This article was originally published in Issue 110 of Singletrack Magazine.
We chat to (and ride with) this iconic framebuilder, product designer, owner and boss of Ritchey Components during his whirlwind visit to the UK.
I’m at the Bicycle Academy in Frome, Somerset, and someone is brazing a frame. This kind of thing happens all the time here – it’s what they teach. The room is full of Bridgeport mills, tubesets, dropouts and lathes.
There’s something special in the air though. There’s a rapt silence as everyone looks on at the framebuilder, unconventionally perched on a low stool, the nearly-finished frame slung over a shoulder in an equally unconventional fashion as he teases molten brass into a perfect fillet with a tiny oxyacetylene flame torch.
The framebuilder on show, building a whole frame in a day, is none other than Tom Ritchey, a man who deserves the respect that the crowd is giving him. He built many of the first specific mountain bike frames, both under his own name and in partnership with Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly’s ‘Mountain Bikes’ company. Tom hand built the frames that Thomas Frischknecht, Henrik Djernis, and Ruthie Matthes won World Championships on. Tom’s designs helped push everything from multitools to grips, hubs to handlebars. When the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame opened in 1988, Tom was in that first year of inductees.
However, unlike some of his peers, Tom isn’t that happy in front of a camera or a crowd and doesn’t go out of his way to seek publicity. The evening gathering and framebuilding demonstration at the Bicycle Academy had some long pauses, as Tom worked on the frame and the invited audience looked on. But ask him a question about cycling, racing, bikes, frames or component designs and Tom is away.
Earlier in the day, Tom had held a masterclass with a few of the Cycle Academy’s students who were keen to get tips from someone who’d built thousands of frames in the 45 years or so since he first picked up a brazing torch.
Tom was asked to introduce himself by the framebuilding school’s head teacher, Andrew Denham. An hour later, Tom was still telling his story. It’s probably a story he’s told a hundred, a thousand times before, but Tom is constantly remembering details that weren’t in the previous telling, backing the story up a year or two to add a detail here or there before continuing. For us, he never got as far as the present day, or even the turn of the 20th century. One day, he says, there’s a story that needs to be told, a book that needs to be written. It won’t be a small book.
Tom grew up with a machine workshop and an engineer dad to hand. As a young teen and promising road racer, Tom sought more and more speed, through training and better equipment. He couldn’t afford a fancy Italian Cinelli bike frame, but he could buy the frame of a crashed one that needed repairing, which he set about doing himself. Those Italian frames from the ’60s and ’70s were legendary, especially in the USA, but as Tom took the much-lauded lugged frame apart in order to repair it, he was shocked at the lack of quality underneath. The frames were built to be manufactured quickly on a large scale, which meant a simpler construction, far more heat on the joins than was needed, more brass to join the inexpertly (or hurriedly) mitred tubes underneath heavy steel lugs and a lot of margin for error. There was plenty he could see that needed improving.
At the age of 15, Tom decided to build his own frame. Although he had no formal framebuilding experience, his dad was building a steam-powered car (as you do when you’re an engineer), and figured that oxyacetylene and low-temperature silver brazing would be the best way of joining tubes together. First though, he built his own frame jig. Then he built a bike. Then he started winning races on it.
Tom looked around at frame tubes, joining profiles and methods and ways in which he could improve how a bike frame was joined. This was an American era of ‘Think it, do it!’, and he was aided by his dad and his dad’s expert engineer friends – the type that tend to pop round to other engineers’ houses for a chat and a nose at what they’re building. Tom maintains that his need for finding improvements in bike design was purely selfish: he wanted to make himself better bikes so that he could race faster, but other people wanted some of that too. They started bringing broken bikes for him to repair. And then they started ordering steel race bikes from him. Tom was confident that steel was the right material for fast racing bikes. He still is.
Fixing broken frames helped Ritchey see, first hand, where and how frames were failing. Some failed at the joins, some failed at the ends of the tube butting where they got thinner. All of this would help him to design his Ritchey Logic tubing later on. But, like Tom, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Tom didn’t entirely dismiss lugs – in fact he reckons he’s built 1,000 lugged frames over the years. They could be built well, but so many weren’t. Tom worked to perfect his fillet brazing technique as he reckoned that it gave a reliable, light and strong join. In all these years of building frames, he’s never had a frame fail at the join. Not one.
Tom’s racing career took on a similar path as his framebuilding career. He built frames, trained and raced bikes. He even persuaded his school headmaster that he should attend only in the mornings, allowing him time to make frames and train at a national level in the afternoons.
In the late ’70s, mountain biking was happening around the Bay Area and Tom was already racing and mixing with those original flannel-shirted Repack pioneers – as well as training on his road bike on and off road. Joe Breeze had made the first commercial mountain bike frames – ten of them – which some reckoned would fulfil all the demand forever, but Gary Fisher asked Tom to make him a frame, so Tom did, making one for himself at the same time. Then, aided by a far-sighted loan from a bike-riding college professor called John Finley Scott, Gary asked Tom to build more, and that ensuing partnership between Fisher, Charlie Kelly and Tom Ritchey would become the Mountain Bikes brand. Tom would make the frames and Fisher and Kelly would sell them. And the rest, as they say, really is history. But there’s more.
