Moustaches and Pineapples:
Bridgestone's Grant Petersen Speaks Out
By Chris Kostman
Originally published in California Bicyclist, August 1992. This is the complete version of the article.
Grant Petersen has been called everything from iconoclastic retrogrouch to the messiah of reason in the cycling industry. Some go so far as to say to say the industry is divided into two camps: Grant haters and Grant lovers. That may be overstating things a bit, but there's no doubt that his work as the marketing director at Bridgestone has caught the attention and interest of people in nearly every level and angle of the sport. Regardless of what one may think of him and his philosophy, Grant gives us all something to think about. Here in his first ever feature length interview, Grant talks about everything from Pineapple Bob to editorial hidden agendas to the future of our sport.
CK: What's your background with cycling and with Bridgestone?
GP: I started at Bridgestone in December 84, and before that I worked about nine years at REI in Berkeley. When I came to Bridgestone there were four people in the office and I was the only one who knew anything about bikes. Since we only had four others, a lot of people did a lot of things, but if it came down to anything having to do with bikes specifically or answering questions, then that was my area. That was one of the reasons I was hired: to be a bike person in a bike company.
CK: Did you have a title?
GP: For the first three of four years, nobody below the president and the administrative director had titles, but it did make sense not to have titles because we did a lot of different things.
CK: And how has that changed? Do you have a title now?
GP: Right now I'm marketing director. Last year I was marketing manager, but when we got new cards this year my title had changed. I don't know it changed; my job hasn't changed really. I hope I still manage things. I know I direct them.
CK: How many people work at the company now?
GP: I think it's sixteen. And the marketing department now has three people: Me, Ariadne, and Masa Kamoshita, who came over from the Japan office a year ago.
CK: What exactly do you do in terms of marketing, bike design, and other things? My impression is that you design all the bikes, design all the ads, put together the catalogue, and a million other things. Is that right?
GP: I can say yes to all of that, but I'd have to qualify that, too. It depends on what you mean by "design." What I do is make strong recommendations on tube lengths, geometries, wheel size, and handlebars, cranks, and the other coponents. So I spec all of the details for the bikes, then someone else, a "real designer," will put that into a computer, come up with blueprints, and make sure that all my ideas work. Then he'll say "o.k., we'll do it, or o.k., we have to change this or that."
CK: What's the relationship between Bridgestone Cycle USA and Bridgestone in Japan? Are the bikes that you spec for the States sold elsewhere around the world?
GP: We are owned by Bridgestone Cycle Company, which is a Japanese company in Tokyo, so they own us and we are one of fifteen other bike sales companies of theirs. We have more autonomy than most, or probably all, of the other companies because we're in the United States and the United States is seen as a leader in certainly kinds of bicycles and other things. So they give us very free reign, I'd say, to do what we want to do and as long as we don't do anything too bad - and we haven't done anything too bad yet - we can do pretty much what we want to do. Of course we use their resources a whole lot. For example, if we want Nitto to make a handlebar for us, or Sugino or Dia Compe to do something, we can use the Japanese influence and their clout over there to help us get things done. So, it's a 'good" relationship.
CK: What about the bikes that whose designs emanate from here? Where do they go?
GP: They go to Europe, the United States, and starting next year, I think, they will go to Japan as well. Japan has different styles of bikes that we have here. There are a lot of bike commuters in Japan, so there are a lot of that style of bikes over there. There is a trend towards sporty bikes, both road and mountain bikes, in Japan now. The Bridgestone mountain bikes that are designed and sold in Japan are not the kinds of things that we would sell over here, but maybe for Japan they're o.k. We just know what we like to do over here and of course we don't try to tell them what to do over there.
CK: How long has Bridgestone USA been around and how many bikes do you move in a year?
GP: Bridgestone Cycle USA has been around since July of 84 and right now we're selling about 55,000 bikes. In 1984-1985 it was around 19 or 20,000 bikes and it's grown steadily in a small way since then.
CK: Tell us about Pineapple Bob.
GP: In 1985 we had an advertising agency doing our ads and I didn't think they were doing a very good job of selling the bikes, so I and a few other people expressed our dissatisfaction with the ads. So the president at the time said "Do you think you could do any better?" I said "yeah" and he said "O.K., you be our advertising agency. So we needed a model and everyone looks fatter in pictures, so you need someone with just phenomenal legs for them to even look normal. Well, Robert has the best legs around and he looks like a six day rider in Europe or something. His legs are just amazing and you start with something good like that and you've got the leg thing covered, anyway. He's also a good rider, he's easy to work with and he's a friendly guy that I get along with personally, too. He's a good friend, so we just use him for our ads.
CK: How did you know him and how did he get his name?
