Friday, August 30, 2013

Retrogrouch: Origin of the Species

I've decided to call my blog "The Retrogrouch." The term has been floating around for over 20 years now. I was hesitant to use it for my blog -- not just because I didn't come up with it myself, but because it seemed almost presumptuous to declare myself not just "a" retrogrouch, but "The Retrogrouch." Who the hell am I to do that? But the term fits me.

The Urban Dictionary defines "Retrogrouch" as:
1. One who is skeptical of technological developments until their usefulness and reliability have been proven. 
2. One who insists on minimalist equipment that may be user-serviced. 
3. Sagacious but irritable expert. 
4. A person who prefers natural and/or organic materials over metals and synthetics.

All of those definitions describe me. Even the "irritable" one. In every discussion I have about bikes with other riders, I am the one who comes across as the skeptical wet blanket, always doubtful about the latest "breakthrough," the latest "improvement," or the newest upgrade that we all "just have to have." I may even be too young to be that guy, but that's the guy I've been for a long time now. So rather than fight it or deny it, I decided to embrace it. Of course, I'm not the only retrogrouch. There are lots of us. We're a breed. A tribe of sorts. So I did some searching to see if there was anyone else out there blogging for the bicycling retrogrouches of the world (the Original Retrogrouches), and I couldn't find one. So here I am.

Look up the term "retrogrouch" today, and you'll find thousands of references to (the rejection of) any kind of technology, but the term originated in the bicycling press in the context of changing bicycle technology. I assume there might be some dispute about exactly when (and by whom) the word was first coined, but I found a convincing claim by Fred Zahradnik, who believes that it was he who came up with it. Zahradnik writes, "I believe I am the first person to use the word, in an editorial titled Techies Unite! in the May 1990 edition of Bicycling Magazine." (  I remember that Bicycling article, and the claim rings true to my memory. Zahradnik goes on to say about his original article, "Those who resisted the march of technology, I contended, were 'retrogrouches' who were holding us back. The word just popped into my head as I thought about how to label the techno-skeptics."

One of the first people to be widely labeled as a retrogrouch was Grant Petersen, who was the head of marketing for the American operations of Bridgestone Bicycles. Petersen became famous (well, in the bicycling world, anyhow) for resisting the popular trends that were spreading through the industry at the time -- like integrated brake/shift levers (brifters) on road bikes, under-bar trigger shifters on mountain bikes, suspension forks, and more. Bridgestone's top-of-the-line road bike, the RB-1, was conspicuous among its competition for sporting downtube shift levers, and at one point bar-end shifters, when everyone else was using Shimano's STI brifters. That particular instance may have been a losing battle, considering that it's darn near impossible to find an off-the-rack road bike these days that isn't equipped with brifters. Then again, Shimano, Campagnolo, SRAM, and even the new kids Microshift, all still make bar-end shift levers. Okay, so they claim they make the levers for time trial bikes (to mount at the ends of aero bars), but I think we all know that they sell a lot of them to us retrogrouches. And I think that Petersen played at least some role in keeping that market alive, as well as many other retrogrouch favorites like all-leather saddles and waxed-cotton saddlebags.

Bridgestone X0-1 from the '93 catalog.
Was it a road bike? A mountain bike? A cult classic!
Unfortunately, Bridgestone Bicycles shut down their American operations and stopped exporting bikes to the USA in 1994, but many of their bicycles -- especially those that most fully embodied Grant Petersen's philosophy and ideas -- have achieved almost "cult" status. Find a Bridgestone X0-1 (the one with the once-reviled, now loved, mustache bars) on eBay, and expect to pay a lot more than you'd expect for a used 20-year-old Japanese-built bike. But the good news is that Petersen went on to start Rivendell Bicycles where he had/has the freedom to design and sell bikes that probably never would have flown with a huge multinational corporation holding (at least some of) the strings. So is Grant Petersen the "original" retrogrouch? One could easily argue that, but I'm not sure Petersen would be thrilled to take the title. I've read interviews and articles by him where he mentions the retrogrouch label and my impression is that he's a bit indifferent to it. Not offended. Not thrilled. Just indifferent.

Regardless, Grant Petersen greatly influenced my attitudes about bicycles -- and I gladly embrace the retrogrouch name. I remember first becoming aware of Petersen when reading ads that he wrote for Bridgestone in the mid '80s. I didn't know back then who the person was behind the ads, but I remember being struck by the unusual nature of those ads. They were worth reading. They were informative. The catalogs he did for Bridgestone from 1992 - 1994 were full of info not only about the bikes, but also with interesting articles about everything from bicycle riding to the virtues of wool. Those catalogs provide some great reading, and copies of them actually come up for sale on eBay with a surprising level of demand. His Bridgestone Owners Bunch (BOB) newsletters, and then later the Rivendell Readers, continued to extol the benefits of simple bicycles, beautiful craftsmanship, leather saddles, lugged steel frames, wool clothing, beeswax, natural shellac, and much more. His philosophy on bicycle fit was also a big departure for me. I recommend reading his recently published book Just Ride (Workman Publishing, 2012). I'm not saying it's the gospel or anything, and even I don't agree with everything he says -- but it is definitely an all-you-can-eat buffet of food-for-thought for today's cyclists.

Bicycles are -- or should be -- fundamentally simple machines. That simplicity makes them beautiful. There are real benefits to time-tested technologies, and efforts to "improve" on them don't always live up to the marketing hype. I think that's the creed of the Retrogrouch. In Fred Zahradnik's 2008 assessment of his 1990 Techies Unite! article, he says, "Turned out that retrogrouches were proud of their insistence on time-tested quality, and components they could actually work on." I'd say that sums it up fairly well.

Yep -- Retrogrouch -- that's me.


  1. I worked for the West Coast branch of Cycles Peugeot in the late 70's. Your words "resisting the popular trends that were spreading through the industry at the time" describes the Frenchies that were running the US Distributorship to a tee. And possibly the corporate headquarters in France as well. Of course they haven't been in this country for quite a long time now, no surprise there.

    But I think maybe the French are the ultimate retrogrouches.

    1. But the French are so Avant Garde!

  2. Greg - I think you could be right about that. Unfortunately, it was a change-or-die world. Maybe it still is. But old French bikes are still very popular with retrogrouches.

  3. There's a trend that takes the best of both worlds, combining the old and new, that you might call "neo-retro." Of course, each person's opinion of what's best from the old and what's best from the new will differ. On one end of the spectrum, you have a modern drive train with STI shifters on a classic lugged steel frame (either an authentic classic, or a modern one patterned after a classic, such as the current Raleigh International). On the other end, you have old reliable components on a modern frame, such as a Surly Long Haul Trucker.

    FYI, the only people who use the word "brifters" are those who don't actually use "brifters," i.e. retrogrouches. The rest of us roll our eyes and snicker behind your back whenever we hear that word.

    1. You know, I have modern Campy Ergo shifters on a classic lugged steel frame Mercian. I like the shifters -- they work well when everything's adjusted right. But I'm just as happy (or happier) with a nice pair of bar-end shifters that have a lot of the same advantages, but are a lot less finicky about adjustment, have no compatibility issues, are less vulnerable, and much cheaper.

      The late (great) Sheldon Brown called integrated shifters Brifters, so I'm OK with the snickers.