Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
This weekend I listened to a great episode of the From the Top podcast by Wade Wallace. It’s titled Building Ritchey, as in Tom Ritchey, one of the founders of the mountain bike, a prolific framebuilder and cycling inventor and a former star road racer on the USA team both as a Junior and Senior.
The podcast is an hour long interview covering a lot of Ritchey’s amazing life and accomplishments in bikes and cycling plus some behind the scenes of founding and running his company Ritchey Design. You can find the interview at the link at the bottom. To whet your appetite, I’ve pulled some of Tom’s bicycle technical comments that I found most interesting to share here.
My Ritchey Interview
The Ritchey connection for me is that, as an editor at Bicycling I had the thrill of interviewing Tom at the log home he built in the hills above Palo Alto, California. That interview would have taken place in the early to mid 1990s.
Before we sat down to talk Tom fitted me to a Ritchey road bike, he hopped on his, and we hit the pavement. Ritchey racing team member Dave McLaughlin who worked PR for Ritchey came along, too. That was a good thing because not a mile down the road, Tom disappeared.
I thought he was just so fast he had ridden out of sight. But as I was about to try to chase him down, Dave hollered at me to stop and pointed out a hidden entrance to a lovely singletrack trail heading downhill into the woods beside the road. That’s where Tom had gone. And the only reason we eventually caught up to him is because he flatted.
When we got back to his house we did the interview in his garage, which had been the workshop where countless Ritchey frames had been built. What I remember most were the workstations all around for each step of frame building. The edges of all the workbenches were severely worn down. I could only imagine the amount of work it took for that to happen.
I wasn’t able to find my notes from that interview or the story I wrote (I’m still looking). But I did find this photo of Tom that I like a lot in my cycling magazine library. It’s the cover of the May, 1981 issue of Bicycling, which featured Tom and his golden retriever Bo. It looks like he’s riding one of his handmade mountain bikes complete with his Bullmoose integral bars and stem, both of which were revolutionary at the time.
About Jobst Brandt
In case you haven’t heard of him, one of Tom’s friends and mentors mentioned in this interview is the legendary cyclist, mechanical engineer and inventor Jobst Brandt who died in 2015. He was the leader of the 100 to 150 mile rides Tom talks about. There’s an excellent blog post about Jobst here:
Now for some quotes from the podcast:
Tom on starting to build frames as a teenager and the things that influenced him:
“I wasn’t at all aiming at making a business, I was just happy to get a bike I could use. Because I tried to race and be competitive I was inventing things that I thought would work to make my bike lighter and I think that the common denominator then that’s still the same as it is now is light weight, high performance, go fast.
The adventures that we had were epic. Because we weren’t just throwing bikes in the back of a pickup truck and bombing down a road in Marin. We were taking 100 to 150 mile rides in which the day was shot, you were shot, there was nothing left, you were basically whacked because you just put in 10,000 feet of climbing and rode 30 miles on dirt. When you did that and you did that in a compressed amount of time you developed skills that most people didn’t have.
And so, the idea of using these mega rides as training rides, as fun rides, was just very untraditional. It was drinking from a firehose in a training sense and in a product development sense. I was basically being mentored at the same time as I was building my own product because it wasn’t just the frames I was building at that time. I was making stems, saddle/seatpost combinations and bottom brackets all in an attempt to save weight and ultimately the racing kind of gave me a platform to showcase some of the components that I was starting to develop at 17 years old.
I bought lathes and I bought milling machines, very very nice high quality machinery that I was beginning to not just make tooling and things to help me make a frame better but also to make components and this was all way before the mountain bike. It was all in the era of road racing and building up a business and at the time, leading up to my graduation from high school, I was fast becoming a businessman.”
Tom on what brought professional road cycling to America and how it and the mountain bike shook up the industry
“When I retired from road racing in 1976 there were only amateurs, there was no professional cycling. It really only happened as a result of Greg LeMond that professional cycling came to the United States. He brought it here. You know he went through his young career so fast and so furiously and so dominant that when he hit Europe they didn’t know what hit them.
The mountain bike happened almost simultaneously to Greg and it was like this one-two punch that took the industry from Greg and his dominance in racing and the mountain bike and its attraction to a new mass of people that were looking for something different and something almost surreal in terms of you can ride off road, up a mountain and on these dirt gravel roads or these trails?
And it ended up creating a new way of solving problems and gave confidence to a lot of people like Tommy Ritchey and other small companies at that time that they had something to offer. Greg, he built into his contract – the little whippersnapper – things that had never been built into a contract. You go to Europe and you just ride what the Gods want you to ride, you don’t have a choice. Greg came along and he said I’m gonna do it my way and they accepted it.
And basically I was in the same kind of unique position on the mountain bike side where no one had done this before, no one had done what I was doing, no one had built a frame without lugs – they would say you don’t do that – you need lugs, if you don’t have lugs the world’s gonna fall apart. How can you possibly be so audacious to think that your bikes can be strong enough without lugs?”
Tom on inventing
“…the philosophy of design is very holistic to me. I know from words that Jobst Brandt spoke to me and from things that I discovered that the evolution of design, the beginning point of the bike, how it started in the 1880s with pneumatic tires and other things and ended up where it is today in my skillset is something that got proven to me in practice, got proven to me in my own personal evolution as somebody that tried to make something and I had to admit failure and understand it after that and understand it at a young age.
Having Jobst Brandt hammer into me ride after ride after ride, don’t take for granted the 100 years of people working on this thing. Don’t ever think you’ve got an idea just like off the top of your head that is going to surpass that. You have to work hard for it. You have to do all the things right. And if you’re lucky you might chip away at that technology, you just might. But for the most part don’t expect success without a lot of failure. That has always rang in the back of my head like a bell every time I think of something new to do.”
That’s just a few minutes from the interview and these quotes hardly do justice to Tom telling his story in his own words. I think you’ll enjoy it if you listen.
Here’s a link to the podcast: https://www.audible.com/pd/From-The-Top-Podcast/B09Y8MTMMJ
If this link doesn’t work for you, I believe you can find it on other podcast streaming apps, too.
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s cycling streak ended in February 2022 with a total of 10,269 consecutive daily rides (28 years, 1 month and 11 days of never missing a ride). Click to read Jim’s full bio.