Friday, January 7, 2011

Tom Ritchey, In His Own Words

Above: A recent photo of Tom and his wife Martha on a one-of-a-kind Tom-built Ritchey BreakAway Tandem
Above: Tom brazing a 62cm Road Classic on December 15, 2010

In December, 2010 there was some discussion on the Classic Rendezvous (CR) email group about Tom Ritchey, the frame-builder and component and tire designer who was a co-founder of the first mountain bike company and built the first large run of mountain bikes ever sold.

The main question on the CR forum was "How does one tell which Ritchey frames were made by Tom himself?"

I've been a fan and friend of Tom's for a long time, so I contacted him directly with the questions, so that hearsay would be replaced with the true facts and history. Tom and I had an extensive back-and-forth, much of it via voicemail as he was traveling in Asia. I've typed up our correspondence, both written and verbal, which explains why it sounds a bit breezy and conversational, and present it here at "Tom Ritchey in his Own Words."

This dialogue started while Tom was in Asia, and all of this dialogue has happened while he was on the road in Asia, Hawaii, Australia, Tasmania, and lastly in New Zealand.

Chris Kostman (CK): Is it true that all fillet-brazed Ritchey frames were made by you, personally? Also, two people have said to me that Steve Potts built some of the fillet-brazed Ritchey frames, in particular the tandems. True or false?

Tom Ritchey (TR): I'm not sure where these urban myths take off from. Steve Potts is a very good friend, and builder, but he has never built anything for me. We've done many things together, mostly personal. In the beginning of his frame-building days he was often down in my shop on Skyline. You should ask him, but I think he would give me some credit for what he knows, particularly fillet brazing.

Furthermore, over the last 38 years, all the fillet-brazed (Ritchey) bikes that were ever built, were 100% done by me. There were some copies, however: people that copied my decals and used my Logic tubing and dropouts, and made some counterfeit bikes. Every now and then I run across a "Ritchey" bike and I look at it and I know immediately that it's a fake, because there's a lot of little details that the counterfeiters don't execute right. So basically I know that there are some copies out there and some misinformation out there.

CK: Tom, did you build any TIG-welded frames yourself?

TR: There was a series of bikes called Ascents, in the very, very beginning. A mil-spec TIG-welder friend of mine and I did a series of either 100 or 250 Ascents. (Just digging this stuff up is a blast from the past, from the recesses of my memory.) But there was a period of time when I made in my shop at Skyline a series of TIG-welded bikes with one other individual that was really skilled in TIG-welding. I made them with him. Basically he was my assistant. I did all the cutting of tubes and brazing and part of the welding and he was just a very, very competent welder that came on board after I started to test the idea out (of building TIG-welded frames). What I don't remember is if it was before or after Tange, or Toyo. (First I developed the Tange tubing, and then I developed a relationship with Toyo.)

The later “TIG bikes” were a collaborative effort mainly with Toyo of Japan who I taught many new skills to. At various dates, the TIG bikes had varying amounts of my personal hand work on them. But I’m comfortable saying that for the ones that were sold through Ritchey Design in the United States, 100% of them (up until the introduction of the BreakAway), went through my hands and my shop at Skyline which included quite a bit of personal work by me: braze-on brazing, finishing, and aligning. So even the TIG bikes, prior to the introduction of the BreakAway in 2004, had my hands and work on them.

CK: A few have questioned whether your fillet brazed frames were tacked together by somebody else first, or whether you were personally totally responsible for every aspect of assembling/brazing the frames. Also, a few people have even suggested that your frames were TIG welded in Japan and then you fillet brazed over that.

