A chat with a legend: 20 questions with John Tomac

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Just mention the nickname “Johnny T” to American cyclists of a certain age and watch their eyes light up.

John Tomac was a bike racer in a bygone era, capable of riding with the best road pros during the period in cycling’s history when mountain-bike racing was exploding across the globe.

A Michigan native with a BMX background, Tomac was a U.S. national criterium champion and a world cross-country champion. During the late 1980s through the end of the 1990s he won on fully rigid cross-country bikes and eight-inch travel downhill bikes. He was indisputably the best rider to compete in both cross-country and downhill racing; many view him as the most talented American cyclist of all time.

Tomac juggled between road and mountain-bike racing early in his career because, he said, he wanted “a new challenge,” calling it an experiment.

“The competition in mountain biking [in the late 1980s and early 1990s] wasn’t quite at a world-class level as it was in road racing,” Tomac once said. “So I went over [to Europe] and tried that for a few years, but it got to the point where I had to decide what I wanted to do. My talents were more suited to mountain biking.”

John Tomac, racing for Yeti but wearing his 7-Eleven road team shorts, in 1990. Photo by Tom Moran.
John Tomac, racing for Yeti but wearing his 7-Eleven road team shorts, in 1990. Photo by Tom Moran.

In 1990, at age 22, Tomac raced the spring classics with the American road team 7-Eleven managed by Jim Ochowicz, who now runs BMC Racing. Riding alongside teammates such as Bob Roll, Davis Phinney, and Sean Yates — and in support of Steve Bauer — Tomac finished 20th at Gent-Wevelgem, and then helped his Canadian teammate ride to second, in a photo finish, at Paris-Roubaix.

“There are two spring classics that I absolutely loved,” Tomac said. “The Ronde (Tour of Flanders) and Roubaix. They were the biggies, and the ones that really mattered if you were a classics rider who specialized in the cobbled events.”

A month later Tomac raced his first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia. In a Bicycling.com article recalling that race, former teammate Frankie Andreu, who also hails from Michigan, wrote about Tomac: “The 1990 Giro was [Tomac’s] first big race. I always saw him in front of me on the climbs, pedaling something like 60 rpms in a massive gear. If we were on the flats, he would be in his 12. He never bothered to shift, but just powered through anything in his way.”

In the summer of 1990, Tomac competed in the first UCI world cross-country championship in Durango, Colorado. (Various mountain-bike world championships had been held since 1986, but without the sanction of the UCI, which chose to host its inaugural world championships in the U.S., the birthplace of mountain biking.)

Tomac, the 1988 “NORBA world cross-country champion,” punctured out of the lead group in a race won by compatriot and longtime rival Ned Overend. He also finished fourth in the world downhill championship, riding a road-style drop handlebar on his Yeti C-26, in order to keep his road and mountain-bike setups similar.

Video: 1991 Motorola Cycling Team Spring Classics documentary

The following year, Tomac switched jerseys, both on the road and off, wearing Motorola colors on the road, and Tioga-Raleigh on the mountain bike. In Barga, Italy, Tomac won the world cross-country championship and took silver in the downhill; he also won the UCI cross-country World Cup series overall title.

In 1992, Tomac’s first season dedicated to mountain biking, he finished second in the UCI cross-country World Cup series, behind Switzerland’s Thomas Frischknecht. The following year Tomac finished second in both the UCI cross-country and downhill series standings, behind Frischknecht and German Jürgen Beneke, respectively.

National titles in downhill (1994) and cross-country (1996) followed, but an illness in 1995 forced Tomac to miss out on U.S. Olympic team selection for mountain-bike’s debut on the world’s biggest stage; he would call it the biggest disappointment in his career.

The sport was changing rapidly, and in 1997, at age 29, Tomac switched his focus solely onto downhill, winning the national title and taking a silver medal at the world championships behind Nicolas Vouilloz, the Frenchman who went on to win seven world championships and five World Cup series titles.

Along with Manitou founder and suspension engineer Doug Bradbury, Tomac launched an eponymously named bike brand in 1998. Tomac raced prototype and production full-suspension Tomac bikes from 1998-2000, the final years of his career. In an era when the downhill scene was dominated by tattoos and piercings, the X Games, and “extreme” Mountain Dew commercials, Tomac stood out; an old-school endurance athlete with a pro peloton pedigree.

