AT HOME WITH JOHN TOMACA legend of the trails and the road
Morning comes early on Tomac ranch. Work starts before sun-up. There are crops to tend to, fields to be tilled. The horses and chickens need to be fed. There are a variety of machines to gas up and maintain, and there’s also the matter of two motocross tracks to take care of.
John Tomac runs this operation. He has two full-time ranch workers on staff, but he’s a hands-on boss. Most days, he’s out there getting dirty. The retired pro bike racer, winner of world championships, world cups and national titles in multiple disciplines, knows that no one ever said ranching was easy. But to see him here on his sprawling 800-acre property, surrounded by the La Plata and San Juan Mountain ranges in the high desert plateau of Cortez, Colorado, is to see a man who is truly in his element.
This rough-hewn life can seem at odds with Tomac’s years as a professional bike racer. Because, let’s face it: he made it look easy. From BMX to cross-country, road racing to downhill, Tomac moved in and out of all varieties of bike racing. And wherever he went, he won.
In the late 1980s and ’90s, his image was everywhere. He was a poster boy. A rock star. One week we’d see him bombing down a dusty mountain trail in the Rockies, riding a Yeti with drop handlebars. The next he’d be hammering the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix with Team 7-Eleven.
How did he do it?
Tomac hit the scene in the late 1980s, just as the sport of mountain biking entered its adolescent phase. It was past its formative years, those renegade gatherings of longhairs on clunkers, but it wasn’t yet the buttoned-up Olympic sport it would become. At the same time, an industry was bubbling up. Established bike brands and kooky inventors were lining up to cash in on the latest craze. Magazines were being launched and they had pages to fill.
That era is defined by unforgettable images of Tomac. There he is, stretched long and low over that Yeti with drop bars and yellow toe-clips, blond mullet flowing out of his white Bell helmet. Or there, pictured in a full-page ad, wearing Oakley Blades and a flat-top haircut, holding the latest new stem in his hands. And who can forget the shiny black skinsuit, rocketing down the moonscape of the Kamikaze Downhill at Mammoth Mountain, California.
Because of all this, it’s easy to forget that Tomac started just like anyone else. He was a kid riding his BMX bike. He liked going fast, loved competition, and worked hard to get better. His dad worked in a General Motors factory, his mom worked various jobs around his hometown of Owosso, Michigan, about an hour-and-a-half outside of Detroit. He started racing when he was 6, and it took him 10 years to win his first national championship at 16.
So, no, it didn’t happen overnight. But after winning that first national championship and turning pro in BMX, things started to move fast for the teenager. He landed a contract with Mongoose, and shortly after graduating from high school he decided to escape the snowy, frigid winters of Michigan and go somewhere he could ride year-round. Luckily, his older sister lived in Los Angeles, so that’s where he went.
Living in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, Tomac was surrounded by mountains. He got the idea to turn one of his Mongoose 24-inch BMX cruiser bikes into a makeshift mountain bike, and began venturing off on remote mountain trails.
“My brother-in-law, Robby Rupe, was a pro BMXer and he was getting into riding the mountain bike,” Tomac says. “And I had another friend, Byron Friday, who was in the bike industry, and I did a lot of riding with him. He took me to some of my first mountain bike races in California. It was still very grassroots then. A lot of the races were outlaw events. No permits, everybody just shows up at a certain canyon at 8 o’clock in the morning. It was free-spirited to say the least.”
“That era of road cycling versus that era for mountain biking — you’re talking about two different creatures entirely.”
But the underground movement was marching toward mainstream, and Tomac soon realized that mountain biking, not BMX, could be his future. “It took me about a year to get ‘mountain bike fit’ from being a BMX guy,” he says. “But it happened pretty fast — my performance improved a lot over that first year. After one season, I was already one of the top-10 guys nationally. That was a pretty rapid rise in results.”
After a while, as part of his training, Tomac started riding on the road. He hooked up with the Rainbow Sports club in L.A. and entered some local races. His ascent through the road ranks was breathtaking, going from a first-time Cat. IV racer to finishing top-10 at national championships in less than one season. That drew the attention of one of the top domestic road teams of the era, Celestial Seasonings, which signed Tomac in 1988, the same year he won the United States Cycling Federation (USCF) criterium championship.
Meanwhile, Tomac was also winning mountain bike races coast-to-coast while racing for Mongoose. He had lucrative sponsorship deals with brands like Oakley, Tioga and Bell Helmets, and in 1988 he won all three disciplines of the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) series: cross-country, downhill and dual slalom. Such a feat seems unimaginable today.
Because mountain biking was becoming so popular, other American road racers — riders like Rishi Grewal and Steve Tilford — were taking to the dirt. But no one had more success in all facets of the sport than Tomac did. Looking back, he says it was an interesting experience straddling two different worlds.
“There was a big difference between road and mountain bike cultures at the time,” he says. “Mountain biking was a pretty laid-back scene. At that time road racing was fairly well developed in the U.S. But these were just way different people on either side. That era of road cycling versus that era for mountain biking — you’re talking about two different creatures entirely.”
At first Tomac says he felt like a bit of an outsider on the road — with its black shorts and white socks, its traditions and dogma. But before he knew much, he was already winning. And so he began dreaming of racing in Europe. Why not?