TR: There was a time when I was seeking to find ways of making bikes faster and I started to play around with TIG-tacking forks and ended up not being able to control it. It was through Tange and not being able to control the accuracy that I was looking for and the cleanliness of the joint and so I ended up basically taking a shipment and breaking all the tacks and doing them completely the way I needed to do them for accuracy. So there was a period of time when I was experimenting with it with forks, but never experimented with it in a frame, never brazed over any welded joints: that would have been stupid. I know that other people were doing that at the time, but I don't remember exactly who was doing it, but I know that other people who didn't have any good skills in frame building were doing that. There were some low-end frames that were being made like that.

I heard rumors at the time of people fillet brazing over TIG-welding. I remember there was a lot of interest in my work in the early 80s, and previous to that even, because I had probably built almost a thousand frames by 1980.

The way people could cover over just about anything with paint made it something in which people could do a pretty poor job and do a nice job with paint, and make something look reasonable. It always, of course, was a compromise and I was in the beginning of my Logic-defining years and, of course, I made my product logically and so I was always against doing anything like that.

I think Ross Bicycles was probably the first one that came along and did something like that, although I never cut a frame apart, never looked inside, to confirm my suspicion. That's what any of these armchair fillet brazers would have to do in order to make their statement to me or anybody, whether any of them had repaired or cut a frame in two and saw that a frame was TIG-welded and fillet brazed over it. Otherwise, they are just speculating about it. Needless to say, I was entirely against that and I never did it.

CK: What else can you tell us about the origins of TIG-welding in relation to frame-building?

There were kind of "winds" blowing and the first wind that really began to blow was in probably in '81, after Mike Sinyard took a couple of my first mountain bikes - fillet brazed mountain bikes, of course, because that's all I made - and brought them or the design over to Japan and had them copied. They first batch was TIG-welded, but after that he used lugs because, it's hard to believe at this point, but basically TIG-welding was something that really didn't have any credibility. People were kind of associating that with a BMX bike and not anything that would hold together and be strong enough. And in a sense, they were correct because the type of tubing that was being used was not butted, and so it was a great risk to TIG-weld non-butted tubing. I'd seen this wind or wave or whatever coming that had to do with how people were going to build mountain bikes more efficiently with TIG-welding and that inspired me to develop Logic tubing.

I first went to Columbus, and traveled to Italy and met with Antonio and then others about my ideas on Logic butted tubing, which was a new way of butting a tubing that no one had done to that point. It was condensed butting and longer, thinner center sections with differential tapers, force-directional butted sections and just a lot of things that I had been thinking about for years and years and years, that would make it possible for TIG-welding to work better, and it would also make a better fillet brazed bike, because you didn't have to overheat the tube away from the joint, which is what happens with a lug, because you have to heat a larger area.

Long story short, Columbus couldn't succeed. They tried, we developed mandrels, they didn't really know how to do force-directional tubing.

Again, another data point in history is that tubing maker Tange had not developed a heat-treated tubing until about '85. Both Tange and Ishiwata were two Japanese tubing makers that were kind of a similar level of quality, but Tange was the first to make a heat treated tubing. So with Columbus failing, I went to Japan and Tange succeeded. So that was the beginning of my relationship with Toyo and Tange. It was at that point that some of the TIG-welded versions of my bikes started to happen.

CK: When did you first start selling Toyo-welded frames?

TR: Probably about 86ish. The frames were Toyo-welded, but not completely built by Toyo, because I was getting them only partially finished. They didn't have braze-ons or bridges, weren't aligned, weren't slotted, weren't finished. I had a certain way I wanted to do things before the bikes got painted and sold, so I did all those things myself.

CK: Do you have any comments regarding the Wikipedia page about the Specialized Stumpjumper?

TR: I just read what it says about the Stumpjumper on Wikipedia and it's definitely different from what I know and what I think is correct. Wikipedia says "Early Stumpjumpers had welded steel frames because the lugged and brazed frames that designer Tim Neenan wanted to use were not available at the time." That is not what I recall and there are images of that original Stumpjumper showing that it was lugged. This Wikipedia page also doesn't reference the couple of bikes that (Specialized founder) Mike Sinyard bought from us, which Gary (Fisher) sold of mine, and it doesn't really reference that I made the custom bikes originally "marketed" by Gary and Charlie (Kelly).

