By Sal Ruibal
Tom Ritchey celebrated his 40th year in the cycling industry Sept. 19th with a keg of beer, a crowd of admirers and a movie—created by his filmmaker son Jay—that examines the creative processes that led him to build some of the first true mountain bikes in the early 1970s in Marin County, California.
Ritchey, now 55, stands as tall and athletic as he did in the days of klunker bikes and psychedelic music—and his dark hair has barely been touched by silver. In his company’s Interbike compound in Las Vegas, he proudly displayed his new red-white-and-blue 650b steel hardtail mountain bike next to one of his classic 1977 bikes, also a 650b.
That it took 25 years for the bike industry to figure out what Ritchey already knew is typical of the man.
Among the first to create a modern mountain bike, he took up frame building after finding other early mountain bikes to be lacking in precision geometry and durability. Part by part, he insisted on improving nearly every component on his bikes.
As a racer, he was tenacious and the bane of careless riders who lacked his mental strength. Riders couldn’t buy his skills or toughness, but they could and did buy many of his handmade frames.
He was quick to adopt cyclocross, building the venerable and now updated Swiss Cross bike that was carried over tens of thousands of barriers in all manner of weather conditions around the world by Swiss rider Thomas Frischnecht, whose stellar mountain bike career includes the 1996 UCI cross-country world championship, also powered by a Ritchey bike.
The versatility of Ritchey’s designs was shown in the 1996 UCI road cycling world championships when Switzerland’s Tony Rominger fell ill before the big race and Frischnecht had to compete—on his Ritchey cyclocross bike—finishing in the main pack.
The Ritchey name now graces components that are a match for expensive European designs that include tires, wheel sets, handlebars, seatposts—everything but a guaranteed victory salute.
Among of his greatest accomplishments are the so-called “coffeebikes” that he and Jay designed to help Rwandan coffee growers cultivate their crop and deliver the goods to the marketplace.
The modern mountain bike has many fathers and a few mothers, but none have loved their creations more—or longer—than Tom Ritchey.