Tom Ritchey : Steel is the real deal

Tom Ritchey : Steel is the real deal

The legendary Tom Ritchey has agreed to answer some questions for Kring.

Kring : In order for our readers to get a good grasp of your company, what the brand represents and how it embodies a cycling lifestyle, could you guide us through the creation of Ritchey?


Tom Ritchey: That’s a very long answer; it’s really difficult to get into without pretty much taking you back to the 60s and 70s when I was a young kid and had a father who rode. He was in a cycling culture that was completely in its infancy in the United States, where really few people had any kind of true businesses, professional shop or frame-building – none of those things existed. It was a completely different environment than Europe. We understood that, and there was only one professional bike shop in the entire Bay Area in the 60s that was called Cupertino Bike Shop. There was one on the East Coast.

For the most part, it was all European-based. Everything that was made and considered worthy of racing and riding came from Europe, particularly England and Italy. You had people that raced and started to show potential. Amateurism was all there was until Greg LeMond in the latter part of the 70s. You had no professional side of the sport. Of course, we had magazines and information relative to Eddy Merckx and Anquetil and previous ones. For the most part, the entire attitude was Euro-focused.

So having a father that was an engineer, having a very influential person that was a German engineer in my life, Jobst Brandt, and living in what is now considered to be the technology center of the world, Silicon Valley (Palo Alto is my home from pretty much the beginning, when I was 6 years old), my whole environment was an engineer environment. There was also the infamous music culture and college culture. For the most part, the area of Palo Alto was somewhat of a unique environment. Also, you had at the time about 80% of the Olympic Team that lived within 10 miles of me, as the Cycling team did. It was quite the culture, not only for the engineering side, but the athletic side. If you look at other sports, they were also driven tremendously by engineers that basically thought of a way of doing things differently: the frameless pack in backpacking, the running shoes, swimming, all of it really was such a culture of the Bay Area at the time. The performance side of sailing and its technology was driven by an aerospace community that was looking at carbon fiber, titanium and other materials. It was a hotbed of people thinking outside of the box.

As a 10-11 year-old kid, learning to build wheels at 11 years old, learning to repair tubulars at 10 years old, learning to ride off-road on a road bike at 14, starting to race at 13 years old, it was a very young start into a world that I loved. It was helped by people that were also outside of the box: thinkers, riders. And if you visited the geography of the area, I’m sure you would be impressed with the riding, where you could ride and all the wilderness you could ride in, and the distances and the climbs and the weather, the redwoods, the areas like Santa Cruz, the whole peninsula was an amazing place to ride and for a young guy to explore.

In that backdrop is somebody that didn’t have really any money. My ability to afford a good bike was completely up to me. I made a deal with the shop owner in the 60s-70s to repair his customers’ tubulars for $3 apiece in exchange for a bank account that he would set up for me to buy a Raleigh Super Course, which was $99 at the time. I repaired tubulars and was successful at it; my father taught me how. I ended up having the first bike that was a nice one at the time, in 5th grade. As a result to that, I wanted a nicer bike, and a nicer bike. The cost of those bikes was expensive and what I was aware of was that there were people that were selling bikes used. The bike I could afford was a broken Cinelli. At 14 years old, I already taught myself how to braze and work with metal. So I imagined myself able to repair it. I repaired the broken seat stay. As a consequence of doing that, I raced that bike. One thing led to another, and I thought of myself repairing people’s bikes and people were looking for bikes to be repaired because there really wasn’t anything that was available to repair broken steel frames. That was the beginning of imagining repairing not only Italian bikes, but English bikes. And seeing the lack of quality that I was surprised at, heating joints up and pulling tubes out, and realizing how little brass penetration there was and how overheated things looked, I said: “if these are high-quality bikes, then this is the low-quality of construction. I think I can probably do a better job”.

The idea at that time was just to race my bike, which I did. I was very good at training, racing, and at having the mindset of a racer amongst the other athletes of the area and I ended up winning quite a few races and establishing some reputation that was part of a very small culture. But no one at that time was prepared for someone not to only make their bike, but to race it at my level at my age, and things happened quite quickly for me in terms of people wanting to have one of my bikes. That’s the creation of Ritchey.