Too early for 650…
John Finley had another input. He had already built up a ‘woodsy’ bike in the ’50s, using flat bars and a pretty common European tyre size of ‘650B’ – way lighter than the 26in newsboy wheels and tyres that the original clunkers were using. Finley proceeded to ride his contraption around all the dirt roads of California and would always bug Ritchey – ‘Hey Ritchey, you need to build a 650B bike’, so when Fisher asked him to build that first set of 26in mountain bikes, Ritchey also built himself some 650B bikes to see what would sell. He sold one – to Finley Scott. And the rest sat there until, years later, Finley Scott bought the rest, presumably out of embarrassment or guilt, and the 650B mountain bike would have to wait a few more decades…
The arrangement with Mountain Bikes stopped after three or so years, by which time Tom was already working on improving the components that went on the bikes, as well as building his own brand of frames. Around this time came the rise of the aluminium mountain bike, pioneered by companies like Mantis, Manitou and mainly by East Coast innovators, Cannondale. Tom is still pretty scathing about Cannondale’s influence on that early mountain bike scene. Alloy was in its infancy, but Cannondale captured the minds of the nascent scene and of the reasonably naive media that seemed to champion any new development.
In order to fit cranks and knobbly tyres into the crowded bottom bracket area, there are several dimensions that are sacred to Ritchey. The ‘Q-factor’ or the distance between the pedals is probably the most holy. For 100 years, the width was 145mm, but aluminium bikes with their fatter chainstays couldn’t make that work and still fit tyres in, so the ‘perfect’ 16mm chainstay width was junked as bottom brackets widened and pedals got wider apart. No one seemed to question why the traditional old dimensions were as they were – and the mountain bike world was hungry for innovation. (Sound familiar?)
Cannondale had aligned itself with a small, fast-moving component company called Suntour which was happy to make components to suit, so Ritchey aligned himself with Shimano, a company he still holds in high esteem, and gave them his thoughts on what mountain bikes and mountain bikers would want in a groupset. Those talks helped shape the groupset that would become the first Shimano Deore. Not all of his suggestions were heeded though. Tom wanted the new cassette hub that Shimano had just produced for the road. Fisher and crew still wanted bolt-on hubs, so there was no demand for a cassette hub and its quick-release axles. Ritchey persuaded Shimano to make a mountain bike version for his bikes. And later, when Shimano insisted that all of its customers ran oval (but in the wrong way), Biopace chainrings, Ritchey was the only company allowed to spec round ones.
Helping out with carbon.
Years of constant evolution and revolution later and the mountain bike world has changed a lot. Is Ritchey concerned for his business in this age of ‘ultimate’ carbon bikes? Far from it, he’s quite chuffed really. Carbon bikes, due to their moulded construction, can only practically be made in a small range of sizes, whereas steel frames were traditionally built to the size of the rider and fitted with a range of pretty standard components. Now the tables are turned and the limited frame dimensions mean that riders have to use variously sized stems, bars and seatposts to get a carbon bike to fit. And Ritchey’s company makes all of those, so he wins anyway.
That doesn’t stop him from a small sermon (to a very converted audience) about the longevity of steel, about the repairability in the wilderness and the tunability of a bike frame from the choice of tubes. It’s not a ‘use and dispose of’ material like carbon and he reckons that the purists and those who ride thousands of miles a year still know the value of a steel frame.
Tom, incidentally, still rides virtually every day in the empty rolling hills next to his house, clocking up 10,000 or so miles a year. He still works from the same small workshop next to the house that he built himself, though he’s quick to point out that really, all of his ideas come when he’s out on his bike. He has some reliable staff at Ritchey’s nearby Bay Area HQ who keep the show running when he’s not around, leaving Tom free to come up with ideas and those ‘big picture’ things that only ever come to mind when you’re been in the saddle for a couple of hours.
Riding with the frame.
By the end of Ritchey’s day and evening at the Bicycle Academy, he’d finished the frame that in the morning had been a box of (Ritchey) tubes. Overnight, some deft finishing had been done by the Bicycle Academy (and neighbouring BTR Bikes) staff to make that bare frame into a rideable bike and the following morning a dozen or so riders gathered at Bristol’s Ashton Court to ride with Mr Ritchey. After the time it took to drink a couple of coffees, the complete bike – with appropriate 650B(+) wheels – appeared with Andrew and it was presented to Tom to ride.
Over the next two hours, Tom rode Bristol’s singletrack and continued his storytelling. He turned 60 this year and was clearly enjoying himself among the singletrack, and the eager audience clearly loved riding with a genuine legend of the sport. For Tom, though, it was just another day of riding his bike, having fun, thinking of ideas for stuff…