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Tom Ritchey: American Pioneer, Eternal Original

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Tom Ritchey likes to say: “Steel is as old as the sword, the hammer or the spike, but it also goes to the moon.” Ritchey is nothing short of a pioneer in the cycling industry. He built his first bike when he was barely a teenager, reconceived bicycle tubing and was one of the founders of mountain biking. Today, he produces top carbon components, but he never forgets the lessons learned from steel. Ritchey can be outspoken and critical of the industry, but in the end he simply demands that it lives up to the same standards he places on himself.

Words by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton | Images courtesy of Ritchey Bikes

Peloton Magazine: Tom, you are a true pioneer in the sport, especially in mountain biking and steel-frame technology. Take us back to your groundbreaking Logic tubing, the development of TIG welding and your own fillet brazing. What pushed you to rethink the steel tube back in the 1980s, what were you looking to create and what were some of the challenges you faced back in the day?

Tom Ritchey: Well, the way that frame building took shape with me was very different from that of a lot of other people that started in the early ’70s. I put my hands on my first set of butted tubing back in 1972. It started with a broken frame that I repaired, a Cinelli that I bought for 50 dollars. I started taking things apart and other people wanted me to repair their bikes, so I started to take others apart. And within a very short amount of time I realized that I could repair bikes. And in the process of repairing bikes I realized that there was a different story underneath the nice paint jobs. And in my youth of 15 years old I thought I could do better.

Soon enough it took on a business sense. When it came to fillet brazing, I would have to say that goes back to 1973…or 1974 actually. It started when I focused on bottom brackets. The bottom bracket area was uniquely important to me. The bottom bracket was sort of the Achilles heel of the frame, and I had seen a lot of broken ones. It occurred to me that ovalizing the seat tube would strengthen the bottom bracket. And it occurred to me that putting a unique bridge in the back of the chain stay, something people called a park bench, would also increase the stiffness of the bottom bracket. And it occurred to me that this heavy and hard-to-find piece of casting, a Cinelli or Masi bottom bracket, was just a chunk of steel that didn’t have to be so heavy. As a result, I came with my own bottom bracket with fillet brazing.

My bottom bracket design became very important in the first mountain bikes, but it actually started on the road. It was a unique problem that I was able to solve. And the fillet brazing I used in the bottom bracket, I was able to transfer to other parts of the bike. If the fillet brazing was strong enough for a bottom bracket, it was strong enough for other areas of the bike. Already, in 1974, I had made my first fillet-brazed bike and soon enough I was playing around with different tube-set thickness, et cetera. It led to all kinds of experimenting in tubing. To be honest, some of these things I am sharing with you, I have never shared or explained before. I soon understood that if I approached fillet brazing in a unique, delicate way, I could use less and less butting. Lug brazing up to this point had often been a sort of blast-furnace approach, but I learned that if I controlled my temperatures, based on external temperature rather than internal temperature, I could use less heat and have a less heat-affected area. It’s interesting looking back, because all of these things came from a 16- or 17-year-old that was trying to make a faster bike for himself.

Peloton: How did your experience building mountain bikes influence or affect your approach to the road bike?

Ritchey: Well, by 1980, I’d built about a thousand road, track and tandem bikes, mostly building lugless bikes rather than lugged bikes. By this point, I was pretty much known as the guy that didn’t use lugs, and that gave me a lot of freedom to go wherever I wanted to go in terms of tube diameter, frame geometry or really anything. I’d built about 50 tandems without lugs and, of course, those frames require a really strong structure. Tandems required oversized tubes and super-strong forks. There was quite a bit going on in tandems. Strength is at a premium with tandems and they have really been central to a lot of decisions I’ve made as a frame builder.

Hence, the mountain bike was easy for me to segue into. I was building a tandem for Joe Breeze back in 1978 and he told me about this mountain bike that he had built up for the woods, and I was like, “Oh, I think I’ll build something like that too!” On his way home, he ran into Gary Fisher and said that I was going to build a mountain bike. Gary called me and said, “If you are going to build one, can you build me one too?” We had raced together and since we were the same size, I said yes—and that was pretty much the beginning of the Mountain Bike thing (ed. a brand founded by Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly with Ritchey doing much of the building).