Kring : Cycling has evolved over the last few years, becoming part of an urban culture that tends to develop especially here, in Belgium. And so have bike shops, such as Kring: a coffee place where people meet, where bikes represent freedom and where the rider’s experience is the centerpiece. Do you like this evolution?

T.R.: Evolution is a very strong word. In the very beginning, I was in a very humbling environment because people were very skeptical about anyone that wasn’t a European-recognized brand. So imagine a young kid from Palo Alto was making not only frames but in 73 and 74 made seat posts, steel stems and was starting to machine other parts, hubs, bottom brackets, headsets. The way that I was going and how fast I was going was something that somewhat challenged people’s skepticism.

In that time period, when I was 16 or 18 years old, my dad and Jobst Brandt were always being very watchful and very critical of me, in a fatherly way. The thing that they always pushed on me was: “Look, Ritchey, the bikes just didn’t happen yesterday, it’s taken a hundred years to get to where it is today. Don’t forget that, and don’t take that for granted. There is a lot of stuff that you won’t know until you break things and understand why the standard exists”. So, from a very early age, I was critically challenged to think about how the standard and the company and how other things got to the point where they got. Technical evolution is different than what we look at right now. There is a lot of products, because of the flooding of interest in the buying market, which are done without the engineering mindset that I grew up with.

True innovation is an improvement, something that is adding to what has been previously built. But there is a lot of evolutionary improvement that are not necessarily better than previous work. In a very basic way, bikes were designed, had a function and a given expectation and there was a whole lot of mystery about the history of the sport. Most people, and most racers only had one bike. There were mechanics with hands-on experience of not only adjusting the derailleurs but building their wheels and doing all kinds of teardowns and maintenances on their bikes. But nowadays, there is very little of that. You don’t go through the same learning curve and appreciation. You’re not replacing certain parts, broken spokes, axles, cranks… like you did after 5 or 10 years of use when I was growing up. You knew what was going up with the metal back then. Nowadays, you really don’t. Manufacturers and product managers, and people who are designing things and putting them into the market really just take back stuff and replace it. That just takes away the whole understanding of what the value of the design is, relative to an evolutionary process.

There is a tremendous amount of experimentation that happened previous to my getting into the sport. You can go through a lot of really good pictures and data books that show ideas. A lot of them stayed, a lot of them didn’t, but there was tremendous established art when I started. There was also stuff that I didn’t see as what I would consider to be high-performance. So I looked at the bike more as a tool for me to race to the finish line first. And if I was going to get there first, I wanted my bike to be the fastest and the lightest. The performance only was valuable to me. The company really was an accident, almost for me to build the product for other people. I learned how to become a business man and to understand good design. I was the guinea pig for everything first, and I was happy to do it because it was where I learned where I succeeded, learned the lessons and corrected course.

Kring : Speaking of evolution, how have the Ritchey frames changed from the P-Series nearly 30 years ago?

T.R.: 30 years ago was a very interesting time, because that was when aluminum was pretty much the darling material of the industry in the same way that carbon is now. Steel was a solid material up until the late 80s and mountain biking. Starting that period, aluminum was becoming a way of making a frame lighter and stiffer in people’s minds.

The markets of on-roads and mountain bikes had really bifurcated. It was very much two different animals sold in different ways. There was also the introduction of suspensions, and all the things that aluminum afforded really didn’t translate into a road bike: you could make linkage systems less expensive, lighter, whether it is a fork, or a rear end without so much of concern for the ergonomics of the rider’s pedaling performance, and so on. Road bikes truly needed more of a light-weight high performance efficient design. Tubing-wise, there were reasons, and a window to create bikes in the P-Series that won World Cups and World Championships, that were not suspension-driven. That is the avenue that I took. At the same time, there were obviously road bikes that were not suspension-driven either. That was my opportunity.

When I was visiting Columbus in Italy in 84, they showed me an original tubing specification of Columbus SL from 1899 and were proud that they created this very highly refined lightweight butted-tubing at the turn of the century. And truly, it hadn’t changed for almost a hundred years. We were well into the mountain bike period at that point in time, and I had long since given up lugs and I was designing my frames without lugs. Then I knew tubing needed to change. That is when the P-Series bikes happened.


