Tom Ritchey is not what you would call an open book. Rather, he’s a whole library; a labyrinth with many alleys, chockfull of stories, where everything splits and branches like the best network of singletrack, and there are no cul de sacs. Every door leads you to another room. Every answer opens up another question. There are no shortcuts.
The following is just a casual conversation. In it, you might not find all the details of the next frame that he is working on but you may find a better understanding into what it took for Tom Ritchey to become Tom Ritchey.
“I have a public self and I have a personal self. I could answer that question on a public side and tell you I just love riding my bike and being by myself and all (…) That would be an authentic answer but it’s not the whole answer of course. So I’ll give you the personal one too.” – Tom Ritchey
Tom and Martha, Dusseldorf, 2019
Inside Tom Ritchey, and inside us all, are many personae. Tom is: the racer, the builder, the father, the engineer, the inventor, and the explorer. The bike might be the clef de route but the man can’t get cornered in the simple diamond form. He has been defining and designing the man I’m meeting now since a very young age. There is more than a two-dimensional book cover here, and there is more than meets the eye.
Young Tommy, still in Jersey
At first glance, you see a very tall cyclist turned business owner with a charismatic mustache. But look closer and you will discover a shy man who is comfortable geeking about bikes, materials, components, group sets, geometry, and everything else “cycling.”
Now, break the ice and Tom’s is a story of commitment, freedom, integrity, faith, belief, and self-belief. Let’s start here because that’s the real beginning: self-belief.
If you ask Tom about his childhood, this is the first and most important story you will get. It’s about his dad and how Tom credits him with shaping his whole life experience, around the outdoors and designing bikes:
“It was on my sister’s girl bike; I was three years old, living in New Jersey. My sister had just gotten a bike and, of course, I wanted to jump on it. I remember being too small for it. And I remember putting my leg over it and pedaling it and then I tried to sit on the seat and I crashed. You know, that’s a great metaphor for me. You can learn almost nothing worth knowing without crashing at some point.”
“…Quite in my own world, yeah but…I lived a very wonderful childhood because my father was a sort of team action dad. He brought us to California when I was turning six years old, all the way from the East Coast. He changed life for all of us, my mother, my sister, and me. He took us from a very different environment on the East Coast of cities and concrete, places a hundred years old to a new place of constant change and beauty and wilderness. Different people, too, in the way they thought and so there was an explosion in my dad’s way of living too, professionally but also personally. The amazing backyard that California was and its oﬀer of adventure and discovery. For him, this adventure started almost the minute we arrived in California! He just started doing crazy things! He put down the cigarette, put down the pipe, and completely stopped smoking. Boom! just like that. Done… He bought a bike for my sister to go to school, then decided he needed the bike instead to ride eight miles every day to work. Then he got himself another bike. It’s like the light went on in his head, and he went to a place that was conducive to thinking differently and out-of-the-box when it came to designing things in his career but also in his after-work life. He was cycling and sailing and joined the Sierra Club. Every weekend ended up being a choice among these three types of adventure. I mean, my dad… He bought himself classical guitar… I mean… the things I think of with my dad… He’s 93, he still rides a bike.”
Tommy at the wheel of his electric car / “La jeunesse n’est qu’entrain à vieillir” (Youth is but an invitation to grow old, approximate translation) – Louis Ferdinand Celine
The Young Cyclist
There, the bike comes back as a keystone. It won’t take long for Tommy to try himself again on a smaller bike and pedal fast. One weekend morning, instead of watching cartoons, he decides to follow his dad for a ride. At every hill, Tom is gasping, way behind. He comes back home crying. Not long after, he decides to tag along again. Now he is the one waiting at the top of each hill. Riding with a friend around the hills of the Bay area, they get noticed and invited to join the local cycling club.
“These were very different times you know. We could do so many things. I don’t know how to describe it, my childhood, but yeah it was going fast and in slow motion at the same time. As an eight-year-old, I was doing things you can’t imagine today. I grew up riding my bike miles and miles away from the house. You can’t imagine that today. I have grandchildren, I know, but these were very different times, I was riding tens of miles on gravel tracks with my fishing pole to remote lakes catching blue gill and bass, it was just you know… doing things that parents wouldn’t allow their kids to do nowadays.”
Tommy doesn’t take long to start looking at the tools in the garage and thinking about things he could build with them. “You had torches and saws and things that could cut body parts in the blink of an eye. I had a father who, somehow, I mean he was a responsible father and kept me from being a victim of my own making at a young age but I was constantly designing and building, you might or you might not have seen the image of the car I built in 1969, a two-person electric car…Have you seen that? I’ll send it to you!”
“If you look at it, there are all these steel tubes and it’s all brazed together and it’s all designed. My dad helped me with the electric part but, for the most part, I made this thing when I was 11-12 years old. I built a wooden version before that. And so nothing was impossible with my dad. I know it might sound a little bit self-aggrandizing but at the moment everything was… how to say it?… All the doors were open in my life at a very young age. I was overcoming all kinds of confidence barriers and I was living more and more in the shadows of adults rather than children. So when you come back to the question of ‘What was your childhood like?’ Well, I was living a fantasy of wanting to be able to graduate from childhood into adulthood and I ended up probably getting there quicker than most.
