Civil rights demonstration and vintage bike gear collage illustration
Civil rights demonstration and vintage bike gear collage illustration
(Illustration: Hannah McCaughey (Photo Daily Express/Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty; Photo Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty))

This Bike Company Launched a Black Reparations Program. Then the Lawyers Called.

Rivendell Bicycle Works built a loyal following by ignoring convention. But what happens when good intentions spark public outrage in a country divided?

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On September 9, 2019, Grant Petersen, founder of Rivendell Bicycle Works, was standing in front of the company’s beige corrugated garage doors in Walnut Creek, California, talking with Matthew Vernon, an associate professor at UC Davis. Vernon, who teaches medieval and African American literature, had recently had his bike stolen; a friend recommended he check out Rivendell, a boutique bike brand known for its durable steel frames and elegantly welded lugs.

Near the end of their conversation, Petersen bluntly offered an idea he had been workshopping: he could give Vernon a 45 percent discount on a Rivendell, because he was Black. Vernon says he didn’t know how he felt about the gesture, so he didn’t take Petersen up on it immediately.

The U.S. government has paid reparations to Native Americans who had their land forcibly taken and to Japanese Americans who were interned in camps during World War II. In 1865, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, a milestone in reparations for formerly enslaved Black people and their descendants. The orders, made in collaboration with President Abraham Lincoln’s office at the end of the Civil War, confiscated Confederate land and gave 40-acre parcels to thousands of newly freed Black families. Lincoln was assassinated just three months later, the order rescinded, and the land returned to the Confederates.

Recently, a renewed push for reparations has surfaced in Congress. A 33-year old bill, H.R. 40, may finally have the votes to pass the House in 2022, according to some of its key champions. It would create a 13-member commission for an in-depth study of reparations.

Ten months after his visit to Rivendell, Vernon reached out to Petersen. He had replaced his stolen bike, but in the wake of the nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd decided he wanted to support people and brands who were doing reparations work. The two shared a correspondence about the racial reckoning and began planning Vernon’s dream bike build.

Grant Petersen, founder of Rivendell Bicycle Works, shellacs a handlebar wrap.
Grant Petersen, founder of Rivendell Bicycle Works, shellacs a handlebar wrap. (Will Keating)
Matthew Vernon was in talks with Petersen about receiving a bicycle at a discount as part of Rivendell's reparation program.
Matthew Vernon was in talks with Petersen about receiving a bicycle at a discount as part of Rivendell's reparation program. (Courtesy Matthew Vernon)

A couple months later, on October 1, 2020, Petersen put out a press release announcing that Rivendell would offer a 45 percent discount to any Black customer who wanted to buy a bike.

“The American bicycle industry has been racist, often overtly racist, since 1878,” the company wrote in the release. “Rivendell has been obliviously—not ‘obviously’—racist most of the time since 1994. We say this not to scold the industry, not to be publicly humble, not to scold other bicycle businesses, and not to be uncharacteristically on trend. It’s just true.”

Rivendell’s nine staff members were on board to launch the Black Reparations Pricing, or BRP. The company would not increase prices on other frames and would dedicate 10 percent of its inventory to BRP for customers who identified as Black. “We’re committed to it, and will not cave at the first heat,” said the company statement. “As for how it’ll affect business, we’ll just see. If we go broke because those who use the flag or God as an invisibility cloak for their white nationalism stop patronizing us we’ll…move on.”

“Rivendell Bicycle Work’s [sic] Black Reparations Pricing is illegal,” said the press release. “Every customer is entitled to pricing on non-discriminatory terms. We demand you discontinue this policy immediately, or legal action may ensue.”

Yahoo picked up the press release, as did highly trafficked biking websites like The Radavist and The news triggered internet commenters on both sides of the political aisle to take up their keyboards—with some applauding the program as righting a historical wrong and others deeming it reverse racism and questioning the motive and legality. “It’s hard to tell where this falls on the spectrum of racism or just virtue signaling,” one user wrote on bike forum The Paceline. “If it helps bring more people of color into the cycling fold, that’s awesome,” one commenter wrote on a Reddit thread about the initiative. “This might be illegal,” another replied.

