Thinking Rivendell

After a few years of riding, I have figured out some things about my tastes in biking.

I no longer lust after the high-end carbon fiber racing rigs. I’m not joining the Sunday morning ride to hammer hard for 60 miles. I’m not planning to ride for 40 miles without taking a break some where along the line.

But I still love to ride my bike.

I like to ride long. And I do enjoy more intense training, if I’m training with a goal in mind. For example, I try to work in a ride once a week that visits some of our neighborhood hills. These aren’t big hills, but after several repeats on them, they amount to a tough workout.

It appears there are others who share my interests — lots of others. We never hear about them because they’re not the kind who join clubs and do group rides. They just enjoy taking a turn on their bikes.

There’s a bike maker for them. It’s Rivendell bikes, of Walnut Creek, California in the San Francisco Bay area.

Rivendell is all about bikes that put the rider in a more relaxed, more upright riding position. Their A. Homer Hilsen model (Yes, they go in for odd model names, too) is perhaps their flagship bike, and embodies Rivendell’s idea of a good ride.

If it looks a little tall, it is — a 61 cm model.

Notice the handlebars on the Hilsen. They’re roughly even with the saddle, not a couple of inches below it. The steel bike has fenders (with mudflaps), a triple crankset, and a leather Brooks saddle. It can take tires as wide as 38 mm and still fit fenders, although many Hilsen owners probably run 32s.

Here’s part of Rivendell’s philosophy, as outlined on its website: “If you’re a mid-50s rider of moderate fitness, but ride fewer than 3,000 miles per year, and you want to ride longish and steepish hills, the standard road gearing you’ll find on virtually any stock road bike, is too high. Your big ring should be less than 50t, you middle ring should be 36t or 34t, and your small ring should be 24t or 26t. The biggest cog on your cassette should be at least 27t, and preferably 32t. For non-competitive riding, it’s hard to justify tires smaller than 28 mm.”

Yeah, baby. Give me a bike like that, and I’ll scoot right up all those steepish hills in this area. I won’t be nearly as fast as I can be on my current bike, which isn’t nearly as fast as some of my friends’ racing bikes — but I’ll be fast enough for me, and probably a lot more comfortable.

Grant Petersen, who heads Rivendell, has distinctive opinions about what makes a good bike. Poking around on the website will turn up a lot of Petersen gems, like these:

“Go for a one-hour ride underdressed sometime, because it’s good to be really cold on a bike every now and then.The reverse (overdressing in hot weather) is not necessary!

Never blame your bike or your health or anything else if you’re the last one up the hill or in to the rest stop.

If your brake hoods are black, wrap your bars with a different color tape, so it doesn’t look like a one-piece set-up.

Never let your chain squeak.”

It might seem that Rivendell is all about riding slow and easy. While that’s part of what it supports, it also likes a well-designed, comfortable, fast bike. So I suppose for some of us, it’s a matter of having your cake and eating it, too. Laid back — but fast — riding. Riding done for your own satisfaction, not anyone else’s.


  1. Mel Hughes says

    Sometimes I think you must be reading over my shoulder! I have been looking at the A. Homer Hilsen and the Sam Hillborne for some time. I finally entered into a conversation with Rivendell and (hopefully) some time in April I will be riding a Hilsen…

    I love my old Litespeed frame but the truth is that it was made for someone much younger and more flexible than me. In trying to get it to be more in line with exactly the things that you quoted from Grant Petersen, I began to see that having a bike that actually fit me and fit the style of riding I do might mean that I could continue riding as long as I can balance on two wheels. This last year fighting to find a comfortable position on the Litespeed began to open my eyes. The conventional, bike store fitting was not working. My lower back refused to loosen up enough to allow me to ride more than 40 miles.

    As the seat and handlebars moved more to the same level and my largest rear cog rose to 32 teeth, things started improving. But my Litespeed is beginning to look a little strange, at least by the club standards around here.

    Like you, I had already decided that most of my riding this year was going to be solo. I might or might not hit a “T-shirt” ride. But what I really enjoy is moving about this areal I live in, looking and moving myself along at my speed. I think the Rivendell bike will enhance that quite a bit.

    But this is a bit spooky…

  2. says

    This is my daily commuter:

    I started off with a very basic 1976 Raleigh Grand Prix, added 28mm cross tires, compact crankset, 700c wheels, fenders and a $10 seat that’s very comfortable, and I could probably ride this bike all day.

  3. says

    Beautiful bike! Let me add a note that is probably unwarranted but if it prevents someone from injury it will be worth it.

    This bike has an unusually tall stem and this definitely helps building an upright and comfortable riding position (bars level with seat). I’m not sure about how this stem works, but the old school stems do have limits. If you are a true Noob and you think you might want to raise your stem, be careful. Most old school stems have limits marked on them. Do not over extend your stem, it could snap and cause a serious crash and likely injury.

    Keep the rubber side down!

  4. Rich F says

    I must respectfully disagree with everything you write. A bike can be made of carbon and be very comfortable. And if a good shop fits it for you, the geometry will match your body and your riding position.

    I have ridden steel, titanium and carbon. My current carbon bike, a LOOK 586, is the most comfortable and fastest I have ever enjoyed riding. It is smooth and stiff and seems to disappear underneath me.

    I continue to be amazed at Rivendale successfully marketing bikes that are slower and heavier, because they are supposedly more comfortable. And riders who claim to not be interested in going fast buy into it and become apostles. I’ll be honest, I want to go as fast and hard as I can on occasion, and while every moment of every ride is not a race, some moments of some rides are. If I get beat in those moments, I want it to be because of my legs, not because of a slow bike.