Much to the delight of the slopeside fans at the world downhill championships in Château-d'Oex, Switzerland, John Tomac attached a Swiss cowbell to his handlebars. Tomac took silver behind France's Nicolas Vouilloz; it would be his final appearance on a world championship podium. Photo: Tom Moran.
Much to the delight of the slopeside fans at the 1997 world downhill championships in Château-d’Oex, Switzerland, John Tomac attached a Swiss cowbell to his handlebars. Tomac took silver behind France’s Nicolas Vouilloz; it would be his final appearance on a world championship podium. Photo: Tom Moran.

Tomac officially announced his retirement from racing at the 2000 Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California, but returned in 2004, at age 37, to win the infamous Kamikaze downhill at Mammoth Mountain.

“When John retired at the end of the 2000 season, NORBA celebrated his career with a banquet at Mammoth,” said veteran cycling photographer Tom Moran, who photographed Tomac for the entirety of his off-road career. “I gave a short speech, comparing Tomac to Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth was the first icon for baseball. He could pitch, and he could hit. Tomac was the first icon for American mountain biking. He could win cross-country and he could win downhill, both at the highest level.”

The Tomac brand name was ultimately acquired by American Bicycle Group, which in 2006 sold it to former Answer and Manitou brand manager Joel Smith. Smith, who ran the Tomac brand from his Santa Cruz home on a shoestring budget, shuttered production in 2013, and that license moved to U.K. internet retailer Planet X Bikes, which sells a range of Tomac-branded mountain bikes.

Today, Tomac, 49, resides on a farm in Cortez, Colorado. He’s designed tire treads for Kenda and worked with World Cup downhill star Aaron Gwin. He also coaches his son, Eli, a star in motocross racing for Monster Energy and Kawasaki. In 2010, at age 18, Eli Tomac became the first rider in history to win his professional AMA motocross debut. In 2013, he won the national 250cc motocross national championship.

In September 2015, Tomac and several other legends of the sport returned to Durango to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the inaugural UCI mountain-bike world championships; that’s when the interview below took place.

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CT: What are the standout memories from the first UCI official world championships, in Durango, in 1990?
JT: It was a big step for mountain biking, because prior to that, we weren’t a recognized UCI world championship event. There were world championships prior to this Durango one, but it wasn’t UCI sanctioned. It wasn’t like it was the first time there was a world’s, but it was the first UCI recognized one. It was important for the sport, to make it to that level. A lot of us pro level riders were living here in Durango, so it was pretty exciting for the community to have that event here also.

CT: What were your expectations going into that race? And what were your emotions at the end of it?
JT: I didn’t have a very good race, actually. I was leading the first part of the cross-country race and flatted, so I think I finished sixth. I expected to be able to compete, to win the race, and it didn’t go that well for me. So I wasn’t too happy with that outcome. The downhill was okay, I think I was fourth in that, which was a reasonable result. I almost died that day, so it was good. I was riding drop bars back then, because I was riding on the road for the 7-Eleven team and I wanted my bikes basically identical. Riding a downhill world championship on drop bars is a little bit gnarly.

Video: John Tomac at the 1990 UCI mountain-bike world championships in Durango, Colorado

CT: You don’t see drop bars too often these days at the world downhill championships.
JT: No, you wouldn’t [laughs].

CT: But you took redemption the next year.
JT: The next year was good. I won the cross-country race, that was in Italy, and I was second in the downhill.

CT: Which season stands out to you as your best?
JT: 1991 was my best season, as far as results. I won a national downhill championship, and the world’s cross-country, and the World Cup cross-country title.

John Tomac, world cross-country champion, in 1992. Photo by Tom Moran.
John Tomac, world cross-country champion, in 1992. Photo by Tom Moran.

CT: It’s possible that no sport has changed as rapidly as mountain biking has in the last 25 years. When you look back to Durango worlds in 1990 and look at what mountain biking is today, how do you even reconcile what it has become?
JT: Well, I feel fortunate, I think Ned [Overend] probably feels the same way, that we were around at almost the start of mountain-bike racing. I’m talking about mid-80s. It was before index shifting, it was before clip-in pedals. There was no suspension. When I stopped racing in 2000, I was on an eight-inch travel downhill bike at that time. So I got to see everything, as far as the bike evolution goes, and compete through all those phases, which was pretty cool. Now the downhill bike is still pretty similar to what I raced in 2000. Cross-country bikes have advanced a little bit, but not all that much. I mean, you have your wheel sizes, and the weight has come down, but they haven’t changed that much really since 2000 either. I think from 1985 to 2000 was a big push, and it’s still progressing, but not at the rate, the rate in the 90s was quite incredible.