Eight days after Rivendell formally announced BRP, Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer, former Republican Party official, frequent Fox News guest, and founder of the Center for American Liberty, tried to put a stop to Rivendell’s BRP program. Dhillon and the Center for American Liberty cited both federal and California laws that prohibit any business from participating in discrimination based on race. “Rivendell Bicycle Work’s [sic] Black Reparations Pricing is illegal,” Dhillon wrote in a press release. “Every customer is entitled to pricing on non-discriminatory terms. We demand you discontinue this policy immediately, or legal action may ensue.”

James Chan, a customer service employee at Rivendell.
James Chan, a mechanic at Rivendell. (Will Keating)
Shop interior Rivendell
The interior of the Rivendell shop. (Will Keating)

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.”

Petersen, in front of the Rivendell showroom.
Petersen, in front of the Rivendell showroom. (Will Keating)

Once Rivendell’s program hit the national media, Petersen began to receive threats by phone and email. Worried about his safety, he installed video cameras around the store. The company’s phones rang repeatedly with calls from alt-right podcasters, and their Yelp, Google, and social media sites were flooded with negative comments and one-star reviews. “Quit the political commentary BS & focus on bikes,” wrote one commenter on Instagram. “Those people, the majority of them, had never bought anything from us. They probably don’t even ride bikes,” says Will Keating, Rivendell’s general manager. “It’s like they just saw something that infuriated them on the internet and had to take the next step.” The program was shut down on the advice of Rivendell’s lawyers. “The whole thing—it was a grand plan that fizzled out,” says Petersen. “We were afraid for our physical well-being. It was really ugly around here. We were all miserable.”

“From a strictly legal perspective, we’ve been handcuffed,” Petersen wrote in a blog announcing the end of the reparations program.

Vernon never got his bike. He expressed the painful irony of a lawyer on the other side of the country blocking a willful transaction between him and Rivendell. “Whenever people of color get any sort of benefit, others respond immediately that they should be getting the exact same kind of benefit,” Vernon says. “People will come out of the woodwork to try to claim a kind of grievance when they don’t seem to have any stake in the issue. It’s remarkable that people would somehow think of themselves as losing out on something because Grant is offering something to someone else,” he adds. “This experience is like holding up a mirror to people.”

Omari Rush is one rider who actually received Rivendell’s reparations. He bought a bike at a discount in the early phases of the program—before the press release and the response. Rush is the executive director of a nonprofit in Detroit and uses his Rivendell mostly for grocery shopping, recreational riding, and going to bars and restaurants in Ann Arbor, where he lives.

Initially, he felt hesitant to take the offer and insisted on paying full price, but he warmed up to it after a series of conversations with Petersen and a couple bike rides together climbing the dirt hills near Rivendell. “I knew it was well-intentioned,” Rush says. “Grant expressed what I felt was an authentic interest in getting to know me as a Black person.”

The two stayed in touch, and Rush advised on the BRP launch. He was “surprised, but not surprised” at the outcome.

“Things that are bold don’t always work out the first time they happen,” Rush says. “We’re looking at 400 years of this energy that has to be untangled, and it’s not going to happen in 18 months.”

Vernon never got his bike. He expressed the painful irony of a lawyer on the other side of the country blocking a willful transaction between him and Rivendell.

Today, more than a year after the reparations program ended, BRP lives on as BRF—Bikes R Fun—and as a standalone charitable fund that supports various causes. Rivendell customers donated $54,000 in 2021. “A lot of that went to places that would bum the right wing out, but we (I know I can use the collective we here) don’t care what they think,” Keating wrote in a recent email newsletter.

Petersen and I shared a bike ride in the golden rolling hills around his shop on a warm July afternoon last year. In between giving me pointers on friction shifting and hill climbing, he mostly talked about the future of his young employees and how he couldn’t bear the thought of jobs disappearing as a consequence of his bold idea and the ensuing legal bills. We climbed a shaded singletrack, the tires on my Rivendell rolling through trickling seasonal streams and over softball-size rocks. He cops that BRP was “maybe naive” and expresses a sincere worry that this story could cause another swell of angry trolls harassing his employees. He spoke thoughtfully about income inequality, racial disparity in outdoor recreation, and the utility of bikes not just for sport, but also for transportation.

Eventually, we stopped at a saddle overlooking tract homes wedged into oak-dotted foothills. Petersen looked relaxed and childlike on his bike, but his voice was defiant. “There’s a limit to what we can do, because we’re small, and not rich,” he says. “But the law allows us to try and be good.”

Lead Illustration: Hannah McCaughey (Photo Daily Express/Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty; Photo Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty)