Late August 2019, Düsseldorf, Germany.
Schicke Mütze, a bike shop, and cafe in Düsseldorf organized a visit of Tom Ritchey and a gravel ride together with local cyclists and enthusiasts. they let me in on that beautiful day, the following is the account of a conversation and video interview with Tom Ritchey.
It’d be an understatement to say that Tom Ritchey is a charismatic man, he’s got the aura of a lighthouse, he’s tall, he’s bright, you see him from afar and he points at the right direction, bringing it all back home.
There is something special in meeting the man who designed your bike but it can go a bit further meeting a man who designed his own life with the notion of freedom a bike can symbolize. Because you don’t need to be a cyclist to be inspired by this, this is universal, this is a gift, and encouragement.
We talk about choices in life and he can’t answer that in less than an hour so we get back to bikes but quickly, the conversation refuses itself to small talk and Tom Ritchey reveals a little bit more about his persona.
I don’t know much about Ritchey, except some people say he might have invented the mountain bike and he’s designed bikes and world-class components for the last forty years from his shed in the Bay area, California.
I could have probably studied the subject a bit more but naivety and curiosity make a great combination for an interview and a meeting so I kept it like this, what I knew was all the love I had for his bikes and that alone validated my candid and innocent approach.
How do you make choices?
“I don’t understand, what do you mean?”
Well, in life, and also in business, how do you make your choices? Where do you seek inspiration or advice? For instance, I’d personally ask my wife and then think about it or ask my dad and do the opposite of whatever his answer would be!”
“You’re making choices all throughout your life and you really don’t know how they’re gonna work out, you’re making them with and without the influence of people [pause] that would take a long time to answer, am just saying, that would take a really long time to answer! I would need an hour to unpackage that!”
I got time but ok!
Maybe just the tricky ones? How did you make them?
“Well…There were a lot of them, I went bankrupt almost twice.”
Really ?! Completely bankrupt?
“Well in a sense yes, in my own sense, yes totally.
There weren’t necessarily because of my mismanagement, it was due to embezzlement, it was things that happened to me, they were my responsibility but hey happened as a result of other people and their influence on me so… I mean there’s a lot of complexity in business, basically, the book that I will write someday is “how I survived myself” but it is also a very complicated story about just being in business accidentally.
I think you can be in business very cautiously, you can be shrewd, you can do all these things, you can hire the best people, you can be kind of mentored by the best people, you can have a father figure in your life, you can have your family in business with you, you can have all kinds of things but you can’t protect yourself from everything. I didn’t care, I just wanted [pause] to make bikes, to trust people and unfortunately I had a friend who decided that that wasn’t what he wanted to do and I don’t know what to say although all I can say is that you do your best, if I was gonna compete, I was gonna do my best, if I was gonna be a frame builder, I would do my best, if I was gonna be a businessman, I would do my best and you don’t compromise, you just don’t compromise.
The biggest little company in cycling
And so if someone wants a two-tube, if someone wants to take advantage of you, you walk away from that. And if walking away from that means you end up with nothing and you have your integrity, you have your life, you have your independence, you have the things that are important for you, you’ll be fine. And I always knew I’d be fine so I walked away from a number of things that just couldn’t happen, I just couldn’t stand around and watch someone ruin something and anyway it’s a long story but I think the main thing is that somehow, someway, in a providential way, things always worked out, I landed on my feet, I don’t know how to say that in a way easier than that but I had many ups and downs through almost fifty years of business and there were episodes where I thought things were gonna end and they didn’t, they kept going and I kept surviving my learning process, my own need to understand and understand better, kind of things like the market and the changing markets and the different ways in which people make business and the different opportunities that made it [pause]
I call my company The biggest small company in the world cause it’s truly a small company, truly, but it’s truly the biggest company in terms of the geopolitical calculations that you need to survive and that’s the problem in today’s business world, very few people understand how globally complicated business is and so when you do well and you start to do well and you start to do business in foreign countries, there are so many ways in which that doesn’t work out for companies and they can never penetrate that, they can never figure out how to manage their brand, their identity, what it is that their IP is, what it is that their legal
What were your other strengths to keep the business as successful as it is?
“I think the main thing is that it’s better to have a small company that you have a hundred percent control over than to have a large company that you have limited control over and so for me I didn’t care of the size of the company, the company grew, great, company shrank, okay, just as long as you know, for me, as the owner of the company that I had control over the design, control over the philosophy, control over basically the reputation, the integrity, the way that the brand was represented, the way that I could represent myself in an honest and integral way to the end consumer. I mean, you look around everything that has a brand on it has a person and a designer in it and someone committed to a certain philosophy of what they do and if you lose touch with that after fifty years or forty-seven years and you become deluded or changed or morphed into something else, you’re not the same company, people look at you differently. And that was really important to me, it doesn’t matter what size I am but it was really important to me that people could look at Ritchey and say “this is still the same guy, its the same person and he has this philosophy and he’s committed to these things. and that’s why am interested in this product.”
