California dreaming

Rouleur speaks to American bike-making legend Tom Ritchey about his 50 years in the cycling industry and visions for the future

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.

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.”

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.

 At the same time, he was climbing the ranks of the local junior racing scene. The Bay Area was the centre of the US cycling world at the time, and he was keeping up with guys who would later go on to compete in the Olympics and race the Tour. But he felt a million miles away from racing in Europe. “The sport was very different. We were the bastards of the cycling world. Real, legit cyclists were all European,” says Ritchey. “I wasn’t aware we had anything to offer, on the racing side or the component side.”

In the days before 7-Eleven and Greg LeMond, cycling, too, was an ultra-fringe sport in the US. There were no sponsorships, no free bikes. Racers paid their own entry fees; the winners might walk away with gas money home. “The costs were all on your shoulders,” says Ritchey. “I look back and relish that environment. It was incubatory for who I am.”

Part of that was the state of the equipment. In the 1970s, before targeted training blocks and power metres, getting into racing shape just meant putting in a lot of miles. For the engineering-oriented types who were overrepresented in the area’s gruelling group rides, the rides were a sort of rolling design lab. “The amount of riding needed to be in shape for racing resulted in a lot of product failure,” recalls Ritchey.

In other words, Ritchey and his friends rode fast and broke a lot of expensive Italian shit. One of Ritchey’s mentors, an irascible mechanical engineer and amateur racer named Jobst Brandt, kept a collection of Campagnolo cranks, pedal axles and bottom brackets he and his buddies broke on their epic off-road rides. “There was a lot to look at in terms of component design and metallurgy,” says Ritchey diplomatically.

While the precocious teenage framebuilder fixated on making parts light and fast, Brandt pushed him to prize durability and strength too, schooling him on the principles of mechanics and machining as they rode. Brandt’s bin of failed parts was a backwards masterclass in failed tradeoffs. Ritchey decided to blaze his own trails. I either had so little awareness that I was figuring it out on my own, or I decided it was a tradition without merit,” says Ritchey. “The way they were making frames in Europe, from my 16-year-old perspective, didn’t make a lot of sense.”

Half a world away from the traditional European bastions of framebuilding, there was nothing to prevent Ritchey from tearing up the rulebook. He was only dimly aware a rulebook even existed. “There was no YouTube, I didn’t know anyone working under famous European framebuilders and coming back with stories,” he says. “There’s a lot you inherit in cycling. There’s a really long history, and there’s a lot there. But there’s also a lot that just never got challenged.” 

By 1974, he was leading a “very full life for a 17-year-old” – high school classes, racing as a junior on the US national team and building frames for his friends in his spare time. His high school principal let him create his own schedule, going to school for a few hours each day and spending the afternoons training and building bikes. “I broke every rule you could break as a teenager, except I didn’t do drugs,” says Ritchey. “Fortunately, I had some great people around me who wanted to fan my flame and push me, in a good way.”

In the great Silicon Valley tradition of companies that originated in garages, Ritchey took over his family’s, saving money by living at home and running a growing framebuilding business rent-free. By the time he graduated from high school, he had built and sold 150 framesets to locals he knew through the racing scene and through a mail-order catalogue based in the Bay Area.

Each frame was an opportunity to tinker. He started building frames without lugs, using a technique called fillet brazing. By ditching prefabricated lugs, he could push the limits of geometry, building 32-inch frames for basketball players and 14-inch bikes for diminutive women. “I started going beyond traditional framebuilding,” he says. “Just by letting me take over the family garage, I was able to make mistakes.”

He soon started making more than frames. He welded a 110-gramme stem from lightweight steel tubing, a third of the weight of Italian imports, and raced on it. He trained with LeMond and most of the US Olympic cycling team, many of whom were based in the Bay Area at the time. His nickname was ‘Senior Slayer’, because he won so many races against older riders. His results on the bike were an advertisement for his growing business. “When you’re winning in that environment, and racing with a stem that you made, people notice,” he says. “I learned a lot because it personally affected my livelihood.” (His dad had a motto: “’Don’t make that for anyone till you’ve broken one.’”)

