Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bridgestone XO-1: Cult of Personality

I mentioned in an earlier post, Retrogrouch: Origin of the Species (8/30/13) my affinity for the work of Grant Petersen, formerly of Bridgestone Bicycles, and the founder of Rivendell Bicycles. Of all the bikes that Bridgestone produced for the US market, I believe the bike that most strongly represented Petersen's unique philosophy on bicycle design was the XO-1. And that is the bike that, more than any other produced by Bridgestone, probably has the strongest following almost 20 years after the end of B'stone's US operations. The bike practically defines the concept of a "Cult Bike."

Introduced in 1992, the concept was to create a "do anything" bike, equally at home on the road or on the trail. The ultimate "hybrid" (while conspicuously avoiding the term "hybrid"), the XO-1 had a road bike frame and geometry with 26" wheels, but slick road tires (mountain bike tires up to 1.6" would fit). It had a double chainring crank that was drilled for a third ring (110/74 bolt circle -- for a large selection of rings) should a rider decide to add one later. But the most prominent, and perhaps most controversial feature was the mustache handlebar -- designed by Grant Petersen, and produced by Nitto.

Scan from the 1992 B'stone catalog.
The inspiration for the mustache bar came from bikes in Japan where many schools would ban kids from riding bikes with drop bars -- the belief apparently being that drop bars encouraged reckless riding habits. The semi-drop bars that these bikes used had a shape that was something almost between a flat bar and a drop bar which still allowed a fairly "sporty" riding position. The mustache bar adapted the shape, giving it more width and a bit more reach, making it suitable for American adult hands. Despite being a new, innovative shape, it had an oddly old-fashioned "retro" appearance -- making it both new and yet oddly familiar at the same time. It wasn't hard to imagine riders in the '90s (1890s, that is) riding on similar handlebars. Petersen and the folks at Bridgstone apparently loved them. The bicycling press apparently hated them.

In Bicycling Magazine's April 1992 issue, the headline of their XO-1 review proclaimed "The 'Mustache Bike' Misses by a Whisker." That reviewer, John Kukoda, went on to say, "Great bike, bad bars," and, "The handlebar looks cool, but isn't." Other editors claimed "I wanted to like the bar, but . . . my hands still went numb," and, "I couldn't get comfortable." So much of the bad press seemed to focus on the bars.

A "trading card" with picture on the front, info on the back.
The other thing that seemed to hold the bike back, at least as the critics were concerned, was the difficulty in categorizing it. Reviewers and perhaps retailers wanted to label it a "hybrid" but that name didn't really fit. It wasn't strictly a "road bike," "touring bike," or even a "mountain bike," but rather, a bike that was capable of being whatever its owners wanted it to be.

The '92 Bicycling review put it like this: "The bike defies categorization. It reflects the personal preferences of its iconoclastic designer, dubbed a 'retro-grouch' by one editor for his approach to component selection." (yes -- an editor writing for the very same Bicycling Magazine!). "The XO-1 (is) too much bike for the typical hybrid shopper. . . Most hybrids sell for less than half as much and attract entry-level riders who like an upright position but don't need a mountain bike. They don't need the XO-1's refinements either."

Unfortunately, the press assessments of the bike really missed the point. The bike wasn't meant for an entry-level buyer, wasn't meant to be a "hybrid," and wasn't meant to be categorized or pigeon-holed into some pre-processed, pre-determined mold. It was really intended to open up possibilities -- ready to take whatever form that its owners -- serious and enthusiastic cyclists -- best saw fit. It was an excellent base -- great bones, if you will -- on which owners could impart their own needs and create their own adventures. They could add that third chainring for lower gearing and go touring. They could put fatter tires and take it on fire roads and off-road trails (in reality, it was probably rugged enough to be all the "mountain bike" that many mountain bike riders ever really needed). They could put fenders on it and use it as a wickedly cool commuter. It could be all of the above, depending on the owners whims, or it could be something else entirely. Given the trend in the industry today, to keep making more and more narrowly defined bike categories, (I think the latest "must have" trend is the so-called "gravel bike," which is yet another role the X0-1 would probably fill exceedingly well), the versatility and category-bending approach of the X0-1 is part of what makes it so endearing.

From the '93 Catalog
From the '93 Catalog
In its first year, the bike had super nice Dia Compe sidepull brakes in the "normal reach" configuration (47 - 57 mm reach) -- which by contemporary comparisons would be considered "longer reach." It also had a lovely cast fork crown, dubbed in the catalog as "The Most Expensive Fork Crown in the World." That original X0-1 was offered in two color choices: Purple Metallic or Pearl Tusk (kind of cream or off-white). One thousand bikes were produced that year. In 1993, the sidepull calipers were replaced with cantilever brakes. The '93 catalog copy lamented the change, but pointed out that wheel changes would be much easier with fat tires. Probably true. That year, the XO-1 was offered only in one color choice: Construction Pumpkin (a gorgeous orange) with a Tusk (cream) panel. Again, only 1000 bikes were produced.

There were other "lesser" XO models -- XO-2, and XO-3 in 1992, characterized by welded (not lugged) frames, heavier tubing, and less expensive components. The XO-2 model had a slightly different version of the mustache bar that took mountain-bike style controls. In 1993 the range went all the way from XO-1 through XO-5. But most of the other models really were more like the hybrids offered by other brands.