Recourse is, all these kinds of things so the multi-national companies grow up and they grow up with a very heavy legal department, they grow up with a very heavy IP protection process, all these things, it’s very complicated and it was always something that I found myself at the beginning of, at the same time that large companies were at the beginning of. So it’s like Specialized and Trek, they were the first companies that changed… [pause] Ok I was the first company to do business and set up a corporate office in Asia amongst my peers but I was a small company doing that but I knew that I had to, I just instinctively knew that if I didn’t do that, somebody would take advantage of it and so I had to go through the legal thought process that a big company had to go through, I know its a very complicated answer but it’s very unique to my story, and in the same way with Europe, I was the first company amongst the Americans to have set up a branch office, there was a branch office but it was not in your typical place, fr what I know Trek and Specialized, they were in the Netherlands, I was actually in Italy, setting up a branch office in the early 89-90.’ [interruption]
An accident waiting to happen
“I think the hardest challenge for anyone is going through the ownership process and becoming mature in kind of… you know… when you own a company at fifteen years old, you basically own it with no maturity, you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s an accident waiting to happen, it’s an accident in my case just the fact that I was able to make a living at a young age, not that I didn’t work out but that I actually found a way to not only, I mean they say, rub two nickels together, i had a way of rubbing nothing! From the beginning. There weren’t two nickels! There was just hard work and using myself as a guinea pig, because I was racing, because I was trying to make something that I could become a better competitor with and have the opportunity to race at the highest level of my sport at that time, that was a very different motivation for being in business than someone that had whatever worked in the bike industry, that had worked as an engineer, that had gone to college whatever…
I was able to play, in a way, under the roof of my parents and make mistakes at an early enough age that when I had to make very serious business decisions and try to make a life for myself, I had had a grace period aa a young person, that was unique. Very few people had that window that I had and I am not sure that am answering the question in a coherent way but the way in which it happened for me, I ended up, at the time, in the way that the Cycling Industry was developing, there were no rebels, everyone was following the leader of the Europeans, I was able with my youthful confidence and my mistake mindedness, and my racing Guinea pig, you know, provocative to play games with an industry that no one was playing games with, no one was trying to pierce the envelope, no one was going outside of the hollow ground that was laid down by the Europeans and their over control of anything that was out there.
I was poking holes intentionally, unintentionally, looking for things that were opportunities, looking for things that I could do that made my performance different, better, unique, that an older person and all the persons at that time, at that mindset in the Culture…You didn’t do! But as a young kid, as a sixteen, seventeen years old, I could do it and the fact that I could actually brash-fully own these ideas and make something of it ended up being a porthole of opportunity for me that somehow benefitted me in a unique way in my business and gave me confidence, instilled people’s confidence in me, and just you know…I don’t know…kind of turned out to be the point in time when the Bicycle Industry was being influenced indirectly by the Mountain Bike and so the eyes and the ears of the world were looking at the United States at the time that I was playing around with poking holes in the balloon and all that kind of stuff you know…made it possible for a brand to become a new brand and there was a lot of copiers , there was a lot of other brands that were playing with… you know… trying to wear their pants on backward and be different but they ended up kinda missing the holistic way that…
I would say… made it possible for me to be the guy that had the most genuineness or be the brand that had the most authenticity or whatever it is… you know… that you could think is the right word… I know that sounds presumptuous, but I have always been what I could consider being the same person that I grew up with…I look at everything I do and i go “yeah am gonna ride that, this is good, this product is not gonna be brought to market until it works, until it works, until satisfies me”, all these kinda things, in which are part of me being the person that rides the bike, me being the person that validates the product, begins with a Guinea pig test of an idea of something that I need and need to do and ends up with me rubber-stamping it because it works and people, I think, see that, they see that connectivity and the brand from the early days and until now, you know there are people that show up here and know the brand from thirty years ago and I think they’re here because they know that’s who I am.”
Of all the bikes that you have designed and built, is there one that sticks with you, one that you would ride rather than any or that you’d keep if you had to chose just one?
“ha ha [melamcholic short laugh] my first one.”
“It got stolen, that, I don’t have any more…” [smile, the kind of smile you have when you think of your first love or the day your daughter smiled at you for the very first time] It’s the only bike that I wish I had ha ha and someone has it.”