GP: I didn't know him then. We hung around the same bike shop, Hiroshi's Jitensha Studio in Berkeley, and I sort of made the connection there. Hiroshi's daughter, Natsumi, named him Pineapple Bob because there were two or three other Bobs that hung around the bike shop. Robert grew up in Hawaii and his hair shoots our like a pineapple so she called him Pineapple Bob just to differentiate him from the other Bobs. By the way, I don't call him Pineapple Bob. Mostly his friends call him Robert. I'd only call him Pineapple Bob if I was joking around. By the way, don't go a whole lot into this in your article, because we like to keep him a mystery and anonymous. He's going to be in a video that we're doing, but he's not going to have a speaking role.
CK: So tell me about Bob Dylan. I see his album covers in your ads and quotes from him in the catalog.
GP: You read much too carefully! That wasn't planned to have the album there in the ad. We went over to the photographer's house and I was just looking through his albums - you know how you look through people's albums - and he had some Bob Dylan albums. I like Bob Dylan, and it doesn't hurt anything to have him in our stuff. I even dedicated one of my books - Roads to Ride - to him. Two issues of "Mountain and City Biking" ago they just ripped into our XO-2 and the guy who wrote the review got kind of angry about what we said about his magazine in our catalog and he was leaving to go work for NORBA, so it was like his last chance to jab us before he left. In the same issue, they did a jab at Bob Dylan by saying something like "we like it when you send us tapes of music, but please make it more intelligible than the average Bob Dylan song." I called them on that and they admitted it was because of our ads and catalog. I just like Bob Dylan and I brought you a Bob Dylan tape, too.
CK: Did you catch any other flak for "BeRating the Rags" in your catalog and how did you get the nerve to do that in the first place?
GP: A better question would be "how do they get the nerve to evaluate bicycles?" This doesn't give credit where it's due, and maybe that's not fair, but in general it's very insulting when you put a lot of work - and this is for anyone and not just Bridgestone, but I think I can speak for any of the manufacturers when they put a lot of thought and a lot of work into the design and spec's of a bike and they know all of the details and they know just what they are marketing this bike for, then you send it to a magazine and most people will believe a magazine more than a manufacturer. The idea is that the magazine has no ax to grind, but of course they have a big ax to grind. So you just send in your bike to a magazine and say "Let us know how it is. Is this a good bike or not? Please tell the world what you think of it!" Well, in many cases, they are not qualified to evaluate it and in many cases they are. There are some good magazines our there that will give a fair review, but there are also magazines our there that can ruin you or make you great in the eyes of the public and it's really unfair for that to happen. Basically, they evaluate the bikes, but they never get evaluated.
CK: Why would a magazine have an ax to grind? Is it all ad-driven?
GP: It's hard to say that there's a tie between an advertisement and a bad review or our review of the magazines and a bad review of our bikes. It's conceivable that a manufacturer could say that "this magazine only says great things about bikes" and so they turn around and rip into one of your bikes and say "you can't complain about us doing this because you were complaining about us not doing this."
CK: How do you "get away" with having helmetless riders in your ads and catalogues?
GP: This is dangerous, because I don't think bicycle safety is a joke. You and I just rode down here to the park and I didn't see any helmets on us. I rode my helmet on the way to work today, but not over here to the park. It's not flaunting it. What gets me is that people will complain about something like that and actually that's one reason why we went to illustrations instead of photos in our ads and catalog. Plus if you put a helmet on a rider, that helmet is the most identifiable product in the whole photograph. It's more identifiable than the bike or the components. I don't mind the free advertising or the free display of the helmets, but what I do mind is that it detracts from the bike. There's seems to be this idea that if you show a picture of a helmetless rider, you're going to influence people not to wear helmets. I just don't think that's true. Do these same people who write us and complain also write to ESPN and say "don't show the Tour de France because the riders aren't wearing helmets?"
CK: Will Bridgestone ever have a full line-up, or can you continue to have only a niche line of bikes?
GP: If you spend $2,000 on a bike, you want a bike with a name like Merlin, not a bike named Bridgestone. It's a fact. Bridgestones are good bikes, but you have to know about them to appreciate them. If you just know a little bit about bikes, then you get something that you don't have to explain too much and that has bragging rights as part of the package. People who buy Bridgestones know more about bikes than other people. When you buy a Bridgestone, you're buying the only bike of its type in its price range. Buying a Bridgestone means you're saying "I don't want that other stuff." In terms of diversifying our line, we may do an RB-0, but it's not going to be an STI bike; it will probably be a Mavic bike. Mavic is clearly the best stuff out there.
CK: I'm struck by the similarity in philosophy between Mavic and Bridgestone.
GP: It's great to be able to rebuild something and Mavic parts are available so you can do that. I think parts should be repairable and there should be interchangability. People should not be encouraged to throw away a part and replace it with a whole new one in the name of helping the economy.
CK: How are people taking to the moustache bars on the X-O bikes?
