Conversations with Tom Ritchey Part Two: The Influence of Jobst Brandt

This is part two of an in depth conversation between Tom Ritchey and Ryan le Garrec where Ryan seeks to identify key periods in Tom’s life alongside key people. Perhaps second only to Tom’s father, it seems that Jobst Brandt had significant influence of the young Tom. Below, Ryan shares excerpts from Tom’s side of their conversation that highlight Jobst’s character, his notorious rides, and his lasting impact. Enjoy!

Every Ride Was A Gravel Ride

Jobst rides started at 8:00am sharp. At 08:02, you wouldn’t find anyone on the patio of his house. Jobst Brandt was a mechanical engineer. He had worked for Porsche and by the early 1970s was at Hewlett Packard. He also published in cycling, wrote a legendary book about the art of wheel building, created tread-less tires and helped invent the cycling computer. In the summer, you could find him touring in Europe.

In anything he did, he was passionate, talented and precise.

The meet-up point of Jobst Sunday rides was always at his house, a very modest cottage house, the typical Palo Alto two-bedrooms with a front porch.

Tom Ritchey: “I’d have to play a bit of a mind game, to guess and calculate where Jobst would wanna go that morning and how to catch them up a few roads further. Usually I was late. But I was also good at the guessing game cause I thought a lot like him and, more often than not, I would catch them up.

We would be up to 14 riders, I think, all the way to the foot of the first big climbs, looking for tracks, going up towards the Sierra. There, the group usually tended to explode and a lot of guys would turn back.

In the winter these rides were as close as it gets to master classes, a sort of prep for the next season. Everyone coming to Jobst rides came for the camaraderie and adventure yet competition was within every pedal stroke, too. It was never a race but more of a last man standing battle. You had juniors, seniors, some riders from the Olympics team…the best riders in America were from the region so that made for some solid groups, trying themselves at Jobst rides. Pedals would break, cranks would explode, frames would bend, people would crash or sometimes get lost; these rides were rather challenging. A big ol’ full day of whatever was thrown at you and you had to sit with this anyway you could. Jobst would always lead the way and it was about seeing if you could hang there behind. You needed more than just one skill or one strength to get an invitation and even more to keep that wheel from drifting away from you. Very few people could.”

Two Fathers

TR: “I don’t remember the first [Jobst ride]. I must have done over 50 of these rides. I remember how my dad once came back early evening and I had no idea where he went. He had dirt all over him and his bike, a massive smile and a lot of stories. So of course I wanted some of that, too.

Jobst was tall and he’d take his time sizing you up, he didn’t really trust anyone too fast, you know? He had a very deep— almost thunderous—voice, so that added to his strong personae and powerful presence. He was not the kind of person to be gentle and help you out, he was more of a rough character from the beginning. From him, respect would come slow.

I think I earned his curiosity or respect because I was young and holding the pace but, more importantly, I was riding a bike that I built. I was not really intimated and I was not scared of having conversations with him.

Jobst would break cranks, hubs, bottom brackets, bikes even, and he needed repairs so I offered to help. I was pretty reliable and really fast so, with that, I gained a bit more of his respect. I’d fix things within a day or two. There was no downtime and that was extremely valuable to him.”

Cino Cinelli

TR: “Jobst would go to Europe every year. His way of staying on top of bike maintenance did not include fixing the frames themselves but, rather, get a new one every two years or so, before something would ever happen to the frame. So when going to Europe, he would have Cino Cinelli himself build his frame and he’d pick it up when passing by Italy.”

The Unbreakable Frame

TR: “One day, he broke his frame back in California though and was out of options. Although I was only 17 years old at the time, I was totally capable to do that kind of repair. However, to have Jobst trust me on this, that was a different story and a stepping stone for me.

In a matter of two years, I fixed a fork blade, a down tube, a chain stay, a drop out and other things I can’t remember. I fixed this bike so much that after some time, this Cinelli had become 50 percent Ritchey. So in 1976, he didn’t buy a Cinelli but came to me with the drawings and said ‘This is my order!'”

A Minor Rivalry

TR: “Peter Johnson was a very good friend of Jobst. Peter was a racer and we were rivals at the time but Peter was also a frame builder and we were rivals in that too. Minimal rivals with a lot of respect for each other. He was a great builder actually, excellent, but he was still mainly using lugs.

So I built a bike for Jobst. For some reason, he didn’t ask Peter although they spent more time together, I was very busy and else than the Sunday rides with Jobst, I couldn’t really socialize much. Business was taking over and it just made socializing opportunities extremely rare.

The funny thing is that Jobst had broken and replaced all of his bikes to that point. Mine? He never broke it.

Still, if I remember well, I think he wanted to inspect the bike after a while. So he got the paint removed for that and then he wanted a paint color that allowed you to see cracks forming better and sooner. Somehow he found that yellow was the best color for that.

After a few more years, he actually started being nervous about the bike. The thing is that he had no previous experience riding a bike for so long and he started worrying that the frame might break, especially on some trip in Europe and he was afraid he’d end up somewhere without any back up.

