This article was originally published in Rouleur 115. Support our journalism by subscribing here.
Tom Ritchey built his first frame in 1972, at the age of 15. In the years he’s been in the cycling industry since, he has spent most of his time questioning bike industry orthodoxy, earning himself entry to both the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and the United States Bicycle Hall of Fame along the way. Even today, the bathroom reading in his mountain-top cabin includes books with titles like Innovate or Die. “It’s been 50 years of looking at the way things are done and asking, ‘Do I have to do it this way, or is there a better way?’”
Ritchey would probably have made it anywhere, but he attributes much of his life’s direction to the time and place he grew up: specifically, the San Francisco Bay area, also known as Silicon Valley, in the 1970s.
These days it’s fair to say this particular part of California has become a cliché – full of blowhard start-uppers and wildly overpriced real estate, inflated egos and unicorns on the verge of losing their horns. But it’s important to remember that it was once truly a place of creative ferment, where engineers and geeks seeking jobs in industries most people had never heard of (‘microchips’) found themselves surrounded by spectacular natural beauty and near-perfect weather.
Ritchey’s father, an electrical engineer, was a typical case. In the early 1960s he was poached from electronics giant RCA to work for a new company making miniaturised recording equipment. He piled his young family, seven-year-old Tom included, into a car and drove west, landing in the Palo Alto suburbs next to Stanford University.
Ritchey has become a legend in the bike-making business
The mild weather, consistent sunshine and proximity to mountains, sea and redwood forests was a revelation for the whole family. “The beauty of the state, the diversity of the ecosystems – California was an explosion of outdoor opportunities for my father and other men in my life,” says Ritchey. “The creative juices came alive in him that got passed on to me. They were living full lives dedicated to work and dedicated to play.”
From Marin to Morgan Hill, low-slung warehouses, nondescript office parks and suburban garages filled with soldering irons and welding torches gave birth not just to Apple, Hewlett Packard and Intel, but also Specialized, Ritchey and Giro, along with a host of smaller bike brands and innovators. It’s no accident, Ritchey says, that the Bay Area gave birth to both mountain biking and the personal computer. “For him, for me, for other people I know,” says Ritchey, “it’s more than just in the water.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, the resulting ferment gave rise to some of the world’s most iconic and inventive companies – and to Ritchey. As with so many other Silicon Valley origin stories, Ritchey began in his dad’s garage, building wheels and repairing tubular tyres by the age of ten. He raced and trained with his dad, who also taught him how to wield a welding torch.
Ritchey’s second racing frame was a cracked Cinelli, which he took apart and re-welded with his dad’s help. Looking inside the Italian tubes, he was shocked to find a mess, with sloppy welds and metal fasteners holding the pieces in place. “All that chrome looked beautiful on the outside, but it was so archaic on the inside,” he says. “When you took it apart and saw nails holding it together, it just didn’t make sense.”
Ritchey riding his bike in the Santa Cruz hills
Illusions of Italian superiority dispelled, Ritchey set about making his own frames with the near-unlimited self-confidence of a 15-year-old. “There were so many ways of improving it, you start pushing everywhere you can push,” says Ritchey. “I built a bike for my dad that weighed 15 pounds, and he raced it.” Nearly 50 years later, the frame still hangs in Ritchey’s corporate offices.