Kring : The Ritchey Logic frame was a game changer when it was first introduced, with a whole different perspective on tubing, especially fillet brazing or TIG welding. How do you manage to renew your frames, whilst keeping up with the spirit of the very first Logics?

T.R.: Basically, the P-Series bikes coincided with the introduction of Logic Tubing. Logic Tubing, and particularly the Logic Prestige made by Tange was a game-changer. It was primarily a result of me being somewhat of a renegade for years leading up to that, and the use of fillet brazing versus traditional lugs.

Traditional lugs, although quite effective historically and valuable and easier to use for an industry, took a while to adopt for the mountain bike business. You saw a lot of experimenting. It made it possible for me to take what I already established with at least a thousand or so fillet brazed road bikes tandems, touring bikes, track bikes previous to the first mountain bike, and go a different direction regarding geometry and tubing diameters. What I learned from that process is that a fillet braze done right can result in a strong jointing method and I would say esthetic method. The main thing it taught me was that the traditional length of butting in a frame was made for an overheating of lug-jointing process. The butting was not optimized. Never before had the butting been played with in a differential, which means that the butting thickness in the front of the tube is different than the butting thickness in the back of the tube. Also the tapering was changed, and force-directional butting was experimented. Because of fillet brazing, you had what was potentially not going to work out turning out to be every bit as strong, even lighter and also a new opportunity for TIG wielding of a frame to be used with the correctly redesigned tubing, making the areas reinforced in the butting of the tubing rather than in the jointing with the lug. The continued use of butting, forging and casting has made it possible to continue to make steel bikes better and better.

Kring : Technology has always had a special influence on bike designs and components. With the emergence of carbon fiber and the fact that it is strong and light in quite a compact space, the question is: why choose steel?

T.R.: Steel versus carbon is a different story than steel versus aluminum or titanium. Carbon is wonderful in the way that it organically can be shaped. In a comparative way, it was originally conceived in tubes that were cut and bonded together. It became more and more possible to mold entire framesets with a layout and a person that is following a pattern and a template.

The plus of that is that you can create a perfectly stress-diffused structure. The problem is that it is so specialized that it is almost unrepairable. When you have thin structures and crashes and damages – things that are normal for bike riding – and you are going for the ultimate lightness, you end up having things go wrong.

The nice thing about steel is that it hardly ever breaks the way carbon does. There is usually a life after life, not just from a riding perspective, but also from a repair perspective. With so many other advancements in the system of a bike (40 or 50 individual components), there is a lot of ways in which the bike is already extremely light.

Steel framesets have better ride characteristics, especially over long distances and from an inherent elastic nature, when made correctly with the right kind of steel and materials. Well-designed, 3.5 pounds-steel frames coupled with modern components are light – 15, 16 pounds.

Riders’ benefit from all the things that steel offers is something that exists. It took 10 years of making over-stiff carbon bikes for people to start realizing that they were too stiff. In order to make a carbon bike as light as people are pushing them, manufacturers end up to the point where there is very little structural absorption of energy. It is the nature of pushing the diameter and the thickness into an overdesigned stiff structure. The thing that people are getting back to is that they are realizing a 27.2 seat post is an advantage in terms of absorbing energy. It’s a very small thing to overcome all the other stiff attributes of these carbon frames, but they’re coming back, realizing that it is the only thing that they’ve got to play with.

Tubing-diameter-wise, you cannot grow the tubing diameter and end up in an absorption of energy system that is going to be desirable. It pretty much focuses you in on making a steel bike right the first time. In terms of the history of tubing diameters and steel frames, right is within a very small window. There is a bullseye that has not evolved for a hundred years. And that bullseye is where it is now, with a top tube between 1” and 1”1/8, a downtube between 1”1/8 and 1”1/4, other tubes basically unchanged.

The problem that I see is still the fork. It is unfortunate but because the pendulum is swung so hard in the favor of carbon fiber forks, people don’t even know what a good 1” fork has to offer in terms of its ride quality, which is significant in my book. A 1” fork, and the flex that you get from a steering column that is 1” is significantly more than the flex that you get in a carbon fork. This has led to completely new standards for testing forks. 15 years ago, when manufacturers pieced together carbon forks, pieces of carbon that were glue-bonded or aluminum and carbon glue-bonded together and they were not surviving impact, they created a testing standard that has to do with an impact not of fatigue life. Whereas a steel fork would have easily absorbed the first energy of an impact on a crash and saved the frame, now you have an individual testing standard that a fork can’t break. Of course, a steel fork isn’t going to break. A carbon fork is. You can’t even get 1” steering columns to pass the test to be sold because of the short-sightedness of the current testing standards for carbon bikes that is overshadowing steel. There is a lot of downside that hasn’t been addressed in the business-side of the market.

