The genesis of the mountain bike, according to Tom Ritchey
Tom Ritchey describes the experiences and people that helped form his ideas and products for the new sport of mountain biking in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Mountain biking as we know it today began in the fertile soil of northern California, and Bay Area native Tom Ritchey was one of its chief protagonists and most ardent supporters. It’s a vast reduction of the complexity of human nature, but it’s been said that there are two types of people in this world: thinkers and do-ers. Defying such easy categorization, mountain bike pioneer Tom Ritchey is both.
Hard work - a backbreaking production schedule and prodigious output - is the catalyst that has turned good ideas into innovative and beautiful finished products and commercial success for the Ritchey brand. Some of the concepts that Ritchey has turned to gold were his own, original ones, and others were appropriated from his peers and sometimes rivals in the bicycle industry. Whomever they came from, Ritchey is quick to acknowledge the ideas and inspiration that others have given to him.
Ritchey started building frames as a teenager in the early 1970s in the basement of his parents’ Menlo Park, CA home. His father was an engineer with Ampex Corporation, an electronics company that would go on to develop the first magnetic disc recorder. Tom Ritchey Sr. was also an avid cyclist who taught his son how to repair tubulars, and by age 15, to braze frames. An accomplished Junior racer, Tom Ritchey Jr. built his first frame in 1972, using it as his own personal race bike and using it to good effect in local races, and he was later selected to the U.S. National team. Once the frame building bug bit him, however, Ritchey dove headfirst into the pursuit, approaching it with his characteristic enthusiasm and zeal.
“The fact is that I was building a lot of bikes before mountain bikes so the idea of building bikes, specialty bikes and components and designs that had to do with whatever was interesting to me and interesting to a customer was nothing new. Probably up at that point I had built 1000 frames; Tandems, track bikes, road bikes, touring bikes, you name it.
Tom Ritchey has never strayed far from his torch and workshop. All photos courtesy Ritchey Logic
“I was making lugged frames in about seven or eight hours. And as I got my abilities in filet brazing ironed out, in the mountain bike years, I was almost cutting that time in half.
“People said 'your work is good, it's as good as I've seen anywhere'. To me, people like Peter Johnson and Albert Eisentraut set the bar very high as far as their top level bikes. I never looked at a traditional European lugged frame in the same way as I looked at one of Peter's frames, or one of Albert's best frames,” said Ritchey.
Ritchey is quick to credit his neighbor Peter Johnson for providing inspiration and new ideas in frame design and componentry - concepts that Ritchey would develop further for use in mountain bikes.
“Peter Johnson is a phenomenal builder. Pete and I were, you know, of the same design mindset and engineering mindset, and industriousness,” said Ritchey.
So Tom Ritchey found inspiration in his frame builder neighbors and peers, and has a lot of sweat equity in his bicycle brand, refining and making his frame production process more efficient. But where did his ideas for the mountain bike come from? For those, he mentions two main sources: John Finley Scott and Jobst Brandt.
John Finley Scott can rightfully be considered the Abraham of mountain biking. A sociology professor at UC-Davis, “Finley” as he was known to friends, had built a prototype mountain bike as early as 1953 with multiple gears and knobby tires that he named “Woodsy”. It is widely considered to be the world’s first mountain bike.
John Finley Scott's "Woodsy" (1953) is widely considered to be the first prototype mountain bike
Scott was an eccentric who could repel people with his caustic demeanor, and yet was still an influential figure in cycling circles. Tom Ritchey attempts to describe this complicated figure.
“John Finley was kind of an oddball. He was into his niche of independent thinkers, and he had a bike with a brazen white decal that he custom made on the top tube that said "No Campagnolo". Back in the early and mid-seventies, having a bike that said No Campagnolo was sacrilege. He was just an interesting, different guy. His bucket-list goal was to ride every dirt road in California, and he wanted to do it on his Woodsy bike.
“Finley was a professor and he fancied himself as a professorial type. He had a very annoying personality. He was very opinionated and antagonistic toward a lot of things. He said outright to me: "I hate you." Every time he saw me, he said, "I hate you, Ritchey!" It was the first thing that came out of his mouth every time he saw me. I think after a while there was some affection in that statement.
