This Bike Company Launched a Black Reparations Program. Then the Lawyers Called.
Rivendell’s shop is tucked in the back of an industrial office park, flanked by auto body shops and a vacuum cleaner store. Rivendell has two units—one is a showroom with rows of colorful bicycles leaning upright from their kickstands on a bare concrete floor, and the other is a lived-in warren of desk space, cluttered with telephones, printers, and fax machines, lined with cardboard boxes of bicycle components and cabinets with grease-stained handles. There are vintage coffee cans storing miscellaneous parts and tools with their wooden handles whittled into geometric spires.
Petersen is known for his unconventional opinions about bikes. He is 68 and fit, only lightly flecked with age in a way that implies decades spent riding underneath the California sunshine. He’s thoughtful and deliberate in speech, with a uniform of cuffed, baggy pants, sandals with straps, and a visor with mussed hair spiking out of the top.
His thoughts, many of which he espoused in a 2012 book called Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike, include the following: spandex and special shoes are unnecessary, carbon fiber bikes and skinny tires are impractical, carbohydrates are poor fuel, helmets are optional, and bikes are best when equipped for maximum utility and fun with fenders, kickstands, and baskets. His company is an expression of his maverick philosophies, and he has sold thousands of bikes with upright, swept-back handlebars to a feverish group of customers who see the world through a similar lens. “Rivendell is really a church disguised as a bike company,” Richard Schwinn, former executive of the eponymous bicycle company, once said. “And that church has a lot of true believers.”
So perhaps it was no surprise to Petersen’s acolytes when he announced Rivendell’s plan to address racism in the bike industry. “The bike companies today are all inheritors of things that have happened in the past,” he told me. “And we have good customers that we can rally to get behind this cause.” His spark to formalize BRP came in part after watching a video in which Patagonia’s CEO, Rose Marcario, talked about private companies and their role in activism. Petersen’s revelation was this: individuals are too small to do anything, and publicly traded businesses are beholden to their shareholders, but private businesses like Rivendell “have a longer and looser leash to try to do some good in the world.”
He assembled an advisory board of Black cyclists and scholars to discuss the idea, and shared a series of phone calls with former REI retail manager and longtime friend Kevin Washington (the two met working at the Berkeley REI store in 1975). “Lots of people of color don’t have the spare discretionary dollar base to participate in biking,” Washington says. “And here was a way that Grant could try to do something about that.”
The advisers described Petersen as curious, passionate, and willing to cut through the natural awkwardness of conversations around race at a heightened moment of sensitivity. “It was an interesting thing to witness someone try to think his way through all the nuances of the problem,” says Vernon, who became an informal adviser. “But I think that you can’t actually learn anything if you aren’t willing to take risks.”
They warned Petersen from lived experience that the backlash would be loud, that lawsuits may follow, and that the word “reparations” was a loaded term. They also talked through alternate versions of allyship, like starting a standalone 501(c)(3) for donations, that had less potential to backfire on his business. But Petersen concluded that reparations were the most direct way for Rivendell to level the playing field. “Many white people have inherited benefits from the past, yet they don’t want to inherit debt from the past,” Petersen says.
“The bike, and cycling in general, is really a microcosm of American society and global society in terms of access to things.”
When Rivendell launched BRP, others in the cycling industry were also addressing diversity—mostly by deploying their vast financial resources. Specialized pledged $10 million in bicycle investment to underserved communities, Trek committed at least $8.5 million to an initiative that includes hiring people of color, and Cannondale funded a cycling team at a historically Black university. For scale, Trek rakes in close to $1 billion in sales per year, compared to Rivendell’s $3 million.
While these examples of corporate responsibility may be laudable, P. Khalil Saucier, a cyclist and professor of critical black studies at Bucknell University, pointed out that the Treks of the world were mostly focused on the idea of diversity, while Rivendell was making a grander play to address a historical legacy of racism in the sport. “The spirit of Rivendell’s program is definitely something you don’t see throughout cycling, or much of the outdoor industry in general,” Saucier says. While representation matters, it should not be the limit, he adds. “Corporations and industry leaders need to think about the root cause—that is the structural and material legacies of racism.”
A 2020 USA Cycling survey found that 83 percent of cyclists are men and 86 percent are white people, and there is a long historical context for that latter figure. “The bike has always been a kind of tool to expand segregation on multiple levels,” Saucier says. “Various discriminatory practices, from redlining to low wages and more, have prohibited Black people from partaking in the sport of cycling.”
The inequality started in the first bike boom of the 1890s, when cycling lessons and clubs were only available to white people, and bikes were priced out of reach for all but the most elite. The exclusion continued through the next century in ways that had a chilling effect on who rides and where—like a 1971 law in Washington, DC, that required costly bike licenses, which stopped many impoverished Black people from riding as commuters, or a 1987 bike ban in Midtown Manhattan, through which Wall Street executives sought to bar mostly Black and brown bike messengers from their lobbies and avenues, even while those same executives flocked to the mountain bike trails around their summer cabins upstate. A recent Los Angeles Times investigation reviewed 44,000 bike stops by police and found that they disproportionately targeted poorer communities with large nonwhite populations.
“Since the beginning of the modern era, Black mobility has always been contained and policed,” Saucier says. “There is no one definitive form of segregation that has led to excluding black people from cycling—the whole problem is overdetermined by a host of historical and contemporary practices,” he adds. “The bike, and cycling in general, is really a microcosm of American society and global society in terms of access to things.”