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Legends from the birthplace of mountain biking No.2

| Features, What Mountain Bike | 20/07/2010 15:48pm

“I’m Mr Product.”

Tom Ritchey on life’s knocks, the birth of dirt and racing wooden bikes in Africa.

Words and photos by Dan Milner

Despite his 6ft-plus height, I’m having a little trouble keeping my fellow rider and guide in my sights ahead of me, and the anxiety of being left behind as the sun sets on a hillside that is renowned mountain lion territory starts to become real. I’ve been warned about Tom Ritchey, or at least his fitness, by all and any industry types I’ve met en route to conduct an interview with the legend himself. “So you’re riding with Tom eh?” they’d say biting their lower lip in contemplation of what lay ahead of me.

My idea of an interview of course necessarily involves throwing a leg over a bike for an hour or two; how else can you get under the skin of a rider. Tom Ritchey’s name might appear on a million bike components out there, but strip away the matt black anodizing and Ritchey is still a rider. Right now, as I gasp for breath to keep his pace along mile upon mile of flowing singletrack, I’d almost prefer it if he was just another overweight office executive.

“Overweight” and “executive” are not words to describe Tom though. Even as CEO of Ritchey Design, the long-running component company he started in 1983, Tom needs little excuse to ride, perhaps the reason he so readily accepts my request for an interview. After all this is a guy who was at the birth of mountain biking and has no doubt been interviewed countless times before, but throw in the idea of balancing the Q&A session with a decent two-hour loop and Mr Ritchey is all ears. The fact that he rescheduled our get-together to participate in Tour de France pro Levi Leipheimer’s 100-mile charity ride the day before has done nothing to show me mercy on the trails.

Considering Tom clocks up some 10,000 miles in the saddle each year, it’s hard to believe he has any time for the CEO and company president duties at Ritchey Design. “I have a great executive team that covers for me a lot,” he says with only a hint of guilt, before adding “my job has been reduced to product development.”

I’m about to suggest that overseeing product development in a company whose components find their way onto a lot of OE spec sheets worldwide is hardly a ‘reduced’ role when he sees that he’s perhaps played down his role at Ritchey and jumps in. “All product is my responsibility. That’s what I do: I’m Mr Product” he quips.

Product, or rather product quality, is in Tom’s blood. It always has been. Back in the early 1970s when he was racing road bikes at national level, he was designing and milling his own components, trying to get the edge over his rivals on race day. At the age of 16 and growing up in an engineering environment (his father was an engineer) he bought a lathe and a milling machine and began turning out his own hubs, bottom bracket shells and seat posts. When asked whether this manifestation of adolescent creativity was down to a deep-seated passion for engineering he retorts, “Heck no, I was self centered to the core. I was a racer, I wanted to go faster than my competitors and I needed to make my bike lighter, stronger, tougher and better. If everyone else had a Cinelli stem that weighed 10 ounces and I could make a carbon steel one of my own at 4 ounces, I thought bingo man! I’m going to have the stiffest, baddest stem!”

It’s this same “stronger, tougher, better” ethos that he strives for throughout the Ritchey line today, a product range that includes seat posts, headsets, clipless pedals, tyres, stems, saddles, bars and even wheelsets.

Of course, product testing for Tom means just that, and as we soar down dusty trails that literally sit on the doorstep of his rambling home in the hills south of San Francisco, I am aware that the bloke whose dust I’m eating is responsible for a lot of the development that has produced the mountain bike we see today. For myself and many other riders who discovered mountain biking in the early ’80s, the Ritchey name is almost hallowed. We cut our teeth saving up for Ritchey Logic cantilever brakes and buttery smooth headsets to adorn our svelte XC rigs, idolizing both their simplicity of design and the way they simply worked well.

“Classic, race-tough and trusted. It’s still the same,” he says of current components, “but Ritchey represents value too. To me, I’m the guy who is out there buying stuff in the store and I don’t want to overspend just because it has the Tom Ritchey name on it!” he adds with a little agitation, and a hint of modesty. “Hey, I’m a pretty value orientated guy personally…  just look at this place, look at my car!” I’ve got to admit that I’ve already noticed that in his driveway sits not a Porsche Cayenne, but a 1998 VW Jetta.

Indeed everything about Tom’s daily existence seems to be very down to earth and earlier when I rolled up at the large wooden cabin that has been his family home for decades, I found him busying himself in his workshop. He’s sporting stained jeans that struggle to reach his ankles and as he hands me a lump of rock I notice his cheap supermarket digital watch. “Check this out! It’s a piece of fossilized wood I found in Arizona.” The trip he then describes is a recent bike adventure with long standing friend and Ritchey team member Thomas Frischnekt, during which they rode with an ageing native american chief through some of the most spectacular terrain Tom has ever experienced.