The word "marketed" is not an accurate word in this case, since I built the bikes; we didn't just "market" somebody else's bikes. Also, it is kind of silly for Wikipedia to reference Specialized as having made the first "production" run of mountain bikes, when I had already made over 500 bikes at that time. (In 1980, I built over 400 bikes which were sold through Gary and Charlie's operation in Fairfax. I built between 400 and 500 bikes in the subsequent years, 1982, 1983, and 1984, and beyond. I was able to maintain a clip of between 400 and 500 bikes a year in those early 80s.)

CK: One last question, Tom: How many, if any, lugged frames do you think you have built ,and how and why did you make the shift to fillet brazing?

TR: The first frame I built in 1972 was lugged, and so were most all of my frames until about 1974. As I recall, during my first three years of building, until 1974, I built about 70 frames total, and then I discovered fillet brazing.

You have to have known the times: People were not ready to trust 100% in fillet brazing. I first started with the main three lugs and then fillet brazed the bottom bracket, because I wanted to ovalize the seat tube, and put a "park bench" between the chainstays (this became a signature of my frames, and something that most builders didn't understand how I did it).

Little by little, having top riders on my bikes and the overall trust of my lug-less (fillet brazed) work led quickly to my experimenting with larger tubes. (There were no lugs for larger tubes.) So 100% fillet started an oversized tube / fillet revolution. (I started out with oversize 1.125 top tubes. I built the first for Jobst Brandt, his first bike from me. He loved it. Then I used other diameters, depending on the size and strength of bike, and of course larger for tandems.

(Side story: Peter Johnson, friend/competitor, was the only other builder at the time who was trying to break out of the lug normalcy with me. Just like with the beginning of mountainbikes though, we were not intentional businessmen. We were builder/competitor-driven individuals, with more of a caveman approach to business and the opportunity that lay in front of us.)

You have to realize the times and that in the mid-70's frame-building was still dominated by European builders. My bikes were showing up all over the world now. I was known for the best lug work, and now a completely new fillet game that I was at the front of.

My best recollection is that, in 1975, my high school graduation year, I built about 70-100 frames, mostly lugged, on my own.

By the beginning of making a lot of MountainBikes, which began in 1980, I had increased my capacity to about 200 frames annually. At this point I was building more of a true 50/50 mix of fillet brazed vs. lugged frames. (I preferred to build lugless and rode it exclusively myself.) This was all before any employees. I built ALL the forks. I painted ALL the frames personally.

In 1980 I hired one unemployed 18 year old neighbor, who I kept busy mitering and prepping tubes, while I built the first 200 fillet-brazed mountain bikes for the new sport of Mountainbiking, and painted them. I still remember building 50 or so road bikes that year.

In 1981, 1982, and 1983, my MountainBike numbers were in the 400 annual range, with one more assistant: three of us total. By then, my first employee was able to assemble and tack main triangles, and a few other skills, like braze-ons, while I still did all the fillet brazing. I started sharing finishing techniques with my second employee, who had good artistic skills.

By the time I built the road bikes for Eric Heiden in 1985, I remember building only 12 road bikes that year.

(FYI, Chris,
lugged frame building changed radically at about the time I stopped making any lugged frames (around 1980): As I was changing over to lug-less exclusively, Cinelli was making lug construction much easier by selling investment cast lugs. Every lugged bike that I made required taking very crude sheet metal lugs, and completely re-working them, so that they looked half-way decent. Then after the brazing came the true "lug finishing." This effort was what largely made a frame builder's reputation, up until that time.)


Coming soon: The entire 1982 Ritchey Mountain Bike Catalog will be posted to this blog!

Below: Photos from Tom's cycling and frame-building history.