“Anyway, guys like Finley...Finley started the Davis Double Century. He was a mover and a shaker in the bicycle culture back in the sixties. He bugged me for years, every time I saw him, I'd be at races, racing, and he'd be on the sidelines saying: ‘I hate you Ritchey’, then after the race I'd get into a conversation with him - which wasn't at all easy - and he'd say (in a shrill voice) 'Ritchey, you need to build a 650b bike'. That was how it began. It was annoying. He'd yell at you, I don't know what his deal was, I couldn't figure him out, but after five years of him yelling at me, I said, "OK, OK I'm going to make one!"
“You have to realize that no one knows this story. Joe [Breeze] doesn’t even know this story about me and Finley and his 650b bike.”
So, for the record, it seems that John Finley Scott annoyed and badgered Tom Ritchey into building his first prototype mountain bike! Ritchey explains further.
An early, 650b Ritchey mountain bike, since retro-fitted with drop handlebars.
“In 1977 I made my first [mountain bike], Joe [Breeze] came along in '78, and in '78 I made three more mountain bikes. One for me, one for Gary [Fisher], one for Gary's friend, and then Gary called me up early in '79 and said "if you want to make some more of these I'll sell them, and that was the beginning of him and Charlie [Kelly] and the loose relationship we had. And then right on the heels of that, I said, 'look Gary, these heavy-wheeled ballooner bikes, with 19 lb wheels, they're off the back. I'm going to make a bunch of 650b bikes’, and that's what I did, I made 10 of them. So John Finley Scott bought a bunch of my 650b bikes. That was 1979-ish.”
There’s a sad epilogue to the story of Tom Ritchey’s abettor in mountain bike development, and his first real patron. In 2006, Scott, then 72 and retired from the university, was found dead in his home from an apparent homicide. Ironically, the person suspected and later convicted of the crime was named Charles Cunningham, but he is no relation to the mountain bike pioneer of the same name.
Another of Ritchey’s abettors in the development of the mountain bike was Jobst Brandt (1935-2015), who offered technical advice and literally blazed trails for the burgeoning sport.
Brandt was an engineer for Hewlett-Packard, and a Stanford graduate who grew up and later settled in Palo Alto, but also served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in his ancestral home of Germany, where he remained working for a couple of years after his military service. Among his many professional accomplishments was input on the design and performance of the Porsche 911.
If John Finley Scott was the Abraham of mountain biking, then Jobst Brandt was Moses. The Sunday morning “Jobst Ride” was a Bay Area tradition that involved long distances, many thousands of feet of climbing, and almost always, dirt or gravel roads. Both Peter Johnson and Tom Ritchey were regulars on the Jobst Ride. Suffering was a constant factor in these rides, but Brandt can be rightfully considered the father of the Adventure or Epic Rides that have become an institution today.
Tom Ritchey(L) with Jobst Brandt in the Sierra Nevada mountains, about 1980.
Brandt rode his very large (he was 6 feet, 6 inches tall), 700c-wheeled bike everywhere. This was before the mountain bike was a thing, and before mountain biking was a separate cycling discipline. But Brandt’s use of 700c wheels on trails and paths influenced Ritchey greatly, and Brandt’s background in engineering meant that his ideas came with authority.
“Jobst was solidly a Cinelli and European user of bikes, and he was well regarded by a lot of people. Jobst had me build a bike for him, after he broke just about every tube in his Cinelli, and I ended up repairing half the tubes on it. He said, "well finally it's almost more Ritchey than it is Cinelli. I'll let you build a bike for me," said Ritchey.
Brandt’s broadening of the application of the bicycle to all sorts of surfaces was his chief contribution to the concept of the mountain bike - it was a bike meant to go anywhere.
“People don't know how deep the story of dirt interest was back then. Of course Jobst had practically ridden all the dirt roads. All the dirt roads I knew about Jobst had ridden. But it was not such a novel thing. There were still quite a few dirt roads that were not closed off, that were gated, but which you could still get on to ride,” said Ritchey.
Brandt’s understanding of physics as an engineer meant that he encouraged Ritchey to use the largest diameter wheel he could manage, to embrace the inherent efficiencies of a larger wheel. Ritchey settled on the 650b, which represented a compromise between the 700c wheel - fine for taller riders but hard to fit on smaller off-road bikes - and the 26” wheel, which at the time was heavy and much less efficient.