Looking around the workshop I take in half a dozen metal working machines, none of which I could speculate the purpose of, let alone know how to turn it on, but I do recognize a welding jig, in which sits the barely finished skeleton of a tandem. The frame is a visual joy, the welds so smooth that if you were to paint the frame black it would look like a carbon monocoque creation.
It’s this frame building prowess that created an initial splash for Ritchey in the world of mountain biking, when in late-1978 he turned his torch-wielding hand towards meeting demands for the then-revolutionary mountain bike, teaming up with Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelley to provide the frames for their company, Mountain Bikes. Already competing (and winning) in the legendary Klunker repack race down Mt Tam, Tom’s awareness of the need for better componentry was brought to the fore when hitting a bump halfway down the course, he had to pull up to rotate the bars on his own bike.

“That’s all it took. I knew I needed to make a one-piece [bar-and-stem] that would never slip. It’s those kind of experiences that have foreshadowed all my designs,” he continues as if needing a sneaky excuse for the number of hours he spends in the saddle. Not much has changed; seeing opportunities to improve the technology of the sport was what it’s all about.

Sitting on the deck of his place, we look across to the San Francisco Bay area and to the commonly deemed birthplace of mountain biking. “I don’t think Marin was ground zero,” announces Tom. “I’m not saying that California and that weren’t part of the history, but a bigger piece was Greg Lemond.

“Nobody ties Greg into any of it, but he was a catalyst. He suddenly put himself out there as an innovator: the time-trial, the aero position, he re-wrote the book with rider salary and contracts.” Inside I hear Tom’s phone ringing and ask if he needs to get it, him being the CEO of a pretty chunky company, but he shakes his head, instead carrying on where he left off.

“Back then everything was Europe-based; there was no Japan. Peugeot, Gitane, Motobecane, they were the Trek, Specialized and Cannondale of Europe. They sponsored the big teams of Europe and it [mountain biking] went over their heads. They didn’t know until too late how the influence of Lemond and US-born inventiveness had happened. I feel his success was a catalyst and a lubrication that we took advantage of in legitimizing what we were doing. It’s taken me a while to come to that place.”

However the mountain bike came about, Tom remained immersed when he split from Fisher and Kelley in 1983 and focused on component design and production, starting Ritchey Design. “So basically it was about understanding the bike more deeply than just the frame; it was a system of components and I was uniquely gifted when it came to design and building and machining,” he says as I scan the line-up of bikes that sit propped against various walls. Among the beautifully crafted frames and Tom’s regular ride – a Scott Spark complete with a folded spare tube taped to the bars XC-race style – is a brightly painted cargo bike. The top tube is emblazoned with the words “Coffee Bike”. While it’s not a frame that’s been born from the Ritchey jig, the Coffee Bike is as much a Ritchey creation as any other bearing his name, and its existence represents a big change in tack in Tom’s life.

Seven years ago, when his first wife left him, Tom found himself battling the personal demons of self-centredness and insecurity. “To tell you the truth, people put me on a pedestal, but in a personal way I didn’t feel good about myself, and I didn’t understand it. I was hard on myself; when a wife leaves you they say you can go bitter or better, and I didn’t want to become a bitter person. I had good people in my life that believed in me more than I did in myself,” he explains through watery eyes.

In 2005, after years of ego-centrism Tom was asked to accompany a friend on a bike trip in Africa. Finding themselves in Rwanda, a country that had experienced unfathomable bloodshed during a civil war that ended in 1994, things were put into perspective. Tom immediately saw the potential of using his knowledge of the bike for positive change.

“I knew that if I was to do something beyond cynicism, something that would not only show that I could change but also gave other people a second chance, I couldn’t make it about me. I made that my first mandate, that it wasn’t about Tom Ritchey.” From these initial experiences the seeds of the charity Project Rwanda were sown.

A year later Tom returned to Rwanda to put on the wooden Bike classic event, one that lined up invited American riders alongside locals on homemade wooden bikes. “Bikes are famously popular of course, but only one in a 100 people have them. Most people know how to ride a bike and as a tourist on a bike, they just wanna race you. It doesn’t matter if they’re on a beaten, broken bike that has 100lb of potatoes on the back of it, that doesn’t register with them.”

The Wooden Bike classic (now an annual event) was just one of Tom’s ambitions for Rwanda. Providing focus on cycling in a fun way, it set out to create community in, and awareness of, Rwanda, and had soon assembled and was training a national cycling team, with Tom’s friend Jock Boyer at the helm. “They [the Rwanda government] saw what we were doing under the umbrella of Rwanda’s national cycling team. They looked at the opportunities in cycling and saw that it is an opportunity to show a positive Rwanda to the world.”

