‘The bike is a simple thing to enjoy’ – a chat with framebuilding pioneer Tom Ritchey
Cycling is full of iconic brands and iconic figures — people and companies that have helped shape, mould and physically weld the industry into what it is today. Some have morphed into huge goliaths with their original founders selling up and moving on. Others have stuck to their guns, often staying small, producing products that a loyal customer base will return for time and time again.
Then there are the brands that grow to a manageable size as the people that started the company grow old with the brand, sticking to the philosophy they may have dreamt up at an early age.
There aren’t many sports where tinkerers and those with a bit of tech know-how can produce something that may be used at the highest level. It’s been this way with cycling since day dot and continues today. You just need to look at the handmade bike shows in the US or the UK to see that the scene only continue to grow.
One such brand — or more precisely one man — that has gone from tinkering in his father’s garage with bike parts to running one of the industry’s premier brands is Tom Ritchey.
Ritchey started his company back in the hazy days of 1972. Mountain biking was still in its infancy in Northern California and Tom, at just 15, started out by building bikes for friends. This would be the catalyst for a career and a love that still thrives more than 40 years later.
Ritchey is credited as one of the US’s framebuilding pioneers and was behind the very first production mountain bikes to hit the market. Nowadays you’ll find the Ritchey name on bike frames and all manner of components in the road, MTB and cyclocross markets. You’ll also find Ritchey products being used at the highest level of road cycling and MTB with IAM Cycling and Scott-Odlo MTB Racing Team among the professional setups using the brand’s components.
We recently caught up with Tom Ritchey on the shores of the very picturesque Lake Constance in southern Germany. Eating a sandwich (he offered us one) with a beer in hand (again he offered us one) and his wife Martha sat next to him, Tom spoke about where the industry is at now, where it’s going, innovation, keeping things simple and why he’s all for disc brakes.
CT: How was the sport when you started out and how do you see it now?
TR: Here’s the thing: I started at a time when people had to work on their own bike. So you needed to know your equipment — it was part of riding. You had to build your own bike; you didn’t have someone else build your bike for you. You had to build your own wheels. I just took it a step further.
But everyone around me was a mechanic, every racer was a mechanic. To finish a race you needed to be a mechanic. And that’s basically what happened in mountain biking. We’ve come to a point where products have become that complicated that you practically need to have your mechanic follow you in a car, and that’s not riding.
My idea of riding is a lot more pure, a lot more realistic. It’s more based on you knowing your equipment and riding within the limits of your equipment. That’s all I’ve ever know.
Many modern bike shops are pretty glitzy with coffee machines, shiny show rooms and branded bike fits. How have you seen this change and do you like this new sort of bike shop?
The good bike shops that I envisage are the ones that want to sell responsible product in a responsible way, so people can enjoy the experience. They then take that experience away and they end up evangelising the sport and the shop.
The shop — actually two shops — that I wanted to do business with [when growing up] was where there was two older guys. They were willing to let me look over their shoulders while they built a wheel to see how to lace it, things like that. I was 12 years old, and it wasn’t like there was a lot of other young people interested in it. There was a few, but not many.
Now you just have to look around. There’s nothing wrong in selling a well-made [factory] wheel or a well-made bike full of technology but the bike to me represents freedom. It represents independence, it represents the non-mechanised or the non-automotive … utility lifestyle. And the more complicated it is the more it may limit a person’s enjoyment.
What about Strava and the rise of documenting a ride, or using online training programs. Are you into this side of the sport?
I don’t even use a cell phone. I don’t do Strava — I’m not against it I just don’t do it. I never worked with a [personal] trainer. Back when I was racing I just raced. For me I’m sure I could have benefited from that. But I know it would take a certain amount of enjoyment out of riding — I just want a hard ride that I know I’ll benefit from.
Riding has to be fun, and part of the fun has to be that you’re not worried about having too much technology on your bike. That’s just me — I’m not against technology. But I see somewhat of a revival now. I see a revival of people feeling that way. People choosing more simple products. The single chainring is part of that movement; it’s coming back. I’m excited about the return to that.
What about the rise of disc brakes on road bikes. Is there a place for this and are they really needed?
Martha [ed. Tom’s wife] made me put a disc brake on the tandem, so I have to say I’m a fan of disc brakes so she’ll ride with me. We’ve had too many close calls without disc brakes. I’m not against disc brakes as there is a certain value to them. I have them on some of my bikes, not all of the bikes.