Above: Tom at age 11 with his first good bike. "My Dad taught me how to repair tubulars and I paid the entire $99 cost of this bike by repairing tubulars for a local bike shop when I was in 5th grade."
Above: Tom, en route to winning the Marin Criterium in 1972
Above: On the cover of Bicycling Magazine in May 1981, the first cover of a national cycling magazine which featured mountain biking
Above: Ritchey Mountain Bike ad in Bicycling Magazine, 1982
Above: Tom in a race ad in 1985. The photo shows Tom competing in the 1985 NORBA National Championships in 1985.
Above: A bike which Tom built for Eric Heiden in 1985 (with Murray decals for the sponsor's benefit), as featured in the current (Issue 2) of Peloton Magazine

Related Links:

Tom's bio on Wikipedia
Tom's Mountain Bike Hall of Fame page
Tom's company, Ritchey Design
Other Ritchey-related posts on this blog
Here is the first of a few dozen pix of Tom Ritchey's newest rough rider models at the February 2011 North American Handmade Bike Show


Chris Kostman said...

Chris, I tried and failed to post this comment---it kept telling me the retyped word was incorrect, and ... I was getting it right. So...if you'd like to post this 'un, go ahead:

Great interview, really interesting, Chris. It's not easy to get the voice of the interviewee sometimes, but you've done it, and the whole things was interesting. Good questions, good answers, and a fun look back. Way to go, and thanks.

Grant (who is a friend of Chris's, but that has nothing to do with my sincere compliments) Petersen

--G (really...good job!)

Dan O said...

Great post and interesting read. The amount of frames Ritchey personally built is incredible. The early age of his involvement is even more so.

I still have that Bicycling magazine with Ritchey on the cover. 1981 !!

Guitar Ted said...

Great post, Chris, and thanks for sending me the link. I enjoyed this thoroughly.

Tom has amazing talent and what a prolific builder! That part still blows me away.

Owen W said...

Because of that cover story in the spring of 1981, I ordered my custom Ritchey a couple months later. It cost more money than I had to my name, but I had a new job for a non-profit overseas. I had the bike shipped to me in Thailand. It arrived in early Spring '82. I rode it for the next 30 years in Asia, until it was stolen a few years ago. I'm still in denial -- and still looking for an 80-82 built replacement.

LOVED the Interview. Very well done. Thanks for posting it.


Achtervolgers said...

From Sal Ruibal: I must admit that my knowledge of the technical side of frame construction is lacking, but it doesn't take a welder's mask to see a great human interest story. The rumblings of the early days still echo in our business with old rivalries and wounds still as raw as in the 1980s. It is that intense competition that, to this day, fuels the innovation that creates such marvelous machines. Thanks for a small peek into that red-hot cauldron of creativity.

Anonymous said...

A comment on the Specialized Wikipedia info Tom comments on-The first several containers of Stumpjumpers were indeed tig welded and many of these are still out there. I recently acquired several examples from the 1st container for the Specialized Museum. There were some very early handmade lugged bikes hanging around Specialized, such as the Jim Merz made lugged bike Mike Sinyard rode. This bike still exists at Specialized. Production of lugged Stumpjumpers did not occur until 1983, when lugs fork crowns were created.


james said...

One of the photos shows Tom building a road he building frames again?

Georges Rouan said...

Great piece- thank you for posting.

Mark Manson said...

Great article.
One of the coolest racing bikes in existence is the one Tom built for his father in 1974. Thought-provoking, minimalist, purpose built. A stunning example of his pure design brilliance.

barryvo said...

I moving to San Diego this summer, comin from Missouri where I ride nothing but gravel and cross. Really excited to know that this kind of riding happens in CA. I'd sure like to start some comms with overly juiced guys who love to ride so when I get there I can hit the gravel runnin.

Biggest race I do here in the midwest is the Dirty Kanza 200. 200 miles in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Big prairie, hills and cows as far as the eye can see. Radio tower here and there to give it some scale.
Barry V.
Jefferson City, MO

Chris Kostman said...