What kinda bike was it?
“It was a road bike, it was my very first road-racing bike and euh…won my first race on it, and it got stolen. ha”
And you built it yourself?
“Oh ya…ya, number one.”
What do you get out of a bike ride, what does it do to you?
“Where we live, and where I enjoyed riding…I had friends that couldn’t care less where they lived and they were great cyclists and they became very good competitors but I don’t know, whatever it was, that was who I was and where I lived and what my dad was and what he represented, that was an appreciation for Nature and we lived in an absolutely amazing place to ride, period. It was probably…And I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve ridden in amazing places and if I was to chose one place still, If I had to chose one place to start riding and have a lifestyle of riding I would still choose, somehow, within five miles of my radius of growing up, that place, it is the Bay area! In terms of the kind of roads, the coast, the Red Woods, all the things, the micro-climate, all the things that I love about cycling and that you can do 365 days a year ha ha …It’s about as good as it gets! And so in terms of the person that I was, i was a rider first, in terms of enjoying riding and enjoying the exploration and enjoying the freedom and all those kinds of things, and I was a competitor second.
So for my years of competition, I got very good, I get very fast, I got very much on top of the racing scene in the United States at a time when Cycling wasn’t a professional sport, it was an amateur sport, in the beginnings of the sport, it was different than people imagine… But as soon as I understood really the heartbeat of the sport and the way in which competition was different than loving cycling, completion, you had to go full in, competition was a job, or you had to treat it like a job, you had to become employed to this idea that you’re gonna ride no matter what it is you feel like, you’re gonna race, you’re gonna be in a team which meant you’re gonna go where the team goes, you’re gonna do all these things and that wasn’t me and so at a certain point in time after making it on the national team for the World Championships… I’d look at that and I’d go: ” I love riding more than I love racing!” And so I had to choose and it wasn’t a harder choice, it was a choice that I made. Anyway, I was thinking about going for the Olympic Team and am glad I didn’t cause it was a bad year in Munich for the Olympics so there are a lot of things I look back on and the choices I make, I don’t regret any of them.”
Never come back
If you wished to know what a good bicycle is, he would probably be one of the very few best people to ask. But if you’d like to really understand then it would probably take you about some forty years, you have another option though, you can try and feel it. I rode my first Ritchey on a hill I hated cordially every other day, that climb was my nightmare beast, until that day, I rode it on a test bike, I reached the top, not much faster than usually but with a sense of ease and style that I had never felt before on a ride and so once at the top I just turned back to tackle it once more, it was the first time in my life I went down a hill to climb it up again, once that was done, I sent a text and bought that bike. I am not here to sell you anything, this is just my story with Ritchey, the bike had me convinced long before the man did.
So what is a good bike?
“It’s a very big question, especially today. The simple answer is: there are fifty or so parts that make up what is a bicycle and that means that a good bike is the sum of its parts. The long answer is that because we’ve forgotten that, because there are so many new ways of making bikes and new bikes that are made, a bike is kind of a scrapyard of products from many different ideas of many different new bikes that are put together probably because people want to be creative and maybe hope that they can do something better so motivation is not a negative thing but without perspective, which is what history gives you, most people don’t understand the value of the minimalist approach to making a bike good and if you go one direction with let’s say…just for example…putting a carbon fork on a steel bike and you don’t take into account what the history was with a bike with a steel fork and what made the bike a very good bike because it had a steel fork.
You won’t understand the consequence of that decision and how it affects the ride of the bike, the feel of the bike and the front end of the bike and if you don’t get that one right, it’s a lot harder to get other ones right so the answer is a case history I would say, in the last twenty years or thirty years of making an accumulation of changes based on so may different people in the kitchen in terms of what is considered to be a good bike and the idea is that when there were only one or two types of bikes that people thought of when they through of a bike: am gonna get a touring bike, am gonna get a racing bike, a gonna get a track bike, the distillation of what those bikes were was pretty well established after hundred years and the things that rose to the top and became a good Bordeaux, a good Burgundy, a good … you know, whatever your analogy is, in terms of what was universally thought as good, was very very established, now we forgot, in the same way, that they forgot how to make cement.
I know this is a huge segue but no one could figure out how they could build the Parthenon and a formula for cement was forgotten, that used volcanic ash for 2000 years and they just discovered it in this century so there are things that are good analogies, they’re good representations of how a culture embraces something and embraces to the extent that they really have a generation who haven’t experienced something for a long enough period of time that they actually forget what history has taught them or people like me, or people that have transitioned some generations and are still working on a solution have got basically the appreciation or the information that can debate something like this and debate it to the public in a way that makes people understand and value what a good bike is.”