To placate his mother, he spent a semester at university. “I hated every minute,” he says, “because it was taking me away from everything I loved.” Not long after, his parents split up, and he dropped out of college to build and ride bikes full time. “I think my dad had a sense I was living out a special life in terms of creating and innovating and making a decent living,” he says. “And if I could build 150 bikes before I graduated from high school, earning about what my dad did as an engineer, that gives you a lot of choices.”

Within a few years he was churning out 1,000 frames a year, at a time when framebuilding meant forks and paint jobs, too. When he heard about riders bombing down Bay Area trails aboard antique cruisers, he applied his skills to build dedicated off-road frames – some of the first of what would soon be known as mountain bikes. “That was a decision point on what I was going to do with my life – pursue racing, or pursue framebuilding as a vocation,” he says, leaning against the counter in his cluttered workshop. “I decided that racing competed with a lot of things I really enjoyed doing.”

Beginning in 1980, Ritchey dived headlong into building frames and components for the fast-evolving mountain bike world. As always, innovation was met with scepticism. “When I made my first mountain bikes, my racer buddies said, ‘What are you doing with that silly stuff? You make beautiful bikes, why are you wasting your time?’” he recalls. But the wide-open nature of a brand-new sport was intensely exciting. 

The mid-1980s brought another fork in the road. California native LeMond’s Tour de France win in 1986 transformed the state from a fringe outpost on the edge of the cycling world to a hotspot. Ritchey and a host of locals led the pack. “The way US cycling grew after LeMond was exponential, because of the way we received acclaim from the European side of the sport,” says Ritchey. “There was a new awareness that the US was coming on in a very strong way, with rider talent and design talent. A lot of companies were born around that time.”

Ritchey was among a handful of booming American bike brands riding the surging mountain bike trend. But in 1985 he made the decision to bail out on the idea of taking on big brands like Trek. Instead of going head-to-head with the industry giants, he’d make parts for them. “I decided I could jump in with everyone else and build a bike brand, or make the components they would all want to buy,” he says now.

It was a canny move. Soon European brands trying to cash in on the mountain bike trend were clamouring to kit out their frames with Ritchey parts, hoping to cash in on his cachet. Ritchey’s stems, seatposts, cranks, tyres and other components – eventually he was making just about every mountain bike part, bar the frame and fork – were standard issue for dozens of high-end brands on three continents. “He was known as a designer who knew how to create the best components out there,” says Swiss racer Thomas Frischknecht, who signed with Team Ritchey as a cyclocross racer in 1990 and spent most of his long cyclocross and mountain bike career on Ritchey bikes. “A lot of manufacturers put Ritchey parts on their bikes to increase their value.”

And there were always problems to solve. “Sometimes I feel I need to save the industry from itself,” says Ritchey. “Solving other people’s problems became part of my business plan.” For example, in the early days of carbon, bikes only came in a handful of sizes – companies couldn’t afford more than a few moulds. After nearly a century of racing on custom frames, suddenly Tour de France teams were trying to squeeze riders onto carbon frames too big or too small, too long or too short, for their bodies. 

Ritchey saw an opportunity in those uncomfortable pros. “I decided I was going to make stems and seatposts and bars uniquely conformable to make those sizes work,” he says – 140-millimetre stems to help long bodies fit on short frames, for example. “It turned out to be a good move.”

Or take the time Frischknecht complained that the pedals on his mountain bike were spaced too wide apart, throwing him off when he switched from his road or cross bike to train on fat tyres. Ritchey shrugged and sawed off the inner ring on Frischknecht’s mountain bike crank, creating the first 2x9 mountain bike crankset and opening the door to compact cranksets Sram would walk through a decade later. “Tom always had a wide open mind,” says Frischknecht. “If you saw an idea for a new product, he was the man to execute it.”

It’s a long list. The first integrated handlebar-stem combo, an idea that is roaring back after 30 years; semi-slick mountain bike tyres, butted spokes, press-fit bottom brackets, lugless fillet brazed frames... On one bike or another, I’ve been looking at Ritchey’s name for decades – on my cyclocross tyres, on my seatposts and stems, on cranks and handlebars and pedals. If it’s weird to meet the man behind the name, Ritchey says it’s just as strange being on the other side: He gets embarrassed when people ask for selfies with him or recognise him out on the road. But the half-century association also leaves him with a feeling of responsibility. “I’m practically the only one left in the industry whose name is the product,” says Ritchey. “In a very personal way, that motivates you to do things out of principle. That’s been a motivator to do things better and better, to come up with better and better products.”