More comments from Grant Petersen of Rivendell, in two parts as the comment system won't allow all of it together:

I've owned a buncha Ritcheys.
• lugged road frame from '76
• custom fillet frame from '81
• custom tandem fillet from '81
• non-custom road from '89
• custom mtn bike from '87
And my then girlfriend/now wife had a road frame, too.

The first year of Rivendell, I had to sell EVERYTHING to pay bills. A disaster, but I had great replacements. Here are some observations on his frames---not presented as facts, just obbies:

1. The lugged one was one he made for the Palo Alto Bike Shop, then a hotshotshop (may still be, I dunno). They were Reynolds, lugged, and undecaled, but I got the decals and put them on. I hear Jobst Brandt had a hand in designing the decals.

2. Before I got that frame, the fastest local guy in our club, Rick Baldwin, had three, with the fillet stem and all. One was a criterium bike, with fork crown points on the outside that extended halfway down the forkblades, all the better to stiffen the forks more, to resist high g-forces in criteriums. Mostly it was Tom showing off, and he had a right to, and did it well. This bike was a 5-speed, and I saw Rick outsprint Greg Lemond to win the Berkeley Criterium in '77 or '78. Greg then was riding Junior gears, and Rick probably had a 53 x 13, but even so, it was impressive, and the last time I saw Lemond race and not win, and I saw tons of wins.

3. My custom was made of Columbus SP tubing and had a fillet stem. The frame was purplish and the stem was green. I stretched my budget by ordering that and the tandem at the same time, in '80. I made time payments on them both and paid them off in '81. The single cost me $500, and the tandem was $1200, and had the most extensive lateral and cross bracing you could ever imagine. It was as though he was looking for ways to increase his work, but it was a beautiful frame. The tubing was straight gauge unbranded CrMo with the same 1.25 downtube and 1.125 top tube and 1 headset that used to be considered oversize, and that Riv still uses today. There was no noticeable wiggle in the frame, even though these dimensions would be considered way too skinny these days (by anybody except JHeine). If we ever do a tandem, we'll likely do the same.

3. When I was ordering my custom, I asked Tom, "Should I get short reach or standard?" Short was the rage and I didn't want to be left behind. Tom said, "Get regular, it's more useful. More clearance. Short is for specialty bikes." Now "short" is "normal", but it's still as limiting as it was then.

4. I could fit 32mm tires, easily.

- Grant Petersen

- part two to follow

Chris Kostman said...

Part two from Grant Petersen:

5. On the tandem, Tom tried to talk me into sidepulls, but I held out for cantilevers. Tom probably didn't brake as much as I did.

6. I put a TA triple on the tandem, 54 x 49 x 32, and used an outer ring f or the middle. If you did this you could bolt the middle and outer ring together, stiffening the rings. It was one of those insider tricks of the day.

7. I ordered my custom mtn frame way too small, but what did I know? I got a 49. Low bb, steeper angles than normal (73 seat 72 head), and with 126mm spacing instead of the std (of the day) 130. He built it at 130. I called him about it, and expected he'd spread it, but he said, "I'll have another one to you in a week," and he did.

8. There wasn't QUITE enough tire clearance, and Tom said, "Bring it by and I'll fix it." I brought it by, he put the chainstays down on a wooden bench, on the inside of the chainstay he placed a mallet of some kind probably shaped to do this, and whacked it super hard three times with a big hammer, as I watch and listened afraid of the damage and afraid to look. Then he repeated it on the other side. It made a good case for steel tubes.

9. The custom mtn frame I returned with the 130 was used to win one Nat'l Championship, and then another guy rode it to many top finishes. I saw it in the race photos. It was cream frame, blue seat tube panel.

Tom was by a few months ago and rode a 62 Hunqapillar with Alba bars in the local hills.