In 1994, the XO-1 was dropped from the lineup. The only XO bikes in the catalog were the XO-3, 4, and 5. The 3 model had a lugged frame somewhat like the much nicer XO-1, as well as the original mustache bar, but other details of the frame (such as the lovely fork crown - now gone), along with the component choices, marked it as a lower-cost entry. Not long afterward, the end came. Bridgestone pulled out and left the USA market for good.

My own experience on the XO-1 is perhaps worth mentioning. When the bike was released in '92, I was a financially struggling student in gradual school (where you gradually find out you don't want to go to school anymore -- from John Irving's The World According to Garp) so buying one was not an option. Same in 1993. By '94 I was finally out of school and gainfully employed. Went to my Bridgestone dealer for an XO-1 -- but they were all gone. Soon after that, so was B'stone. (Sigh).

With the loss of Bridgestone, Grant Petersen went on to start Rivendell. There, one of the bike models, dubbed the "All-Rounder," was like a fancier, more expensive spiritual descendent of the XO-1. Later, in 1999 (1999.75 says Rivbike.com) they released the Atlantis which took the torch and continues on today as a do-anything, go-anywhere bike that defies categorization.

Now, roughly 20 years later, clean, lightly used XO-1s are sought after. There were only 2000 made in two years, so they are fairly rare and definitely collectible. In hindsight, the virtues of the bike stand out -- not just for what the bike was (or wasn't), but for what it could be. Not only that, but the much-maligned mustache bars are alive and well and sold through Rivendell's website (I have them on two of my bikes -- and love them).

Addendum: Fun facts: The lovely fork crown on the XO-1 was originally spec'd for a Japanese-market Bridgestone touring bike called the Atlantis (1981 - 1982, according to Rivendell Reader #35 from 2005). That model wasn't sold in the US. The original Atlantis was designed by Hiroo Watanabe and modeled after classic French randonneuring bikes. When Rivendell introduced their Atlantis in '99, the seat-tube decal had a crest with a stylized figure "2" in a diamond -- a subtle little homage to the original Atlantis.

10 comments:

  1. Of the 5 bikes I've bought as an adult, 4 of them have been Bridgestones (3 of them new). My most recent was a 1992 Bridgestone XO-1 I got in January. It is everything that it should be and nothing it shouldn't. My biggest gripe is trying to put fenders on it, but I managed to pull it off (albeit with very little clearance). I think it's one of the best production bikes ever made.

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  2. I still have my 1989 MB2, ride it daily.

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  3. I've had a 1992 XO-1 since... 1992! Bought it new while working at a shop.

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    1. That's fantastic. I mentioned in the article that I wanted one at the time, but was in no position to buy a new bike. By the time I could buy one, they were gone. Realistically, though, they weren't available big enough for me. I'd have bought the largest size, 59 cm, but probably would have found myself wishing for something a bit bigger after a while -- which is why I've never ended up buying a used one. I now have a Rivendell "Long - Low" that I think fulfills a similar mission, and I love it.

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  4. I first rode my '92 XO1 in 1993 as a leftover and bought it on the spot. I have since ridden it for everything. Added a third chainring. Celebrated my 60th birthday in 2010 by riding Seattle to Connecticut self-supported with my husband on his matching purple XO2. For that ride I added tail feathers for speed and stability. Also a snakeskin for a while. And orange handlebar tape. I love it as much as I did on my first ride.

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  5. I still ride my '92 Pearl Tusk bike around town (bought in summer of 1992). Unfortunately I've run it in to the ground, and it needs a complete rebuild (or scrap). I also have the '94 RB-1, last production year, which is my weekend long ride bike. That one is in excellent shape, with most original components.

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  6. I sprung for the eggplant 55cm listed this morning on Ebay! Compass tires (nice to see someone is supporting 26" wheels!), Nitto front rack for New River Blitz bike is what I have in mind!

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  7. I know I've come to this post rather late. But it was nice to read about the XO-1, possibly one of the most intelligently-designed bikes ever made.

    Too bad the editors of Bicycling didn't "get" it.

    As for the bars: Like saddles, handlebars are a personal preference. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, then, that Bicycling's editors panned the moustache handlebars.

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  8. I picked up a 93 XO-1. A bit rough so I had it painted and re-decaled. Built up fresh 26" wheels and out-fitted it with Shimano Ultegra 9-speed. I do so like the Nitto mustache bar.
    I'm a former BMX racer turned road racer and track. Over the past 10 years I've only been racing cyclocross. So of course, I take the XO-1 out on long gravel rides,
    The other day I rode the XO-1 on a popular bike path along the Southern California coast where I discovered just how fast this bike is over asphalt. The XO-1 accelerates very quickly and turns on a dime. Before long I was catching and dropping several groups of roadies. I even hung on for a lung burner with triathlete.
    I do so enjoy the attention when I java hop, but more importantly - this bike is so damn fun!

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  9. I found a clean 1993 XO-3
    It has a beautiful lugged frame so I decided to build my dream bike
    I currently ride a Raleigh Crested Butte
    So after powder coating my frame I decided on a Race Face 43 tooth single chain ring up front and a ten speed cassette
    I only had one choice, Chris King.head set and Phil Wood bottom bracket and hubs on 26" wheels
    My saddle is Selle Anitomica and l went with Arch bars instead of Mustache bars
    I have Mustache bars on another bike
    This XO-3 is the best bike I have ever ridden
    I ride 50+ miles a week

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