That’s one of the two stories I heard about why he [eventually] asked Peter to build him a new bike. The other one being that the two spent so much time together, it became really tough for Peter to see my bike all the time and not get asked by Jobst to make him one. So the next bike Jobst got was made by Peter. The bike Peter made for Jobst was pretty close to mine. It was also yellow.

Jobst was not easily influenced, HE was the influencer. So if you were the guy that made his bike, that meant something!”

The Shift

TR: “At that time, Jobst still had down tube shifters and toe clips—still!

Mountain bikes had [become] a big thing by then. And they were the catalyst for better product development like SPD shoes and pedals, threadless headsets and stems. STI shifting was a big deal too.

Jobst hardly ever shifted. He was unique in how he could push a big gear all the time!

Anyways, there were three things going on technology-wise: down tube shifters were becoming STI, pedals were becoming SPD and stems were becoming threadless. I remember just telling him: ‘Jobst at least get SPD, you’re gonna really benefit for the type of riding we do on and off the bike. It’s safer, it’s better and you’re gonna enjoy riding more.’ But he resisted and resisted…

Eventually, I bought him a pair of SPD pedals and shoes and dropped them at his porch. He actually switched and embraced [the change] but I just remember him grunting—in a very Jobst way—that he’d ‘received an idea’ that wasn’t his own! And then I had the chance to influence him when I developed 3D net ship forged alloy stems and … Oh! and before that when I developed my steel stem…

Anyways he finally switched to my stem and then my threadless systems.

That was a big deal to him, too. He was always very concerned about the front end of his bike, about his fork breaking, his stem breaking, his handle bar breaking. Of anything in his controlled world, the front part of a bike was crucial. If something was gonna break, it should never be from the front end of his bike. That was his number one worry…To the extreme that he had a Cinelli model 66 bar that he used from bike to bike, that he knew would never break and he could rely on, but that thing weighed a ton. Jobst also received my input on the stem and even though it was a steel handlebar, he had this super light stem made by me and that was another thing where I finally got to influence him a bit more. That was a special part of our story.”

The Man Who Rode Without Bottles

TR: “From the beginning, we were going out on epic ten hour rides and someone was missing a bottle. I am sure I asked him earlier on ‘What are you doing?’ And he probably shrugged it off and said something like: ‘Well I don’t need water!’

I can still visualize it: we’d stop along some dirt road or single track not knowing why we were stopped and watch him walk away towards some wet part of the road where he’d get on all fours and drink.

He knew where all the spring sources were and he knew which ones were safe to drink, with no cattle issues or whatever.

I still use those today.”

The Tandem

TR: “That’s called Alpine Road [above left]. It’s one of those roads where individual citizens like Jobst Brandt brought their shovels, chainsaws and other tools to save them from the negligence of the Road Department. A lot of these gravel roads or fire roads or single tracks were historical ways, that the government, somehow, for whatever strange reason, didn’t see value in anymore. These roads were left to deteriorate slowly but surely and many would have disappeared today if it wasn’t for Jobst, wanting to ride them and therefore taking care of them and inspiring us to do the same and help. So what you are looking at, that’s a big slide, that to this day, still hasn’t been repaired.

One tire set design of mine was named the JB Alpine, as a tribute to him and that road. It’s a road that traverses the bay Peninsula, from the coast across the Santa Cruz mountains, where the redwood logging was done and the Ox mill trains dragged the stumped trees, since the 1850’s and basically connected the Ocean Culture people to the Bay Area people.

Well that’s the backdrop. The kind of Jobst flavor of riding! It doesn’t matter if it’s a gate or a slide or whatever. We’re going to ride this. We’re going to ride on asphalt road grids, on fire roads, on gravel roads or single track and we’re not only going to ride and explore them. We are going to maintain them too, because we want them to survive so that we and others can ride them. And so after 50 years of neglect by the government, these roads are still there because of the precedence of Jobst. That’s a really cool thing he did, and he did it cause he new that the best roads are the ones less taken.

So that tandem there [above left], it’s the first one I made, for the Higgins couple, John and Jean, and this is a kind of typical scene on a Jobst ride, so that we could enjoy the rest of the road which was in majority ridable. The Higgins rode that tandem continuously for 40 years, all over the world and they’re a kind of inspiration to me. They were a couple like no other.”

The Snake and a Broken Hip

The following is an excerpt from an article written by Ray Hosler about Jobst Brandt that Tom suggested Ryan read:

“He never showed fear or got rattled in difficult situations. These Übermensch qualities came to the forefront when he fell and broke his leg at the hip in 1986 on the rain-slick pavement of Col de Tende. He got up, cursed himself for not recognizing the foam on the road, and ordered me to lift his leg over the top tube so he could coast to the next town.

In Tende, Jobst dismounted and crawled on hands and knees up the steps to the doctor’s office.

On another occasion he was trying to help a snake off Calaveras Road; it bit him and only then did he realize the young reptile was a rattlesnake. He didn’t panic, but rode back to his car in Milpitas and drove to Stanford Hospital for the antidote. The venom mangled his thumb.”

If you missed part one in this insightful conversation series, you can go back and read it here.