He was a strong influence for many years. I don't mean to say I'm beyond that now, because there isn't any "beyond" Tom Ritchey when it comes to bikes. He and his company are on a different path than we are, but I've always liked Tom and I always look forward to seeing him when he stops by, a couple of times a year by surprise.

- Grant

Chris Kostman said...

Comments from Billy Savage, maker of the film "Klunkerz":

Hey Chris,
Thank you very much. Fantastic. Great information in all the posts. Beautiful photos and amazing swag... jerseys and head badges. Keep up the good work and keep me on the mailing list.
Ride safe,

Cordless Larry said...

I just found this article and thought I should post a comment since I'm responsible for the Wikipedia article on the Stumpjumper. I wrote the article based on published sources. The information about lugged frames is from this interview with Mike Sinyard:

Several sources have the Stumpjumper as the first mass-production mountain bike, including this one that I reference in the article:

I'm not sure whether Tom will read this, but if he or anyone else would like to help me improve the Wikipedia article, then please do post a response here.

Chris Kostman said...


Thanks loads for Tom Ritchey, in His Own Words. I purchased a new Road Logic in the early or mid 90's. I still have it and ride it and it still looks great. Indeed, it is a wonderful riding bike ( no hands, easily) and that's why I kept it all these years. BTW, all Campagnolo Record and Chorus components. Thanks again.

Don Genovese
Montara, CA

Chris Kostman said...


thanks for this. I have a '95 Toyo-made Ritchey Logic that I just had
refurbished, I love that bike so much I'll never sell it and I get
lots of compliments on it.

Ed Felker

Unknown said...

Hey Thanks for this great interview.
I have a 54cm Ritchey Road Classic that I picked up in Salt Lake City.
It is fillet brazed and has a decal for both logic tubing and for being handbuilt by Tom Ritchey.
The Serial # is RC54 1006.
Is there ANY way that you can tell me to verify this bike as being handmade by Tom and what year this bike is? It's in beautiful condition.
Thanks so much!!!

Unknown said...

Hey Thanks for this great interview.
I have a 54cm Ritchey Road Classic that I picked up in Salt Lake City.
It is fillet brazed and has a decal for both logic tubing and for being handbuilt by Tom Ritchey.
The Serial # is RC54 1006.
Is there ANY way that you can tell me to verify this bike as being handmade by Tom and what year this bike is? It's in beautiful condition.
Thanks so much!!!

wme said...

Wow..The first five photos really show the great and excellent job. Nice work Tom Ritchey, the 62cm road shown in the fourth and fifth photos really looks strong.

OwenW said...

The May 1981 Issue of Bicycling, with Tom on the cover on his mtb, changed my view of the world. I ordered one, even though I had nowhere near enough money to pay for it. Fortunately, by the time it was ready I had saved (just) enough to pay for it.

Greatest bike I ever owned.

maxrad said...

Sorry to come so late to the party, but I just spotted this article and Tom is slightly mistaken regarding the first batches of Stumpjumpers being lugged.

I was working in the Specialized warehouse (and later on the sales desk) at the time so I had my hands on the earliest models, literally unloading the boxed frames from the trucks and kitting up the parts.

The first two containers were TIG frames and rather poor quality by today's standards; these came about 30 days apart in the summer of 1982 and can be distinguished by the "square" Specialized wordmark on the downtube, the ugly "tandem" fork crown and some other distinguishing marks. There were only two containers of these; less than 300 frames in total, as I recall. We sold through those containers in a couple weeks and rushed orders for more. That's one reason there are so few photos of the first batch and so few surviving bikes. Everything else from that year forward to the mid-'80s was lugged and had the "script" Specialized DT logo and "double" fused fork crowns.

It's a little hard to make out, but you can see the non-lugged construction and tandem crown on this prototype (note no decals) used in the first Stumpjumper ads. That's designer Tim Neenan on top of the rock somewhere in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Hope this helps. Mad respect to Tom.