CT: Back in 1990, could you see that the progression of the sport was on that trajectory?
JT: I think in 1990, ’91, ’92, the athletes were getting more specialized. You didn’t see guys crossing over very much. In the mid- to late-80s, almost all of us rode all of the events, it was just normal to do that. It turned to be a little more specialized by the time the UCI world championships were starting to happen.

Video: 1992 Fat Tire Journal interview with John Tomac

CT: The kind of rider you were —excelling in both downhill and cross country — doesn’t exist today. Is that something that you take a lot of pride in?
JT: Yeah, I think it could still be done, but not easily. I think a guy like [Nino] Schurter could do it. He’s that good. But the mentality to be a downhiller is so different than to be a cross-country guy, and I don’t know that athletes get exposed at a young age to both of them, to have that option. It’s tough. And now I think now cross-country is a little more specialized than even it was when I was racing, in that physically I think you have to be a little more adapted to that sport. But I don’t know, I think the courses are shorter now. That helps a little bit.

CT: There is a question that has been tossed around for years, regarding the inclusion of mountain biking in the Olympics. There are some people that feel that it took the sport to the next level, and there are some people that feel that it was the beginning of a change that pulled some of the soul out of the sport. When you look at the Olympics bringing in mountain biking in 1996, and the way that the sport has gone since then, how do you feel that has affected the sport?
JT: I don’t know that it has, actually. I think that the UCI designation was probably more of an impact, because it kind of removed some of the indie status from the sport, more than the Olympics, in my opinion. The Olympics is once every four years. When you get to that international sanctioning level, I think that was a bigger step, in my opinion, than the Olympic recognition.

John Tomac, 1993. Photo by Tom Moran.
John Tomac, 1993. Photo by Tom Moran.

CT: So did you see a significant change from, say, 1988-89, to 1992-93, in terms of before and after the UCI sanctioned the world championships?
JT: Yeah. Racing in the 80s was way different.

CT: How was it different?
JT: It was big loops and everybody hung out before the race, and then we’d all go race a big loop and come out and hang out again. You might do a hill climb, hang out at the top of the mountain, turn around and race back down. It was just… it is hard to explain that era, unless you were there. It’s like trying to explain what happened at Woodstock or something. It’s just different.

CT: What would you say has been the most important technical innovation of the last 25 years?
JT: Suspension. It was a game changer. When I got a suspension fork it was a game changer. Then the rear suspension was a game changer again for downhill, and it took a while for it to be adapted to cross-country. You can still race a hardtail on most [cross-country] courses and get away with it, but suspension, good suspension, made huge differences.

John Tomac, 1990 world mountain-bike championships in Durango, Colorado. Photo: Tom Moran.
John Tomac, 1990 world mountain-bike championships in Durango, Colorado. Photo: Tom Moran.

CT: Is there any one biggest mistake, technical mistake, you’ve seen in the last 25 years or anything you can look back on and just roll your eyes at? How did that ever make it to production?
JT: I can’t really think of any one thing, that was just, like, the worst thing to come along.

CT: When you look back on your racing career, is there one bike that was the iconic bike, in terms of model and year? A bike that you won on the most, or that you are the proudest of having helped develop?
JT: The one I’m probably most proud of is the [Tomac] 204 Magnum, the bike that Doug Bradbury and I built for downhill racing in 1998. We raced it in ’98, ’99, and 2000, because it was just Doug and I putting that thing together. It’s still good bike. It could still be raced today, it’d be a little heavy. A lot of the stuff that we put on that bike is just now… some of the Boost stuff they’re building, on the new wider platform, rear hubs and bottom bracket spacing and the 650b size wheels, they’re starting to adapt some the stuff that we did. It’s pretty cool. I mean it’s been almost 20 years. And I think very few people know that, unless you own one of those bikes.

John Tomac, 1998. Photo by Tom Moran.
John Tomac, national downhill champion, in 1998, aboard the Tomac 204 Magnum. Photo by Tom Moran.

CT: You’ve still got one in the garage?
JT: Oh yeah. And I was fortunate to be involved with a lot of product development over the years with different bike companies. I rode the first Yeti C-26 and stuff. Then we built cool stuff at Raleigh using carbon, aluminum, and titanium. The first signature model that I had, the Mongoose in 1988, that was pretty cool because that was the first time anything like that had been done in production with mountain biking, and it was a Japanese-made chromoly bike with the geometry that I had raced with, which was a lot different what was going on at that time with the other bikes. There were quite a few pretty unique projects that I was involved with.