According to Ritchey almost every ride entails some off-road.

Peloton: Your steel Road Logic frame has been a fixture of the company for years. How has it evolved?

Ritchey: Well, in the 1980s, road racing was still about steel but things were starting to change because of what mountain biking was bringing into the sport. Mountain biking provided a real fork with suspension, with aluminum tubes, et cetera. Companies like Cannondale were the real darling of the industry, with their unique oversized aluminum look. But there was a lot of immaturity when it came to concept and design. A lot of the new people didn’t understand things like Q-factor, ergonomics and the biomechanics of the rider and his position. And there was the economics. Cannondale came out with this 25-dollar frame with big tubes and it was a huge success. It really took the industry off guard. They took that 25-dollar aluminium frame and used it across the board on all of their bikes. All they did was change the components. That had never been done. You would never take that business approach if you were in the industry for a long time and had been using quality steel construction: to think that you could take the lowest manufacturing process and just hang different parts on it. But Cannondale did that and they had incredible margins. And then the big down tube provided a huge billboard for the brand, and the billboard size of a down tube became the new standard. All of this created the dawning of the aluminum era, that was not based on higher quality or design or frame building, but was based on marketing. And of course you could not build an oversize steel tube to compete, because it would be weight prohibitive. As a result, steel was out of business for years.

But I was always devoted to steel. I always rode steel myself and preferred it. Aluminum and carbon just didn’t feel right to me. I understood that, if you needed an ultra-stiff bike for the track or a time trial, other materials could be preferable; but for overall functionality steel was hard to be beat.

So my relationship with steel never changed. However, it is sort of like that quote by Ronald Reagan: “I never left the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.” I didn’t leave my roots in steel or the design that the Logic tubing left on the industry. But the industry left steel, they just gave up on it.

But now that steel has come back, there is renewed interest in the Logic tubing, because it was so revolutionary and evolutionary, especially when it comes to its TIG-welding applications. With very few modifications, what we were doing back in the 1980s is completely applicable to the bikes we are designing today. Okay, there are some differences, say with sloping top tubes, the integrated head tube or the carbon front forks that are standard today. The whole front of the bike is very different today. Those things were not there when the industry left steel. So, mostly, the tubing of the Logic today simply has to be tuned to all of those new things that are going on today.

Peloton: How do you see steel bikes evolving in years to come?

Ritchey: Well, that’s a great question and one I think about. There have been a lot of misunderstandings. In order for steel to evolve, it has to go back to being the way it was, yet it has to incorporate the state of people’s minds today that have to do with carbon forks and other things. Certain things have devolved and need to come back to where they were, while other things need to evolve and make room for the new things people want to use.

Ritchey and just a few of his prize bikes.

Peloton: You also make high-end carbon bikes. How has your experience in steel affected your approach to carbon?

Ritchey: Well, to start with, there has been a lot of misinformation in the marketplace today and the big companies have risen up and are using whatever marketing effort they can to defend their big sections on bikes, basically their billboard space. They are going to tell you that it is more elastic, compliant or whatever. But they have already had to walk backwards. Look at the diameter of the seat posts. They’re back to the 27.2 size. In order for a carbon bike to match the weight of a beer can and not to break, it has to be super stiff. If you have stiff rims on your wheels and a stiff frame, the only way to gain elasticity is in the seat post. It’s the last place they can get flex in the system and keep their billboards. They will talk about aerodynamics until the cows come home, but basically bikes are less ridable to the average person. There is a cost and consequence to the emphasis on weight and aerodynamics.

That is why, when you look at my carbon Break-Away frame, the obvious thing is that there are conventional-diameter tubes. That is because the only way that you can get elasticity out of carbon is to go back to making it to a more similar diameter to steel tubes. The diameter of the tube in the bending equation is the function of the square root of that tube. And the strength of that tube is a torsional-formula cube of that tube. These are all formulas that I learned and understood from my engineering friends back when I was a teenager working with steel. Your tubes need to bend, to arch and bow, to absorb shock. Building bikes with more traditional-diameter tubes is the way you get that. So, my choice of tube diameters on my carbon bikes is a very clear reflection of the lessons I learned in my years working with steel.