What a Bike Can Teach You: Ode to My Long-Gone Bridgestone RB-T

My first “real” bike was a 1991 Bridgestone RB-T, which my parents bought for me in 7th grade or thereabouts, not realizing the significance of what they were doing. They were not bike people, so they couldn’t have, really. In the basement, they had two bike-boom-era Peugeots that had seen use in their college days but not much since then. That was the extent of it.

A page from the 1991 Bridgestone catalog, showing the RB-T Synergy being ridden by the mythical Pineapple Bob, himself. The text is pure Grant Petersen: “This is our most versitle bike. If you don’t race either on the road or the dirt, and you don’t have a good bike yet, and you can only get one, and the hills in your area demand low gears . . . this is your bike. . . . In the cow photo, the bike has a normal road stem. Actually it comes with a 90 degree stem, for slightly higher handlebar position.” All the catalog scans come from Sheldon Brown, here.

We had the good fortune to get the bike from Hiroshi Iimura, designer of beautiful Ebisu bicycles, inspiration for Grant Petersen’s designs at Bridgestone and later Rivendell, and proprietor of the elegantly understated Jitensha Studio in Berkeley, CA. (In 2006, the shop was profiled in the New York Times.) My folks had met him on the school playground, which, as a parent now myself, I realize is the primary way you meet new people as an adult with kids.

The storefront window of Jitensha Studio on University Ave., in Berkeley, CA. The reflection is not mine.

My previous bikes had been department- or toy-store hi-ten Huffys and the like. The were heavy, rattly, and not great in any sort of objective sense. Nevertheless, they were just fine for a kid like me. I didn’t take particularly good care of them and had a tendency to crash into things. I’m fairly sure I rarely locked them up. I had fun on them, and they worked on the hills, trails, and roads just fine, even as I saw my friends getting “better” bikes that had super-cool features like rapid-fire indexing or cantilever brakes. My bike had bottom-of-the-barrel friction thumbies, wiggly side-pulls, and steel one piece cranks. Mine had a kickstand, which I removed in protest when I discovered how uncool this was.

Little could I realize, of course, that the thumbies were teaching me how to shift and trim gears by intuition, and the flexible side-pulls were, in their own lawsuit-courting way, teaching me how to control my bike by moving my weight around and looking ahead down the trail. Learning to shift and stop on what can only be called weak equipment taught me not just how to ride a bike but how to be a cyclist.

The RB-T represented such a quantum leap beyond anything that I had ridden before that I am sure I didn’t really know what to make of it. When we picked it up from Jitensha Studio, I took it for a quick test ride in a nearby parking lot, even though purchasing it was a prearranged deal — I think my parents had deferred to Hiroshi’s expertise and he had just chosen and ordered it specifically for us. I remember liking it immediately and being awed by the drop bars and the aero cable routing. The bike itself had a lugged steel frame, Dia-Compe cantilever brakes and levers, Suntour bar-end shifters and derailleurs, and an SR triple crankset, with silver arms and black rings. Seven speeds. Toe clips and straps. Quick release hubs, not bolt on. No kickstand. (The bike wasn’t perfect, of course; over time, the brake lever hoods twisted and stretched, and the indexing was never really spot on, no matter how much adjustment.)

It was black with blue Bridgestone branding and the word Synergy written on the top tube.

I loved that bike, even though, or perhaps because, it was so different from the rapid-fire, suspension-forked, knobby-bristled mountain bikes my friends were starting to ride. It was fast, even though it was by no stretch of the imagination a racing bike. (Ok, I did consistently win the junior high PE “hill climbing time trial” on it, but that was not setting the bar too high.) I rode it on paved roads, dirt roads, gravel roads; I rode it on allroads (or is it all-roads? Perhaps we should ask his Suppleness… ), before the marketeers or xerox machines got a hold of the oldest concept in bicycling — a bike that can just be ridden be damned the type of road surface — and turned it into a lifestyle commodity.

It was a strong bike, in a way that only well-built steel bikes can be. I crashed the bike more often than I should have, sometimes softly, sometimes hard, and it could be repaired and kept on going. I fell over at stop lights a few times when I was still getting used to the toe clips. I just couldn’t get my feet out and simply tipped over at a standstill. Embarrassing. Once, I was admiring the rear derailleur while riding downhill and crashed into a parked car, splaying me on the road, and potato-chipping the rear wheel. This was before every kid had a cell phone to call parents for pick-ups, so I hoisted the bike onto my shoulder, imagined I was a cyclocross racer, and walked home, slot-cleated cycling shoes and road rash and all.