Emotionally though, maybe I didn’t have all the things I might need. I was into physical success. Whether it’d be pushing my body and racing, or building things I imagined, or designing things differently like stems or bikes without lugs. I started all that much younger than people might imagine. Because I had the support and confidence, people told me you can do that or go ahead and do that but don’t hurt yourself (His dad referring to tools that could tear you apart…) And how many kids get to have runways like that at a young age? I did. So, basically, I graduated from product development before I graduated from High School with probably something in the order of a Ph.D. and I know that sounds arrogant but I was given the right tools, confidence, and self-belief served to me by my dad in a way. I had no excuse not to dig into that, not to experiment, not to try and believe I could. My parents’ two-car garage was turning into a manufacturing factory.”
Tommy’s first “good bike” (not even his very first one!)
It’s good to take a moment here and go back to when Tom, for the first time, brings a frame that he has designed to the local (and emblematic) bike shop.
“When you’re fifteen years old and you show up with a bike you built to a bike shop full of racers and mechanics and customers and the head guy behind the counter says out loud in front of everyone: Ah! Ritchey, he built a bike. Hey, monkeys can do that! But with the mentality I had inherited from my dad, you just couldn’t shame me.”
“You start to learn from a very young age what it’s like when this crowd approves or doesn’t approve of you. You start to make decisions that are your own, decisions that are not based on approval. I think this happened to me at a very young age; before I was even given any chance of succeeding in the States ‘cause, at that time, bikes were coming from Europe and no one questioned the status quo.”
Those days, racers even in Cat 1 only had one bike… ‘they’d ride bent frames to the point of no return where they would break them. Bikes were not easy to come by at that time. You would have one bike to serve for every occasion and that was it. Should you damage it, you were screwed. Should you crash on it in a race, you would worry more about the frame than your wrist. You had to be a bit of a mechanic; you couldn’t bypass this as you can today. So a lot of racers, when they saw me winning races on my own bikes, would come to me and want to learn. Some of them became very good racers.”
The “USS TOM”
One Christmas, under the tree, there was a very large box with Tommy’s name on it. Inside lay a map and a few large wooden boards. During the holidays that year, Tom and his dad built a canoe. When, a few years later, he starts to think about finding money to grow his little venture, his dad comes to him with advice that Tommy will hold close forever:
“So, basically, (these are) two of the biggest lessons for me. First: you can do it if you really put your mind to it. Second: my dad was not a religious man, he wasn’t someone who reads the Bible or whatever. But you know, Bible or not, it’s kind of well rooted in our social lexicon anyway. We say things that we don’t even know are from the Bible. As I was starting to develop some business sense, maybe I was sixteen or so, and thinking about how to afford some machinery or how I was gonna grow my business stuff, my dad said: ‘Tommy, the borrower is the slave of the lender. Only afford things you can.’ And it was just like, you know, one of those proverbs dropped out of the skies that made sense to me and I stuck with it. It made me work hard. I never thought of borrowing money in a traditional sense. I ended up just taking various slow careful steps in terms of finances.”
15 year-old Tommy with the friend that purchased Tom’s first frame build for someone other than himself
“I was so productive that I went to the principal of Paly. Paly, as we called it, was the best high school around. Stanford parents sent their kids there; it was the school everyone who graduated from was offered a better chance to be accepted to a prestigious college. When I was in my junior year, I was making 100+ frames and winning practically every race I was entering, not as a junior but as a senior, as a Category One. I was in the shadow of the previous junior world’s team and I was beating all of them. I was in the shadow of the ‘72 Olympic team, of whom 90 percent were from the Bay Area, and I was beating practically every one of them. I wasn’t allowed to be on the junior world team even though I was beating most of the riders because of an age restriction. I was 16; I needed to be 17.”
“I went to my principal and I presented my situation to him. I said I’ve got a company, a business, I’m making bikes, I’m on a program to make the world’s team and I know I can do it but I can’t go to PE, it will erode the training that I’m doing and I want to graduate. I am not dropping out. I want credit. I want you to look at what am doing with my life and I want credit for that so that I don’t have to come to school full days, so that I can come half a day and take English, Math, Science, History and then leave at 11:40 in the morning and so that I can have my life and do the things that I am doing.”
Early races, leading the breakaway.
“He looked at me and said I can’t do that! And so I made an appointment at another high school which was much further away. It didn’t matter to me, I’d be riding my bike there anyway. I switched schools without even telling my parents, and so I was out of school in the morning and I was training and making my business run. It was a wonderful year. I ended up being chosen for the Junior World’s team and, at 17 years old, traveled to Europe where the Worlds were. I saw the other side of the world which I would never have seen otherwise and then came back home and went to my principal at Paly and said, ‘If you can accept my terms this time, I will come back to Paly, and he said yes!”
At this point, Tommy is seventeen years old and he can afford to spend a bit on the business to buy some equipment and steel tubes. He’s been working and selling parts here and there. Slowly but surely, the teenager is making 100+ frames a year and is now able to spend his first lump of money on what will become a brand. That little sum adds up and Tommy can now buy over $20.000 of equipment.
Ritchey celebrated 50 years of business this year, and like most good stories, they all have a beginning. This is Tom’s. Stay tuned for Part Two of this series that will cover the early years of Ritchey to the merger with Specialized in 1995.