Subsequent photo ops of the team alongside Lance Armstrong will go a long way to creating a positive image of a now peaceful country that has much to offer especially in terms of eco-tourism (Rwanda is one of the few places you can still watch wild silverback gorillas).

Surrounded by ageing, rod-braked, Indian-designed bikes that provided a limited use to the Rwandans in their hilly terrain, Tom also realized that things could be different. “The bikes aren’t even being ridden,” he explains, getting agitated, “they’re being used as scooters. They are loaded up, but they can’t control them; they either don’t have brakes to stop them, or gears to get up hill. They only know the bike as this one design of bike, so from a tech perspective and my own background I realised that I have a unique way of looking at things that could help them.”

A meeting with Dr Tim Shilling, who was heading a program to improve coffee quality in Rwanda, provided the impetus for Tom to design a bike that could truly help a coffee growers lot, by cutting the time it took the farmer to transport the beans to the washing plant. Less time means better quality, means a better price; the Coffee Bike was born. In its development, Tom draws parallels to the advent of the first mountain bike. “All it took was someone to put it together, to take the cobbled together bikes that were already in existence, and say there is a more elegant way of doing this. I come along in those environments and find that I’m in the right place at the right time.”

While Tom’s role in the Coffee Bike is undisputable, there is of course not one Ritchey component on it, and you have to search hard to find Tom’s name on the Project Rwanda website. “I didn’t want people to see me being a do-gooder and making a marketing statement out of it,” he says.

It’s clear that his involvement in Project Rwanda has had a big impact on Tom, but he’s not done yet. “The most rewarding thing for me would be to have created a project that is self sustaining… to absolve me,” he says to underpin his criticism of typical NGO ‘handout’ philosophies (the Coffee Bikes are actually bought on micro finance loans by the farmers). “My next goal is to have an organization ‘Bike Designers Without Borders’,” he replies when I ask where he’s heading next. “It would be about your skill as a designer, whether your working on $10,000 carbon bikes or basic Walmart bikes, you know something and have something to give as a servant to the third world.. a third world technology solution, whether it be generating power, purifying water, grinding maize, or a tricycle for the handicapped. There are a thousand Tom Ritcheys in the bike industry that just need an organization to channel through.

“The Rwandans look at a bike that’s been there for 100 years and they don’t see a lot of hope. They look at the bike I designed and they are excited about that,” he adds, getting agitated again, before fixing me with a steel-eyed look. “The bike needs to be a tool of excitement and fantasy, to take them to another place in their minds about what their opportunities are. Who knows where that will lead?” And that is an apt question with Tom riding alongside them.

Tom Ritchey timeline
Born 1956.
1973 Tom is racing road at national level. He welds more than 1000 road frames by the time he leaves High School. He machines his own components.
1974 Road racing is banned in California for one year. Tom and friends turn to riding their road bikes on the buff singletracks around Saratoga Pass.
Mid-1970s Uniquely Tom ditches lugs in favour of the freedom of lugless frame construction. In bucking a trend he is free to vary geometries that different tube sets and angles offer and surges ahead in frame design.
1978 Tom sees Joe Breeze’s first mountain bike and gets asked by Gary Fisher to make him one.
1979 Tom works with Gary Fisher, providing 160 hand-built frames for his company Mountain Bikes. The complete bike sells for $1300.
1983 Mountain Bikes is dissolved and Tom sets up Ritchey Logic, concentrating on component design and build that he’s been doing for 10 years. He continues to weld frames, including the Ritchey Annapurna.
1990s Apart from his role at Ritchey Logic/Design, Tom continues to produce more than 500 hand-built frames per year. Notably the lightweight Ritchey P-22 makes a splash in Europe.
2005 Tom visits Rwanda as part of a mountain bike trip in Africa.
2006 The first Wooden Bike Classic race is held in Rwanda. 3000 spectators turn out to watch.
2007 The Coffee Bike arrives in Rwanda, being purchased by the farmers through three-year micro-loans paid back by the 30-40% increase in income the bike affords.
2009 Tom re-marries. He has already crafted a tandem frame for his second wife and himself.

“Most people won’t know how good a steel frame feels.”
“I feel privileged to have been in a unique place at a unique time when a lot of things converged.”

Project Rwanda
Started in 2006 Project Rwanda seeks to further economic development of Rwanda through initiatives based on the bike as a tool. This it is achieving through media attention of the Wooden Bike event, through the advent and training of a national cycling team, through increasing eco-tourism and the supply of the Coffee Bike to farmers and similar cargo bikes to health workers. Check for more info and to see how you can help.


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