I tried to build a new wheel myself, with Jobst Brandt’s The Bicycle Wheel in hand. Hiroshi kindly took my effort and rebuilt it for me after a few weeks of repeated failure, and then he bent the derailleur hanger back into place.

Once, while going bike camping with the Junior Rangers, a Berkeley anti-establishment youth program run by the Regional Park District and understood by everyone — the District, the naturalists, the parents and the Kids alike — to be a device meant to subvert and topple the Boy-Scouts, I rear-ended another kid’s bike. I was pulling a Burley trailer full of gear and couldn’t stop in time with the momentum it created on the ball-bearing fire road in Briones Park. The fork bent so far back that the tire peaked into the main triangle. We “fixed ” the fork on the spot. After taking off the wheels, I held the fork blades and my friends pulled on the rear triangle. We pulled until there was about an half inch of clearance between the downtube and the tire and then rode on, not home.

Imagine if we had been on plastic bikes? They probably both would have shattered.

In case you don’t know Briones, it is one of the numerous open space parks in the backyard of Rivendell in Walnut Creek, lucky ducks.

Hiroshi properly repaired the bike after we returned, using a fork from a 1994 RB-T. The color didn’t quite match, however. Instead of black it was a very dark green. But from afar it wasn’t immediately apparent.

The 1994 RB-T from that year’s catalog. There were a lot of improvements over the 1991 model, such as the rack braze-ons. It also had Shimano bar-end shifters, and while I don’t want to get into a Shimano vs. Suntour fit in the comments, the Shimano shifters had a friction option and the Suntours that I had did not (or it didn’t work). So from that perspective — which one has friction, and ignoring everything else — the Shimano shifters were objectively better. And I suppose that Suntour as it had been was about to not exist anymore, so this was a prudent switch. Too bad Bridgestone was going the same way… The 700x26c tires (down from 32c stock tires in 1991), though, must have been a concession to racer-obsessed marketeers.

It was my one bike, but at the same time, it was a road bike, a touring bike, a mountain bike. It was a commuting bike. In the first couple years of high school, I would throw the bike in the back of my dad’s yellow 1977 Datsun pickup and he would drive me to school in the morning. In the afternoon, I would bike home with panniers full of books. There was a sickening climb right off the bat, but it was a point of pride that I could do it with panniers full of math, English, chemistry, and German.

I continuously made small changes to the bike, learning mechanical skills and the value of simple, understandable components along the way. Hiroshi sold me my first tools, a set of hex wrenches, a spoke wrench, and a set of cone wrenches. I changed the stem from the aluminum one to a Ritchey welded chromoly one. It was painted yellow. I added Wellgo clipless pedals also in yellow to match. It looked cool at the time, but I prefer silver now. I added a pair of Ritchey 700c Mega Bite cyclocross tires. The tires were thin, as regulation cyclocross tires are, so I learned how ride with, rather than against the terrain.

The bike also introduced me to the world of bikes, and in particular a singular, somewhat odd, corner of the world of bikes, one not inhabited by racers and their wannabes. I began reading the Bridgestone (paper) catalogs through and through. There was apparently this guy named Grant Petersen, and he apparently designed and marketed bikes for Bridgestone. He seemed to be pretty outspoken about a lot of things. Things like lugs, bar-end shifters, friction over indexing, and braze-ons for racks. He really didn’t like suspension forks, which were starting to become ubiquitous, and seemed to prefer big, underinflated tires. He obsessed about odd-seeming details, like the Q factor, cold- versus hot-forging, the structure of wool versus polyester fibers. Most importantly, he wanted everyone to know about all these details and how important they were.

From the 1992 Bridgestone bicycle catalog. The best part of the Dr. Seuss wool fiber is the final curlicue.

I don’t think most people were listening.