    • ascpgh says

      Fascinating reply that seems to focus on the details that you perceive justifying your personal choices and preference; alas, an opinion.

      Opinions are privilege. Have your own but do not ever attempt to inflict it upon others as they are righteous to have and report their own.

      Your brief rides (three to five hours) are probably well within the envelope plausible for both you, your bike and the fit your dealer ascertained for you. I will contend that after six hours in the saddle on a light bike with less attention to finer details of fit that your performance will degrade beyond the scalars defined in first semester physics (f=MA), and usually applied to the bike world. I rode my Rambouillet across the country with 85-140 miles daily.

      My cohorts had been fit by a Serotta guru with years of board track competition under his currently very high belt. Those three were fairly crippled at the end of each day despite lighter, more tech-savvy 10-speed components and “professional” fitment compared to my be-fendered, bar-end friction-shifted, Brooks B-17 outfitted RIVENDELL.

      Should one be so focused on minutia to discriminate and define fact, it would be bedrock to your argument to have enough comprehension and facility with the name of the subject you deride.

    • Russ Payne says

      No idea how old you are, but if you still care much about not getting beat, my guess is your well under 50. 5 years ago I could have written your post. But a few years on I care lots more about how I feel at mile 50 than whose getting up the hills faster than me. And after riding lots of fast bikes including a crabon dusting Cinelli Supercoursa I still cherish, I’m really enjoying my Rivendell.

  5. Janice in GA says

    I have been admiring Rivendell bikes for a long, long time. I also admire their philosophy, but I’m getting old and curmudgeonly, so that may be part of it. :)

    @Rich F, no problem if you don’t want a bike like a Rivendell bike. There are plenty of bikes marketed to folks like you. It’s when they try to market them to folks like ME that I have a problem. I’m interested in riding as fast as I can, but for ME, that’s probably going to be 13-14 miles/hr average speed (and that’s on a GOOD day on a flat course.) So a fast, fancy carbon bike would be wasted on me.

    I’d have a Rivendell if I could afford one. Since I can’t, I ride a less expensive steel touring bike from REI. It’s not the lightest bike in the world, but it’s the most comfortable one I’ve been on in ages. And I’ve put over 1200 miles on it since October, just riding around town. :) It’s slightly overgeared for me, but I can change that if I want to.

    The best bike for someone is the bike they’ll RIDE.

    • says

      I was going to write a separate answer to Rich, but it would just echo what Janice said. If your thing is going fast, by all means, go fast. It’s not my thing anymore — although I’m not slow, either.

      • Mel Hughes says

        I would only add to Janice’s comments to Rich that, while a bike fitting on a modern styled racing frame may have worked for him, it did not for me. I can only speak for myself. I have been riding as an adult since the mid-1970’s. I too have owned steel, carbon, and titanium frames. My current frame is “correctly” sized was carefully fitted to me by a respected bicycle shop owner in Nashville. He used a fit kit and his own extensive, and generally sucessful methods of matching the frame and points of contact to me. He did succeed in providing me a more comfortable position than I had previously. But as I said earlier, it did not work in the longer term. It does not work for everyone.

        It really is no great mystery why there is a growing segment of cyclists who are adopting some or all of the same fitting and riding philosophies that Rivendell puts forth. They obviously speak to and work for that group of people. Just because our experiences differ from Rich’s do not make them any less valid.

    • says

      Nope. Not in the ol’ household budget. Maybe someday. Or maybe by then, my biking interests will have taken a turn in yet another direction — who knows?

  6. Barabara says

    Gotta agree w/ Rich on this one. I own a carbon frame bike and I commute on a steel cyclocross. I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoy going as fast as my legs can go on the carbon bike and get really frustrated at the weight/slowness of the commuter. I got home from work the other night and announced that the cyclocross rides like a rock! I’ve pulled as much weight as I can off it.
    Last night I went out for a fast 20 miles on the carbon bike and loved every minute of it. I’m gonna sell the cyclocross I think and think about using the carbon bike to commute with….DFW traffic requires it.

  7. says

    Very interesting post. The rationale for the Rivendell is similar to my rationale for buying a hybrid. Unfortunately for me, the hybrid turned out to be not nearly reliable enough. That was due to the quality of the bike and not the basic idea. I think it is undeniable that the geometry of a top end race bike is less comfortable than that of a touring bike. You’re obviously trading some speed for comfort, but if speed is not your primary concern then this may be a very exceptable tradeoff. The bike material is an interesting debate, but is separate (IMHO) from the bike geometry issue. If there is a carbon-framed touring bike, that would be an interesting combination!

    • Barbara says

      Janice…..I always wave so you will know it’s me cause I wave like a total dork… dork that is! The dorky wave is so folks don’t think I’m one of those snotty carbon frame fast riding spandex wearing types! 😉

  8. Edwin Bradley says

    Nice bike!! I am trying to pick the right size Hilsen. How tall are you, and what is your pbh? Does your Hilsen fit you or is it too big?

    • Mel Hughes says

      I am 5′ 10.5″ tall with a pbh of 85. After talking with the folks at Rivendell, they recommended a 59 cm A. Homer Hilsen frame. It is the largest frame I have ever ridden. But the position is very comfortable. I think they know their business very well. Talk with them when before you order. They will guide you through the process.

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