In those days, that was easy: mountain biking was developing fast, and there were lots of problems to solve. Today, Ritchey says, the bike industry spends too much time trying to sell solutions to problems no one has. Development in the bike industry, he suggests with more than a touch of impatience, is more about goosing sales than solving problems. “The product guys are always given assignments by sales and marketing: it’s gotta be new, it’s gotta be sexy and it’s gotta cost a lot,” he says. Product development cycles, he says, used to be measured in years; now they’re clocked in months between industry trade fairs. 

Safety standards fall behind as parts get lighter. And bikes get needlessly complicated. Mountain bikes, he argues, are so complex and expensive they’ve become a niche product. “It’s so disappointing,” he says. “It’s so much more technology than people need, or know what to do with.”

Fishing a battered iPhone out of his pocket, he compares most of the stuff on the market to the annual release of new Apple products in nearby Cupertino. “Pushing the product development cycle faster and faster, but not requiring it to be better is why everything, whether it’s iPhone or the mountain bike, is needlessly complex,” he says, tossing his phone on the table in disgust. “I don’t want a 13, I want a 6 that works.”

By 1990, Ritchey had gone from teen prodigy to international businessman. At 34, he had offices in Japan, Italy, and Taiwan; his butted spokes were being made in DT Swiss’s European factories and a mountain bike-specific wide rim and knobby folding tyres were rolling out of factories in Japan with his name on them. (These things seem common now, but only because Ritchey invented them nearly 40 years ago.) The factory racing squad, Team Ritchey, signed some of the world’s best mountain bike talent to race on Ritchey bikes.

He was hungry and competitive on and off the bike, despite his “I just like to ride” mantra. Frischknecht recalls heading out to Ritchey’s cabin above Palo Alto for team training camps in March. “Tom would train really hard all winter to get ready,” says Frischknecht with a laugh, “then try to kick our asses on all the training rides.” It usually worked.

Ritchey remembers it as a golden era. Fuelled by the popularity of the mountain bike he helped invent, the mid-1990s were a boom time for US brands. Cannondale and suspension fork manufacturer RockShox went public, valued in the hundreds of millions. Trek rushed to buy up mid-sized mountain bike brands like Klein and Gary Fisher.

Yet by 1994, Ritchey had already been in business for himself for 20 years; he had three growing children, and the grind of running a company was getting to him. “There was a whole list of people in the industry stuck behind desks, pushing papers and travelling their lives away,” he recalls. “I was still young, and I didn’t want to miss any more time with my kids.”

Amid this midlife malaise, Mike SInyard, the Specialized CEO and fellow Bay Area native, came to Ritchey with a merger offer. Ritchey would be a junior partner, but his parts would go on Specialized bikes, providing a steady source of business; Specialized, meanwhile, would help Ritchey with distribution and operations, while leaving him free to work on product and spend more time with his family. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” says Ritchey, smiling and sighing. “Unfortunately, being a minority owner, you’re not in the driver’s seat.”

Within months of signing the deal in 1995, the bike industry bubble burst. New management at Specialized put pressure on Ritchey to slash staff and costs; Sinyard later told an interviewer he came within a few hundred dollars of losing both companies. “Suddenly I was a nuisance,” says Ritchey. “They said, ‘If you want to keep your company, you have to fire all your staff.’ That’s when things started to unwind – but it was just the beginning of my sorrows.”

Amid the turmoil, Ritchey’s wife left him, a devastating blow he says took years to get over. On the business side, angry customers abandoned the brand, and his best employees jumped ship for better-paying jobs in the booming Silicon Valley tech sector. Ritchey turned to his bike for solace. “Around that time I was riding my bike a lot, just trying to process things,” he says. “I was processing my wife leaving me, processing how I was going to get out of my deal with Specialized, processing everything I needed to survive that period.” 

Finally, Sinyard threw him a sort of lifeline. “If I paid for the divorce, Mike told me I could get my company back in four years,” says Ritchey. The buyback cost Ritchey nearly everything he had. But his troubles weren’t over. He had to rebuild his depleted business back from near zero at the height of the first dot-com boom, struggling to hire back employees who had left for tech companies.

