the "Rivendell Reader," Peterson committed a host of serious factual blunders in his recently published slim volume of  bicycle advice.  Perhaps it was intentional, as Peterson expresses so much antagonism to racing, his purpose may have been to diss the sport by slighting some of its corner stones.  His disdain for the influence that racing has on the world of bicycling inspired his "book," which might be more aptly termed a "manual" or "pamphlet" or "booklet."

He proclaims in the very first sentence of "Just Ride" that his main goal is to "point out what I see as bike racing's bad influence on bicycles, equipment and attitude and then undo it."  He goes on to say that he "can't think of anything good that comes from racing," this despite admitting he uses a heart-rate monitor and that he raced for "about six years."  Nor does it prevent him from planting an endorsement for his pamphlet from Giro champion Andy Hampsten on its inside cover, along with ones from fellow iconoclast New York Bike Snob and Jan Heine of "Bicycle Quarterly."

Peterson is a self-confessed bike geek and just might still be recovering from his long-ago years as a racing cyclist.  He admits he used to time all his rides and has point-to-point times for dozens of rides in his vicinity.  He's obsessive enough to prick a finger ten times a week to check his glucose level to study the effect of food and exercise.  He says nothing about weighing his food, though he does say that bicycling isn't a very good way to lose weight.

Despite its inaccuracies and inconsistencies this is a bible, as David Eggers wrote in the "New York Times," for the non-Lycra cyclist unconcerned about the weight or appearance of his bicycle.  It is hard to argue with many of his grievances and recommendations, all summed up in the book's title.  "Just ride," he preaches, and don't worry about what you wear or shaving grams off your bike.  He argues for practicality--fenders and kickstands and baggy clothing and ponchos and utility, all alien to the racing mentality.

Despite all its credible advice, it is unfortunately another example of an American book dispensing faulty information on bicycle racing.  It gets wrong what are basic tenets to any European who has grown up with the sport and knows it as intimately as Americans know theirs.  No American baseball fan would get wrong the number of career home runs Babe Ruth hit, just as no European racing fan would get wrong the number of career victories of Eddie Merckx, the Babe Ruth of bicycle racing.  They all know he won 525 races. It is such a seminal number that Velo Press has just published a $60 coffee table book simply titled Merckx 525. Merckx sells a bike featuring the number 525. Peterson puts the number at "450 or so," though he does know enough to acknowledge that Merckx is the "winningest pro racer of all time."

An even more insulting bungle of the facts was his commentary on Eugene Christophe's legendary repair of his broken fork in a black smith's shop in the middle of a stage after breaking it on the descent of the Tourmalet in the 1913 Tour.  Rules at the time required racers to perform any repairs needed to their bike, whether a flat tire or a broken frame.  Christophe was penalized ten minutes, later reduced to three, for allowing a seven-year old boy to operate the bellows as he forged his fork.  This is one of the most storied events in Tour lore.  There is a plaque on the former black smith shop where it took place and the scene was reenacted on its 50th anniversary with Christophe and the boy. 

All European racing fans know this story as well as the story of Christmas, but not Peterson.  He wrote that Christophe, without naming him despite no doubt riding at some point in his career with toe straps bearing his name, was disqualified for accepting help.   That's not true at all.  Christophe was just slapped with a time penalty and continued on to Paris, finishing seventh despite losing over four hours to his mishap on the Tourmalet.  Peterson also wrote that he broke his frame not his fork.  Shame too on Maynard (Hershon?), who Peterson thanks on his acknowledgement page, who he said "read and improved early crummy drafts."

Maybe his mangling of this episode is a residue of his prejudice against The Tour de France for calling itself a "tour."  Its no tour Peterson says and refers to it as the "Big Old Race Around France." He gives it the acronym "BORAF," one of a handful of acronyms he scatters throughout his booklet.  One of the better is  "S24O" for "Sub-24-Hour Overnights," quick single-night bike tours within a few hours of where one lives.  One of his axioms is that no bike ride is too short.  Even a five minute ride can be fun and productive.  The same goes for tours.

As sensible as he can be, he all too often comes across as being cranky or eccentric, as if he's trying to be a provocateur.  He maintains that helmets aren't all that necessary if one just rides a little more carefully, though he usually wears a helmet at night.  He spells "derailleur" as "derailer," inspired by Sheldon Brown, a man of his ilk, who he also thanks in his acknowledgments.  He says he carries mace about 20% of the time, though doesn't specify when those occasions may be.

Though I can't be as enthusiastic as I'd like to be about this booklet, I did answer true to all ten of his final true-and-false statements to determine if one is an "Unracer," as he considers himself.  One needed only answer true to six of them to qualify.  If there had been more clarity to his final true-and-false statement, "I can name zero to five professional bike racers and their teams," by including the phrase "no more than,"  then I would have only answered true to nine of them.  Hell yes I can name five riders and their teams.  I can name practically everyone on several of the nine-man rosters from this year's Tour de France--Garmin, Sky, Radio Shack, BMC and assorted others and am proud of it.


Stuart said...

I think you meant "tenets" not "tenants." The sarcastic tone of the book probably comes from the NY Bike Snob who has made a career out of sarcasm and cynicism about the bicycling industry. I guess sarcasm can be entertaining in modest doses, but I think it would get tiring in book length.

george christensen said...

Thanks for the correction. I wouldn't say the book had a sarcastic tone, at least compared to the Snob, but Peterson is definitely positioning himself with the Snob giving prominence to his recommendations for the book in the lead position on both the back cover and the inside flap.

johnwilldo said...

Having never been a bike racer and only recently picking up on recreational riding riding, I found the booklet an interesting and quick read. It reprints many of the pieces already published in the Rivendell Reader. Yes, Grant does seem to come off a little obsessive in his own approach to riding. It is like any opinion piece, take what you like, ignore what you don't find useful.

Grant strongly implies that carbon fiber bikes are likely to fail at any time and are not able to withstand the rigors of riding. This appears somewhat self serving since Rivendell produces all metal framed bicycles. It is like the drug company advertisements, create the fear and then introduce the drug so that you can ask your doctor if it is right for you!

The recurring theme seemed to be, have fun riding and that a proper fit will help you attain that goal.