As is the way in road racing, Tomac had a few local pack leaders to show him the ropes. “I had some guys in the club, older guys, who would help me out,” he says. “And once I got onto the Celestial Seasonings Team, that’s when I really started to grow. Our director was Stanley Szozda, this Polish guy who had won the Peace Race and was just a really great guy.”
Tomac also did some racing with the national team, coached by Eddie Borysewicz, who had led the U.S. team to nine medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics. And then, after a strong showing at the Tour de Trump stage race in 1989, he was recruited by the biggest pro team in the U.S., 7-Eleven. Incredibly, just three years after starting as a Cat. IV amateur, Tomac was headed to the big leagues in Europe.
“I remember going straight to training camp that winter in January, I think in Northern California,” Tomac says. “Then in February we were in Spain, then southern France racing. It was wild. I basically started racing on the road in ’87, and three years later I was in Europe.”
“Everybody raced a ton of days, there was no sitting out and getting ready for one or two events. That’s not how things worked back then.”
Slogging it out in the cold, rainy races of early-season Europe, going from one foreign town to the next and racing every day of the week, was a far cry from sunny Southern California and the mountain resort venues of typical mountain bike events. But while this merciless grind has chewed up and spit out its share of hopeful, talented young American racers, boomeranging them back to the comforts of air conditioning and burritos, Tomac’s blue-collar upbringing probably served him well. Looking back, he speaks about the experience with fondness.
“That’s right where I wanted to be at the time,” Tomac says. “I knew how things worked, and you just have to accept that. Everybody had to pay their dues. Everybody raced a ton of days, there was no sitting out and getting ready for one or two events. That’s not how things worked back then.”
However, the difference between Tomac and everyone else was that he still had another full-time job to go along with his 100 days of road racing per year. He would be at a no-name kermesse in Belgium one week, then racing downhill at Vail, Colorado, the next. For a few short years, in his early 20s, Tomac did it all. “I did pretty much all the NORBA Nationals and I think 10 world cups a year,” he says. “And then the rest of the time, I’d be with the road team.”
Between mountain bike events, Tomac raced all the big spring classics on the road, plus major stage races including the Giro d’Italia. He raced alongside teammates including Davis Phinney, Bob Roll and Sean Yates with 7-Eleven (later Motorola). How he managed it all remains a true mystery of the sport.
To watch Tomac in those years was like seeing Michael Jordan take flight. Or Wayne Gretzky zip down the ice. There was something alien about it. A power and grace that immediately answered any questions about who was the best bike handler in the world. Many argue that Tomac still holds that title.
Yet now, as he takes a break from ranching duties to answer questions while still wearing his cowboy hat, he remains humble. He doesn’t recall any particular road race as a crowning achievement, but points to the 1990 Paris-Roubaix, when his 7-Eleven teammate Steve Bauer finished second to Belgian Eddy Planckaert in a photo finish, as perhaps his best memory.
“I had some decent results in the spring classics,” Tomac says. “I had a top-20 at Ghent-Wevelgem. A few good days in the Giro. I was top 15 or so in the prologue. Everybody goes into those races on their top form, so that was a pretty good result as a young neo-pro. It was just cool to be able to do those events. I only did two years, and that was that.”
That was that. But what followed was another decade of success in the dirt with world championships, world cup wins and national titles. Tomac became an innovator in product development, working with various brands including Bell Helmets to help advance off-road equipment during an era of experimental progression. Ultimately, he co-founded Tomac Bicycles, working with suspension designer Doug Bradbury to bring a full line of mountain bikes to market.
Throughout this time, Tomac also transitioned to his ranching life, and today he spends much of his time coaching and managing his son Eli, a professional motocross racer.
When asked about that crossroads he came to in 1991, when he had to choose between road or mountain bike racing, Tomac is matter-of-fact about the decision. “I had just gotten to the point where I needed to decide,” he says. “The schedule to do both was too much. At that point I was having more success on the mountain bike, and my value was higher there than it was on the road.”
There were other reasons, too. “The road scene at that point was pretty bad as far as doping goes,” Tomac says. “People tend to say the EPO era was early or mid-90s, but it really probably started in ’89 or ’90. And that was a game-changer for cycling. I feel like that particular drug, and what it did to your blood, was a huge advantage if you used it. And the problem was they really didn’t have a way to monitor it. I knew I wasn’t going to be that successful if I didn’t go that direction. I didn’t want to do that.”
Considering where he came from, and the life he has built here on the ranch, it’s easy to understand that decision. Shortcuts aren’t really Tomac’s style. “For me, it’s like what’s the point of winning if you’re cheating?,” he says. “What have you accomplished?”
As he closes in on his 50th birthday, Tomac still likes to get out and ride trails. That’s his way to relax when he’s not busy on the ranch or traveling the motocross circuit with Eli. “My favorite thing is to ride the high-country trails here in Colorado,” he says. “Stuff that’s rugged and pretty high up there. I normally ride a bike with about 120mm of suspension, 650b wheels and three-inch-wide tires to handle the nasty, rough terrain.”
And with that, he’s off. There is work to be done.
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