I will admit that, consciously, I coveted the racing bikes Bridgestone produced (I wanted an RB-1 and the MB-Zip so bad — both of which I ogled at Jitensha Studio on numerous occasions). But unconsciously, and no-doubt because of those catalogs, I was beginning to reevaluate some of the “uncool” parts of my previous bikes and to gravitate towards bikes that were not mainstream: When it first appeared at the Missing Link cooperative, a Berkeley bike store institution, I immediately wanted the strange and magnificent beast that was the XO-1 (which, based on the artifact itself owed as much if not more to Hiroshi, who had been creating bikes like that for years, than to Grant Petersen alone), especially the first generation with side-pulls, which in spirit was certainly more like the RB-T than a RB-1 or MB-Zip. I remember going to the shop repeatedly just to look at it.

Reading those catalogs, however, made certain things about the RB-T confusing to me. Grant, if I may, extolled the virtues of friction shifting, but the Suntour barcons on my RB-T only had an index mode. He waxed poetic about braze-ons for racks, but on the 1991 Bridgestone Road Bike-Touring, designed for touring with, presumably, panniers attached to a rack, there were no braze-ons. Instead, I installed my rack with P-clips. I couldn’t understand the contradiction.

Of course, now I do.

Now, I can picture something like this: Grant in a conference room or standing hunched over a speaker phone, being told by the accounting department and some corporate exec that the RB-T was probably not going to sell very well, since it was not a racing or racing-inspired bike. What’s more, it couldn’t cost too much or people for sure wouldn’t buy it. And anyway, the sales folks didn’t want people to own one bike that could do everything, but rather to consume n+1 bikes, each of which could only do a single thing, thus necessitating unending purchases.

(Said the executive quietly to himself: And best of all would be a bike that seems super high tech but becomes unsafe to ride after one crash and has to be replaced — I wonder if there is a material that would do that?)

In my head, Grant protests, and they grudgingly agree to let him produce the bike and try to market it, but he had to choose between bar-end shifters or rack braze-ons. He couldn’t have both while staying within cost. And he had to use the somewhat less expensive Suntour, rather than the Shimano bar-end shifters with a friction option.

The Mona Lisa of P-clips, at sale at Rivendell, exquisitely handmade by Nitto and packaged in twine. Only 11USD per pair and certainly worth ever one of those 1100 pennies! The ones I used were from Ace Hardware and cost like 20 pennies or something, and they worked too but were not as nicely finished.

I can imaging Grant throwing up his arms in frustration and choosing barcons, because he knew that P-clips could stand in for braze-ons just fine. But you can’t fake barcons.

And if I may indulge in further speculation that places my RB-T at the center of history, it was no doubt at this very moment that the idea of his own bicycle company, where elven artisans would craft bikes that had bar-end shifters with a friction setting and rack braze-ons, sprouted in his mind. After applying beeswax to bolts, and installing the quill stem, the elves would wash up with pine-tar soap and dry their hands on made-in-the-USA bandanas, then chop firewood with artisan axes before retreating to secret camping spots in the nearby hills of Briones Park. There, they would unpack bacon from vegan saddle bags and dine low carb, a days work well done.

Cleanliness is next to elvenness, available at Riv.

I was able to visit that place once and met Grant when I was there. My wife and I went to Rivendell to see it for ourselves and to buy a pair of Albatross bars and pedals for her bike. The showroom was neat and tidy, but the back was a workshop in its truest elven sense, with all of the creative chaos that belongs in one. I shook Grant’s hand, and said that he was sort of my hero. He was very quiet and reserved, even somewhat embarrassed, which isn’t really what I had expected from the things he had written. I told him that my first “real” bike was an RB-T, and it shaped what I consider to be an ideal bike. Lugs, normal diameter steel tubes, friction shifting, quill stems, useful, versatile, beautiful, repairable. His bike had done exactly what it was supposed to do.

Indeed, as He sayeth in the 1991 catalog, the one featuring cows with Pineapple Bob eating a banana on an RB-T: “The purest, most beautiful bicycles are strong, efficient, simple to operate, and easy to understand and maintain . . . the understated good looks is just the icing.”

I told him that it was stolen out of my parents’ basement, along with an MB-6 they had purchased for my brother and a bunch of other stuff, but that I went to the weekend flea market for weeks afterwards in search of it, and that I still look around eBay and Craigslist every now and then, in case a black RB-T with a yellow stem and a mismatched dark green fork ever pops up.

“… some miserable intellectual who balks at technical progress.” — J. Ellul, The Technological Society