“700c was too big of a jump in terms of fitting the range of riders at that time that were, in my opinion, going to put a lot of miles on a bike. We didn't have light tires back then, we didn't have much understanding of the capabilities of mountain bikes, and so 700c was of course a standard, but it was not an existing standard with any larger tires, so the 650b with the Super Champion rims and the tires that were available through Hakka, it was like a 1.75" and it to me made more sense than 26". I could build a higher performance bike.
“If you understood the culture back then, the lightweight road bike wheel of course existed, but they didn't have any large tires available for it. The 650b wheel, lightweight clincher wheel, existed and the mountain bike wheel existed, but when I started out it weighed 19lbs just for a pair of wheels (with tires), steel rims with Uniroyal tires, that was the first mountain bike wheel. So the first mountain bikes with 19lb wheels and 650b wheels that were pre-existing, that weighed five, six, seven pounds, there just wasn't any performance with them. This was the beginning of the sport of mountain biking. I had the lightest bike, but I still could barely break forty pounds,” said Ritchey.
Perhaps Ritchey’s most lasting contribution to mountain biking is his focus on performance. It was Tom Ritchey who pushed for the lightest wheels, the lightest and most responsive frames, the strongest tubesets for those frames, the best tires, and the lightest and strongest components. It was Ritchey’s personal mission to develop these elements of the mountain bike, and it’s no coincidence that the company that bears his name has produced high-performance products in each of these areas.
And while Ritchey was focused on getting uphill quickly, other mountain bike pioneers were more concerned with getting downhill, with the bike surviving the ordeal. The first real crucible of competition for the mountain bike wasn’t a cross-country event, but the famous Repack downhill race in Marin County. Durability, more than light weight and performance, was more important for most of the other early mountain bike pioneers
“The thing that people will have a hard time appreciating is the idea of a mountain bike wasn't ready to be a performance bike. I was ahead of the curve. Because of my background, I was always looking for performance.
“The idea that Gary and Charlie were selling to and embracing was for guys like Jerry Garcia [of the Grateful Dead] who weighed like 300 lbs, and was wanting to ride a bike and there wasn't a bike strong enough for him to ride, or a bike that he wanted to ride. And there was a Marin culture - it wasn't really a cycling culture - that they were finding customers for. It was just the idea of a nice bike with strong wheels that was durable, that was more off-road, that was different than a typical ten-speed bike at that time. It was a market that no one knew existed and it wasn't a performance market,” said Ritchey.
Ritchey pushed hard for the use of 650b wheels early on in the development of the mountain bike, but the market preferred the 26” wheel. Luckily for Ritchey, the learning curve for the whole market segment was quick, and by the time he got his mountain bike race team going, 26” wheels offered lightweight options.
“The beginning of me putting these two bikes up side by side and saying, ‘hey, this one's better’ and people saying 'We don't care, we want the 26-inch wheeled bike' was very frustrating to me, because I was all about performance. I wanted the 650b to win!
The Ritchey mountain bike team from the early 1980s featured (L to R): Joe Murray, Eric Heiden, Dave McLaughlin, Tom Ritchey, David Zanotti, Dale Stetina and Sterling McBride
“The sport was beginning at that time. People don't realize that mountain bike sport was ramping up in the early eighties, and I was tied into racing. My history was as a racing design/build company. And the guys that were building for other companies weren't racing. But then racing became a part of the whole sport of mountain biking. We had NORBA, by 1983 we had a national championship, and a bunch of companies that had grown up around mountain biking in a very short amount of time.
“By the time I had the Ritchey team, everyone was on 26-inch wheels. By then they'd developed lightweight wheels in that size, and the weight of those bikes became more consistent. For whatever reason I was more caught up in just being able to make bikes at that time. I was riding a wave and barely keeping up with production, building three or four hundred bikes a year at that time with two young guys in my shop. Painting all the bikes, building forks,” said Ritchey.
That Ritchey’s signature tubeset would become known as Ritchey Logic, and that the moniker would come to be applied to all of his products, is perhaps completely appropriate. It’s been Ritchey’s mission for 45 years to determine the best ideas for design and performance, some of them from his own experiences as a racer and frame builder, others from engineers and academics like John Finley Scott and Jobst Brandt. Ritchey has utilized his strong work ethic to turn the brightest ideas into quality components and bicycles, and commercial success for his brand.
Paul Skilbeck conducted the interview for this article.