There needs to be an appropriate use of technology; an appropriate use of design and technology for people who live in a certain geography. Let’s take it to the extreme. I mean if you live in Holland, what are you doing with a full suspension mountain bike? What’s the point? If you’re living in the Rocky Mountains or Andorra then it’s understandable.
Don’t think you are missing out because you don’t have something that everyone else has. The bike is a simple thing to enjoy — you don’t have to create a complexity that isn’t there.
How many bikes do you have then?
I have a lot of bikes. To start with I have seven tandems. We want to have a tandem everywhere we go. We have them scattered as they’re a little cumbersome to get around. Though we did introduce a breakaway tandem this year.
We have a lot of bikes but I need a lot of bikes. I need to test products so I have 29ers, 27b, cross bikes, road bikes. I need to throw myself over the tubes of every bike I design for. That’s part of my job. My job is this [ed. points at pictures of himself on a bike] just ride, ride, ride. I’m the number-one crash-test dummy of the Ritchey company.
I’m sure you could have sold up and said goodbye to the industry, rode off into the sunset leaving the company in the hands of others. Why haven’t you?
You know, the whole thing of being a business was an accident. I wasn’t looking at anything at the age of 15 years old other than to ride. So as long as people wanted to be a customer I was willing to sell the product, and as long as people want to I’ll continue.
What was your first sale?
That was to my best friend. It was a nice road bike that I made. I built a thousand road, track and touring bikes before I built my first mountain bike. So that’s a lot of bikes I built before I even got into mountain bikes.
How about your first race – how did you get on?
I was 14, an intermediate. I almost beat the state champion and that got me hooked. The other thing that got me hooked was that I beat my dad. My dad was a strong rider. There was a certain point where you know there’s a kind of passing of the baton. That got me hooked.
Was your dad also a guy that would spend time in the garage making stuff?
He was an engineer. We lived in Palo Alto which is now the heart of Silicon Valley. Back then it wasn’t Silicon Valley it was just another one of the tech towns that was next to Stanford and was full of a lot of smart people, smart engineers. My dad, though — he was a thinker and a doer kind of guy.
Have you got any heroes or people you look up to in the industry?
I would say that the person I look up to most in the industry is [Swiss former professional MTBer] Thomas Frischknecht. He inspires me. He’s totally into the purity of the sport and experience of it — he was that way when I first met him and as hard as nails at 19 years old.
That was in 1989/90. He’s an amazing talent — he has world champion titles, the best team in the sport. He’s just the same guy, he hasn’t changed. He’s approachable, he loves showing people how to have a good time on the bike. And he lets me ride with him and doesn’t drop me.
Where can we see Ritchey going in 2016?
That’s a good question as I don’t know. But one thing I do know I look at is material science, as this opens up new doors. I’m probably no different from others who have a bunch of ideas. Like me they may not know how to make it, and a material may come along and make it possible to make.
I’m one of those designers that have had ideas for over 40 years and I’m now looking for the material. I’m always looking for the material. Because materials unlock the doors to make a new products. There’s been a lot of new materials, you know, and there’s been a lot of reapplication of materials that have been forgotten.
Like steel — steel is the most morphable of all materials. I mean you can make [everything] from a nail to a part that would go to Mars. Steel is unique in my experience. The manipulation of … steel and other materials like it make it possible to find new frontiers. These’s a new aluminised steel that’s coming out that’s probably going to become a real, real innovative material. It’s just that it’s on the cutting [edge] of science.
To cut a long story short, as a young racer I was always looking for an advantage. Just like everyone else I was looking for a faster bike and better bike; a bike I could win more consistently on. And as an old guy now — I’m turning 60 next year — I need the advantage more than I did when I was 15.
I have a father that is reaching the end of his life at 87 and he needs it even more. He doesn’t get out on a bike but on a scooter, a push scooter. I just visited him and he needs my help, so I’m thinking I’m going to be him [in the future] and I’m going to need that help.
It’s all about adventure and exploring and what an adventure ride means. To me now it means something different to when I was 15, and what an adventure ride means to my dad is going half a mile. It’s all perspective. Martha and I continue to ride a tandem and will do as long as we can ride. That’s all part of design and something that I need to think about.
My ideas are really humble I think. It’s a case of not over-shooting what’s needed and beneficial to the market. I don’t create things just for the sake of creating, nor [do I] do things just for the business. I do things that are really value-based, based on a lifestyle cyclist like myself. I just want to see more people on a bike.