(DENVER) — Tom Ritchey has raced and worked in the cycling industry long enough to recall when it was “amateur,” with athletes wrenching their own bikes. That intimacy between the rider and the bike has been lost in today’s competitive cycling world, which may be influencing “some of the problems at top end of sport,” says the 56-year-old builder, designer, founder of Ritchey Design and an accomplished road and mountain biker.
“When I was a racer—along with some of the noted racers—a rider paid for his bike, a rider often knew how to build his own wheels, a rider fixed his own bike, a rider fixed his own flats, a rider usually trained himself and didn’t have a coach, a rider paid for his parts when they wore out,” Ritchey told a crowd of more than 100 during a seminar at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) Saturday in Denver.
“If you didn’t have a holistic approach to being there on Saturday morning or Sunday morning or the week of a stage race, if you didn’t have that, you weren’t there. No matter how strong you were or how good of an athlete you were. There weren’t sponsorship dollars for you. You were there because you were there by your own devices,” he continued.
Ritchey said today’s scene is sponsored to the degree that a rider truly does not know what it takes to make it to finish line. He believes that loss of connection between the rider and the bicycle has even contributed to the doping dilemma in the pro racing circuit, stating that the lack of responsibility over one’s equipment and maintenance leads to less ownership in terms of coaching and health.
“Any trend that gets a rider back connected with a bike, taking responsibility for the bike, is a good trend,” Ritchey said, noting that one of the reasons he got into mountain bike racing was because riders were self-supported and self-sufficient.
Ritchey was on the scene in Marin County, Calif., during the birth of mountain biking in the U.S. Despite various stories about how the sport took hold in the States, Ritchey firmly believes it can be attributed to one individual.
“I think there’s only one reason why mountain biking became what it did and became as representative of 'American born' as jazz music. And that was Greg LeMond,” Ritchey said. “Greg’s amazing skills and talents and success coincided with a couple of kids in a sand box in Marin County in Northern California playing with fat tires. We were just having fun. Nothing serious at all other than just kids in the sand box.”
The story of the birth of mountain biking is told many ways, but LeMond brought the spotlight of the world—which was European-centered at the time—to the United States, in terms of cycling, Ritchey said.
As the first American to win the Tour de France, LeMond brought validation to not only the American cyclist but also to American technology, according to Ritchey, who first started building frames when he was 15 years old and later launched into building components, and now owns Ritchey Logic.
“Companies in Europe that built the best products were like me; they were either racers or serious cyclists, and they were trying to solve a problem. They knew a bike in a different way. They knew a bike from a ‘systems perspective,’” Ritchey said.
However, as mountain biking grew, standards that had previously been handed down from Europe got lost.
“What happened to standards during the birth of mountain bikes? They basically went out the window,” he said. “With the American technology that helped birth the mountain bike came a complete ignorance in standards. And some of it was wonderful. Some of it needed to happen. I was all for that. But other things, we wouldn’t come back to till years and years and years later.”
For instance, he said when Cannondale began making fatter tubes out of aluminum and Japanese manufacturers jumped at the opportunity to produce the tubesets, the material and sizes required different cranks in order to work with the clearances of the bike.
Ritchey said he is dubious that some standards have changed in a way that “truly deliver the best performance you can measure."
That said, he also knows there’s value in experimenting, trying new things, and “validating the product.” And he says it’s nice to see some trends coming back around, such as the 650b wheel, which Ritchey built up on his first off-road bike in 1977.
“The industry is going to wonderfully survive itself because the industry is vibrant, passion-driven, and it’s an industry full of inventive, amazing people,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have lived it from a time previous to when it was professional, when it was amateur, to now.”