GP: I like them and a lot of people like them. Bicycling just came out with a review of the XO-1 in which they hated the bars, but I can't understand that. I've got 4,000 miles on these handlebars and I've ridden them in all kinds of conditions on and off road and I love them, so they're telling me that water is not wet or something. We're going to continue with them next year because people like them and the bikes are selling well. They look good on a bike and they feel good, too.
CK: Let's talk about the terms "retro" and "retrogrouch."
GP: Fred Zahradnik at Bicycling came up with the work "retrogrouch" in an article he wrote called "Techies Unite." He said something like "there is a cancer among us in the bike industry that the new stuff is no good." The only company or person that he fingered was Bridgestone and Grant Petersen, so we said we can accept that and had t-shirts made up. The funny thing is that those retrogrouch t-shirts are really popular and we get a lot of mail from people claiming to be retrogrouches. It's not just a Bridgestone thing and it's not just a bicycle thing. As far as that goes it's sort of a misnomer, anyway, at least as it's applied to us. Retro means to go back to something, but we're not going back to anything, we just don't approach every new year with a "what's new, pussycat?" attitude. If something's new and it's good, then that's fine, but just because something's newer doesn't make it any better. In the case of some bicycle things, designs really aren't getting any better, which is something that really angers people. They say "how can you say that designs aren't getting any better?" But you just have to look at things from different perspectives. Something that requires such a specific working environment, that won't work with another manufacturer's derailleur, that will only work with a certain shifter, is that progress or not? Maybe it is for some people, but it's not progress for everyone. There were a lot of bike parts that you could get in 1986 that would just blow away anything available right now from certain perspectives. At some point you're only getting micro infinitesimal improvements in speed or some other convenience and you start paying bigger chunks in terms of price, interchangability, servicability, or weight, or something else. Right now you just pay big prices for small improvements.
CK: What about the retro movement?
GP: I think it's great! There's room for different factions in the bike industry. But if you make any strong statements about anything you're going to offend people and get hate mail for it. If I say I don't like RapidFire shifters because they don't have a friction option and I think people should know how to shift a bike in friction mode, then someone is going to read this who just bought a bike with that stuff and all of a sudden you've just wounded them deeply. And they're going to write you a letter and they're going to band together with other people with the same stuff and they'll write you a group letter. So it's safer if you just don't say anything, either in person or in your ads.
CK: Let's wind up with some of your thoughts on cycling and its future.
GP: The best use of a bicycle is commuting, it's not racing or competing or recreation or anything like that. Ultimately its best use is getting cars off the roads and the government is not sympathetic to that idea at all. In terms of the industry, within five years there will be half the number of manufacturers as there are today. Whoever doesn't get their bills paid will go by the wayside. Also, when things go high tech in terms of their materials and design, it brings in a lot more industries into the marketplace. Consider how carbon fiber and titanium have brought aerospace and other non-bicycle corporations into the cycling industry. Those guys have the money to compete and smash and just snuff out the smaller companies. That happens and that's one of the consequences of advanced technology. So when we go to electronic shifting, which will happen within about two years, somebody like Westinghouse will get into making them, too. That will make it hard for Mavic and Suntour to compete with a company that large. So we'll have electronics companies making bike parts.
Closely Related Articles
"Mountain Bikes: Who Needs "Em?" — Bicycle Guide, February 1993
"Any Bike, Anywhere" — City Sports, May 1993 and The 1994 Bridgestone Catalogue, September 1993.
"Mountain Bikes: We Need 'Em!" — The Schedule, June 1993.
"A Rebuttal to Close-Minded Mountain Bikers" — The Bob Gazette, Issue #3, June 1993.
Other Related Articles
"Training Specificity: Who Needs It?" — Bicycle Guide, May 1993.
"The Way of the Outdoor Athlete" — (long version), Triathlete, July 1993.
"Wholistic Training Spurs Superior Skills" —Tail Winds, January/February 1994.
"Planet Ultra: It's Just an Attitude" — Over The Edge, July 1994 and City Sports, October 1993.
"Less Equals More: The one-speed Ibis Scorcher delivers an incredible workout" — Bicycle Guide, November/December 1993 and Wire Donkey Bize 'Zine , Vol.11, No.128, October 30, 1998.
"Never Say Fred" — The BOB Gazette, Issue #8, September 1994.
"When Style Was Effortless And Unmistakable" — The BOB Gazette, Issue #1, February 1993 and Wire Donkey Bize 'Zine , Vol.11, No.128, October 30, 1998.
"SCOOP: Darwin Speaks on Bicycle Evolution" — with photos, California Bicyclist, June 1992.
Chris Kostman has competed in ultra sports continously since 1983. Besides producing the Furnace Creek 508 each October since 1990, he also produces a five-day cycling training camp with yoga called CORPScamp Death Valley, plus the Death Valley Century, Ultra Century, and Double Century in March and October each year, Hell's Gate Hundred, Mount Laguna Bicycle Classic, Rough Riders Rally, and the world-famous Badwater Ultramarathon.