Contributor to the Sport is a broad moniker…. But in Tom Ritchey’s case, it needs to be.
It’s impossible to tell the story of Ritchey the designer & builder without also looking at Ritchey the rider, racer, and team sponsor.
That’s because Tom’s success on and off the bike are tightly interwoven. His design innovations arose out of personal experience and a passion for racing. Throughout his 40 year career, everything Tom did was proven under race conditions, often by Tom himself.
Approaching the design process from the perspective of a racer quickly separated Tom from the typical frame builder. It also enabled him to compete with the legions of European imports that dominated the racing scene in the 1970’s.
It all started before Tom was even a teenager.
Tom's competitive spark came the first time when before his 13th birthday, he dropped his formidable father. Tom realized his natural talent and by 1971, at age 14, he was introduced into the bike racing environment.
Even before finishing high school, Tom's confidence and success in racing was well established. Tom was known as the ‘Senior Slayer’ for beating top Californians considered to be the some of the best riders in the US, and even former Olympians, in races. Tom’s racing career culminated with a stint on the US National Road Team and the winning of the BAR (Best All-Around Rider) both as a junior and a senior in 1973 and 1974.
He began building his reputation as a man behind the bike at an early age as well. At 15, while dismantling and repairing his broken Cinelli frame,
Tom was not impressed by the build quality, and decided to construct his very own racing frame. By the time he graduated high school, Tom had already built over 150 frames.
In 1974, Ritchey frames were showcased in Palo Alto Bicycle’s mail order catalog—the industry’s first national catalog—giving Ritchey’s high quality work exposure to a broader audience.
Tom easily matched the quality of the best imports, but he also possessed a distinct advantage. While racers typically choose their bike from a few standard sizes and specifications, Tom could produce a custom bike to perfectly match the rider's strength, riding style and fit needs—a competitive advantage the imports couldn’t match.
But it was the mountain bike that allowed Tom to really push the boundaries and gain a strong foundation in the cycling industry. He was on the scene during the early days of mountain biking and realized that strong dependable off-road worthy parts just didn’t exist.
By 1980, with over a 1,000 road frames completed, Tom moved heavily into mountain bikes and became the leader in hand-built frames.
With his established frame building business already a success, Tom entered a joint venture with Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly to distribute his original mountain bikes. This well-known group effort was responsible for creating this new bicycle category and the generic name: the “mountain bike”.
Ritchey's eye for design and knack in engineering allowed him to "solve design and performance-related problems on a mountain bike that had never been solved", creating a new—and better—standard for the world.
The Japanese were keen to the mountain bike trend and companies like Suntour and Shimano came knocking at Tom’s door within a few months after he had invented the Bull Moose handlebar, the unicrown fork, and developed other mountain bike innovations like extra-long seatposts and wider bottom bracket axles.
By 1983 Tom was supplying frames and components for mountain bikes on an international scale, making Ritchey one of the extremely rare USA companies to export bikes Worldwide at that time. This prompted Tom to create Ritchey USA, his own distribution company. Over the years, his emphasis has shifted from frames to components and in 1985 the company was renamed Ritchey Design. Many Ritchey Logic designs and manufacturing methods have become industry standards.
In the wake of all this mountain bike development Team Ritchey was born. Tom never stopped loving racing, and the rigors of racing also proved to be the ideal testing ground for the latest Ritchey products. In the early years of the team, Tom recruited some of the best talents in the United States, and then quickly moved to recruit the some of the most talented and experienced riders from abroad.
Team Ritchey dominated the racing scene through the 1990’s, winning multiple world and national championships and numerous other races around the world, thus validating the quality, performance, and durability of Tom’s design work in front of a global audience.
But Ritchey racing support went deeper than just the Ritchey Team, with numerous top riders on other teams still receiving support from Tom. In 1996, Team Ritchey rider Thomas Frischknecht took a silver medal in the debut of mountain bike racing in the Olympics, but gold medal winner Bart Brentjens and women’s bronze medal winner Susan DeMattei also rode for other teams also sponsored with Ritchey products.
Tom still lives in Northern California and has been behind efforts to bring the sport of mountain bike racing to Rwanda; Project Rwanda / Team Rwanda have been successful in bringing support and supplies and organized races to the people of Rwanda. In 2006 Tom was approached by Rwandan coffee growers seeking for a means to deliver a better crop to the marketplace more efficiently. In collaboration with these coffee growers, Tom designed the so-called Velo Ikawa “coffee bikes” to help Rwandan coffee growers cultivate their crop and deliver the goods to the marketplace. Nearly 4,000 such bikes are now in use, improving the lives and local economy in Rwanda.
Tom never saw himself as merely a supplier, but rather as a "partner in giving cyclists the best chance of winning". Over the years his personal racing and design experience built a brand which cyclists around the world trust.
His passion for cycling has progressed…
from youthful curiosity,
to fulfilling a personal need,
to the desire to dominate the cycling world with his relentless innovation.
And after 40 years of success, he’s just getting started.