I tried to always approach things from a system approach, which has led to me trying to design just about every component on a bike. But unfortunately the component makers of the world are individual companies: individual frames, individual forks… You need to think about going back to the P-Series of bikes, the most dominant mountain bike team. What I consider to be my success in that is that I controlled the most components on the bike. When you look at bikes from every other team, which includes today and the whole Pro-Tour road peloton, they are put together by a huge variety of individual players that all have individual design philosophies. Letting the rider choose from a system approach was normal in the 70s and 80s. It was normal with Greg LeMond. Basically, what differentiated Greg LeMond from the entire cycling community is that Greg LeMond came and said: “I’ll race, I’ll be a pro, but I’m going to choose my bike and my components, I’m going to do it my way”. That died as a result of more and more money appetite and rider salary.

Kring : The Swiss Cross also features disc brakes, which is also a technological evolution. What’s your view on the fact that this technology is also imposing itself on road bikes?

T.R.: I would say that there is a real value to anything off-road that uses disc brakes. Mountain bikes, downhill bikes have a lot of need for all-weather type of braking and fading and other things that happen as a relationship between the brake pattern and traditional rim – heat build-up and all of that. Being a tandem-rider, I know this very well.

As soon as you cross over onto the road side, an element can introduce itself into the system: grit, water… In Belgium, you have plenty of wet conditions that you race and ride in. What comes off the road is a certain amount of everything that comes out of cars too. All of that is there, in your brake pattern and you are going to be sometimes searching for more brake when the conditions get worse and worse. So there is an environmental value on the road-side, based on conditions. But that’s about it.

As soon as you have sunny days, and you have better-controlled weather conditions, there is absolutely no advantage. As a matter of facts, there is less advantage. You cannot get bigger than a 700C disc in terms of braking. That is what a caliber brake on a 700C rim is, it’s a disc brake. So the value just goes away and no one has figured out how to create a lighter disc brake.

Another inherent problem is that the wheels have to be stronger because when you’re braking from a 160mm versus a 700mm rotors, the amount of spoke tension and need of stronger structure is part of the equation. That’s just a given. There is a mechanical consequence to grabbing a small roader versus grabbing a big roader. If you look at the latest generation of hubs I developed, you’ll see that I’ve taken a lot of thought and care into doing some redesign on hub systems that had never been done before. You don’t cross spokes, spokes shouldn’t be crossed, you have forged-in J-Bend spoke pivots, and so on and you try to create a very efficient structure. Primarily, because you want to make a disc brake wheel work.

Kring : Getting a little more personal, what bike do you ride on a daily basis, and what is your favorite bike to ride on?

I ride a road bike probably 80/90% of the time, I ride a cross bike or a mountain bike the rest of the time. It really has to do with conditions and where I’m riding, but I’ve always ridden my road bike in different directions, relative to the road. Riding off-road on my road bike has been a very natural and normal thing to me in the areas that I live in, in the Santa Cruz Mountains and other close-by areas in California. So, for me, dirt roads and road bikes have always gone together since the early 70s. There is a skill that you need to have, and there is some downside but there is a lot of reward in the distances you can travel.

Kring : If you had to sum up the whole philosophical view behind Ritchey bikes in a few words, what would it be? Getting more people on bikes?

I’ve always been really big on giving people permission to ride anything, and getting them on bikes more than on my bikes. I feel like I’ve been consistent with that my whole life. Being in Africa and seeing people on any kind of a bike, or other parts of the world where they don’t even know my brand has been something that I love. I love to be around people on bikes. There is a communication that happens when you are on a bike and someone else is on a bike that I love. It’s hopefully the way that people look at me.


Kring : What does the future look like for Ritchey, and for yourself?

I couldn’t answer that 45 years ago, and I can’t answer it now!


Photos : DR