Simultaneously, steel – his signature material, something he had been working with since childhood – was falling out of fashion fast, thanks to the advent of carbon fibre bikes and components. At one point, around the turn of the millennium he had to throw away a shipping container full of his Japanese-made Logic tubing.

As we roll back from a few looping miles in the hills around his house with plenty of stops for photos, I sense Ritchey’s ready to call it a day and hit the shower. But I have one more question. “What about Rwanda?” I ask.

Ritchey is quiet for a moment. Then he sighs, and takes a deep breath. “Let’s go back inside,” he says. We sit back at the kitchen table. It’s July, but a Christmas tree is still up in a corner. In a window, matching Tom Ritchey and Thomas Frischknecht bobbleheads sit still; outside, a shaded wooden deck offers a view east to San Francisco Bay. Ritchey, still in his sweaty cycling kit, takes out a pair of near-invisible hearing aids, slumps in his chair and drifts back to 2005.

At the time, he was burned out from a decade of personal and professional struggles. “On a personal level, I wasn’t doing very good,” he says. “I felt like I had a case of the cooties, to tell the truth.” A friend had just been to Rwanda, and told him he had to go. So he did, bringing with him a bike and an open mind.

After landing in Kigali he headed out on his own, pedalling from village to village. Everywhere he went, Ritchey saw bikes – ancient, beaten, but vital to everyday life – and enthusiastic, resilient Rwandans. “Here I am, trying to save one or two grammes for next year’s show, and here they are, creating whole utility scooters to carry 200 pounds of coffee,” he says. “As a bike builder, I was in total awe of them.”

After ten days he felt transformed. “I got back on the plane and said, ‘Rwanda is me – this is how messy life is,’” says Ritchey. “If they can find a way of recovering from what happened to them, and loving their neighbour that murdered their family, I can too.”

Ritchey went home to California and designed a ‘Coffee Bike’, a simple cargo bike that helped growers get beans to roasters faster. He returned to Rwanda over and over in the years that followed and was instrumental in the early years of Rwanda’s cycling programme, sponsoring a pro team that helped launch the career of several Rwandan pros and draw attention to the country’s cycling potential. With cycling’s world championships heading to Kigali in 2025, it’s an investment that paid off in a big way. “The business of life is learning from your mistakes,” says Ritchey. “I don’t know anyone that doesn’t have a growth curve with flats and downs. I have had some dramatic ones.”

It helps that as he enters his 50th year in business, most of the downs are behind him. He has 50 employees around the world, some of whom have worked for him for decades. The merger with Specialized and its aftermath are ancient history. (“We both survived,” says Ritchey, “and Specialized has gone on to be big and badass and Ritchey has had the same opportunity in a smaller way.”)

In the mid-2000s Ritchey responded to the decline of steel by reinventing his company once more, diving into carbon products and engineering stems and seatposts that worked with fragile carbon handlebars. The integrated, super-stiff stem-handlebar setups seen on more and more bikes are lightweight versions of the Bullmoose bar, a concept he introduced on mountain bikes in 1980. He remarried in 2009, and now splits his time between his headquarters in San Carlos, just down the road from his house, and Santa Barbara.

What comes next remains to be seen. In October, Ritchey invited Frischknecht and other members of the fabled Ritchey Mountain Bike team, along with a host of other friends and racing buddies, to a party in California. The bike market has changed: more and more high-end brands are designing all-in-one integrated framesets incompatible with after-market parts. That puts a mid-size company like Ritchey’s in a tough spot. “Ritchey had its great days and was an important player. But the brand is fading away a little bit,” says his old friend Frischknecht. “Every big bike brand has its own component label now, with their own seatposts that only fit into their bikes.” 

If anyone has the creativity to reinvent the company once more, it’s Ritchey. He argues that there’s still room for after-market parts, particularly as people rediscover the virtues of small-batch and custom steel frames.

Gravel, too, represents a return to Ritchey’s roots in robust, do-anything bikes taking on epic adventures. “The renaissance of American framebuilding has made the brand more authentic and real – there are very few companies with a history based on steel that have stayed the course for 50 years,” says Ritchey. “Being able to survive 50 years of ups and downs is a humbling success story,” he says. “I don’t know why it’s worked out for me, but it has.”

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