CT: Across the years, across road, cross-country and downhill, what was the greatest moment of your career? Was there one singular moment?
JT: The one that stands out the most is probably my cross-country win at the world championships in Italy. I had some other really good races. That one’s probably the most memorable because it’s pretty monumental. I had other races where I was as good, or felt as good. There was quite a few along the way. I won a national criterium championship on the road, in 1988. That was pretty cool, because nobody knew who I was and I kind of won it… it was a big surprise. It was one of my first road race wins. That was pretty fun.

CT: Which team were you racing for then?
JT: I was on a club team.

CT: That’s even better.
JT: Yeah [laughs].

CT: Where was that [national criterium championship] held?
JT: The race was in White Plains, New York, outside of New York City.

Video: John Tomac segment from the film ReTread

CT: Is there a low point, a low moment in your career?
JT: It went pretty well. You know, in 1995 I got sick in the spring, had an intestinal sickness, and I had a really poor cross-country season that year. Actually, that one, we had four of the six Olympic qualifiers that year, I wasn’t able to make the Olympic team for ’96 because my ’95 was so bad. So that was probably the most disappointing, because in 1996 I was in good form again. I’d won the national cross-country title that year, but I wasn’t able to do the Olympics because of how they’d set up the selection process. That’s probably it. I’d had a lot of bad races, but that season, 1995, being sick and then not doing the Olympics in 1996 was probably the most disappointing, kind of a combination of things, that happened.

CT: I asked that same question of Ned Overend, and his answer was also not making the 1996 Olympic team. And when I asked him the next question, your name also came up: Is there one rider who was your greatest rival, throughout your career?
JT: Yeah, for cross-country, it would probably be Ned. I mean, we didn’t battle… we did some battles, but our skills were so different that typically if it was anything that was rolling or not at high elevation, I normally could beat him, and then if we were at 8000-9000 feet [of elevation] and it had a lot of climbing, I would almost never beat him there. We were pretty locked together during that era. And then, [Thomas] Frischknecht, also, I crossed over with him, raced him a lot in cross-country, had some good races with him. On the downhill side, I had a really good battle in ’97 with Shaun Palmer for the downhill national title, that was pretty memorable. That was fun. That was a series, so it came down to the last race, but I was pretty good on points because he had crashed out of the second-to-last race, so I had to get like a top four or five in the last race.

CT: Is there any one rider that could be called the greatest mountain biker of all time, across cross-country, downhill, men, women, 25 years ago, today? Or is that too broad of a question?
JT: It is pretty broad. I mean, it could be interpreted numerous ways. For me, I think it would be Nicolas Vouilloz. I raced him when I had some of my best racing, and the guy was just really, really good. And he won like 10 world titles and probably as many World Cup titles.

CT: And he’s still racing.
JT: He’s still riding, racing enduro now. He was… it’s hard, because I really didn’t focus on downhill until ’97. In ’97 I was still pretty good at downhill. I got second to him at worlds and I was like, ‘Man, I just rode probably as good as I can ride.’ And I got beat. He was that good.

John Tomac, 1990 world cross-country championship. Photo by Tom Moran.
John Tomac, 1990 world cross-country championship. Photo by Tom Moran.

CT: If we were to take John Tomac from the finish line in Durango in 1990 and drop him into a present-day world championship, with the modern courses, the racing style, the bike technology, the crowds, that would blow his mind. If we were to take John Tomac from this moment in time and go 25 years into the future, would his mind also be blown? The technology is so advanced now, and mountain biking has fragmented into so many directions. Where does the sport go in the next 25 years?
JT: I honestly don’t see it changing as much as it has in the past 25 years. I just think that initial evolution is almost like going from the first cell phone to the first iPhone. Then when you go from the iPhone 1 to the iPhone 6, it’s not that different, you know? I don’t see it changing that much. I think our bikes are going to change, but not at the rate they did. The athletes are always going to be… I feel like, for all athletics, for the most part, the athletes are always going to get better. But you have certain eras where there are special people around.

John Tomac, at a September 2015 dinner event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 1990 world mountain-bike championships in Durango, Colorado. Photo by Tom Moran.
John Tomac, at a September 2015 dinner event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 1990 world mountain-bike championships in Durango, Colorado. Photo by Tom Moran.

 


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