2013 Predictions: Tom Ritchey of Ritchey Design

Feature Articles Interviews

Editor’s Note: This is the next installment in a series of interviews RoadBikeReview.com is conducting with various thought leaders in the cycling industry. The mission is to discover what trends and technological developments they think will drive the two-wheeled world in 2013.

We had the opportunity to chat with Tom Ritchey before he left to attend the NAHBS show in Denver recently. Tom began building custom racing frames in the early 70′s and was an original pioneer of the mountain bike in the 80′s. Tom was inducted into the Mountain bike Hall of Fame in 1988, and into the United States Bicycle Hall of Fame in 2012. Here are some of his thoughts on the bicycle as we know it today…

General thoughts on the year to come:

My hope is that we’re ready for some kind of simplification…I’ve been hoping for that for a long time. SRAM’s XX1 is just that. It’s a very simple design that has some solid benefits, and that might get people to start appreciating how simple things can be. The latest electronic drivetrains and similar innovations are often quite complicated and expensive. We’re also seeing some trends come back around, like wider tires and rims. I also think that enough riders have had their $10,000 carbon bike fail in a short time, and those riders may start looking for options other than carbon. A reliable, simpler and bike is a really great thing. Always will be.

On Gravel Road Bikes:

I thought all road bikes were gravel road bikes? I’ve been riding my bikes on gravel and more accurately—unpaved dirt roads and trails—for decades. It’s good to see 25c tires and wider rims coming back, and more importantly the clearance on bikes to run these bigger rims and tires. For some reason the bike industry ‘innovated’ away from this many years ago, and for a while many top-end carbon bikes haven’t even had room for 25c tires, much less a broken spoke. Now we’re ‘innovating’ back to where we started. I’m glad to see it, as this style of riding is what I like to do most and it’s what my products are designed for.

On Road Disc Brakes:

The argument for disc brakes is incompatible with the argument for lighter bikes and wheels. But because the UCI-level race bikes are subject to minimum weight restrictions, the bikes often TOO light. This allows the use of a heavier brake system on a bike that’s still right at the weight limit,. The benefit is really all about wet weather braking. It’s an interesting thing for teams. But teams currently have to manage road bikes, spares, time trial bikes and now wet weather bikes. I don’t think top pro riders will want to use disc brakes in dry conditions. Existing road rim brakes are technically large disc brake systems, and are still going to be better than a small disc rotor system in most dry conditions. A 700c rim acting as a rotor manages heat better and has better braking sensitivity… nobody thinks about that. And due to the strength and heat management requirements, disc brakes will add weight to the wheels, where it’s most noticeable. I don’t think racers will want that unless wet conditions demand it. I think that much of the interest for disc brakes is coming from mountain biking, but way you stop on a mountain bike is completely different than how you stop on the road, and there are some trade-offs.

On the comeback of Steel at the mid-to high-end for road, CX and even hardtail mountain:

Personally, I think the ride quality of a bike with correctly-sized tubing is as good as it gets. The tubing diameter on most steel bikes is what I’d call ‘Real Ride Sized’, meaning it’s the optimal diameter for a bicycle frame: strong enough to handle the stresses of hard riding but still compliant enough to ride nice on real-world roads. That’s not to say that a similarly designed carbon bike with ride-sized tubing might not be even better, but the problem is there are no carbon bikes out there that aren’t mega-oversized. There used to be, from Grafton, Calfee, Look, Time, and TVT but that was in the infancy of carbon, before the Brands figured out that they could put a large branded billboard on the side of their frames as the tubes got bigger.

I think well-designed frames need to have a dynamic ride quality similar to what you want in a fork: it needs to be stiff, but still needs some flex. But presently there’s a lot of pressure to make everything as oversized and as stiff as possible. Carbon can be molded very thin, be very light and still very stiff, but I feel people are realizing ride quality will diminish. Wider tires, compliant seat posts and even thicker pads in cycling shorts have been introduced to address the increasingly stiff nature of today’s bikes. Ride quality is often overlooked. The pendulum is starting to swing back and riders are rediscovering that a well-made steel frame offers an incredible balance between weight, stiffness, and ride quality.

On where the road bike is evolving:

The road bike we have today is the product of 100+ years of a globally-focused evolution. The ways it has truly changed are barely significant. You have people ‘needing’ to innovate in insignificant ways, but it may not truly be that important of a development, and often times that ‘innovation’ is gone in a few years, only to come back to where it was previosly. The road bike is such a celebrated, simple and wonderful piece of efficiency that people want to improve upon it, but it’s incredibly difficult. It’s the nature of man to try and improve everything, but often those improvements turn out to be trends. I have to say that the road bike will only become what it already is. It’s already so wonderfully refined. There are many choices, from superlight to stiff bikes, to more robust bikes for riding bad pavement, but really they’re all just road bikes.

On what makes the North American Handmade Show special:
For me, I really enjoy talking to all the new young builders. I try to talk to them individually and offer myself as a resource for new builders. I try to encourage them in what they’re trying to accomplish, take the challenges of frame building and demystify them, and offer advice on how to make a business out of framebuilding. I also like seeing old friends, and all the longtime Ritchey fans who’ve had one of my bikes over the past 40 years and still remembers it.

On what Tom looks forward to most at NAHBS:

The new crowd of framebuilders who are just spreading their wings.

A great short film on the story of Tom Ritchey:

About the author: Thien Dinh

Thien Dinh gained most his cycling knowledge the old fashioned way, by immersing himself in the sport. From 2007 to early 2013, Thien served as RoadBikeReview Site Manager, riding daily while putting various cycling products through its paces. A native of California, Thien also enjoys tinkering with photography and discovering new music.


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  • mudrock says:

    Man I love that guy. Tom Ritchey is my hero, living the life.

  • Len says:

    Tom Ritchey absolutely nailed it, in every possible way. Great article.

  • TBG says:

    Good points. Only thing I wonder is what on earth he can teach young builders? How to build a couple frames to get in the door of NABHS only to turn around and not make them available to the public unless you want a Taiwanese version. Not in the spirit of NAHBS at all.

  • Jimmy B says:

    He is pioneer and a visionary. An excellent article.

  • jg says:

    Tom is one of my heroes too. I still own my original 1984 Ritchey Commando.

  • dphoenix says:

    Tom needs a helmet on

  • PK says:

    are those disc brake comments serious? He can’t actually think a rim is just like a large rotor!

  • typenschild delete says:

    It’s odd how he switches from talking about the type of riding he does every day (gravel, 25c tires or more), but when talking about road discs starts talking UCI and what the pros will or won’t use.

    The argument for “road” discs seems to be coming less from the pros and more from the consumers -those out riding every day, those who want to use fatter rubber and tackle gravel roads. Those who DO want to stop differently than they do when using rim brakes.

  • Eric from around Boulder says:

    Funny. Lacking fat tires and disc brakes never prevented me from enjoying gravel roads.

  • Craig says:

    Really enjoyed the article, but its probably because Tom just confirmed many of the conclusions I’ve come to about bikes and cycling after drinking the modern bike technology “cool aid”. As a 12 month commuter and mountain biker I agree that the disc best performs in wet conditions, but after comparing linear response style rim brakes to hydraulic discs over the last winter I found the advantages miniscule. I’m glad there are manufacturers and builders continuing to provide options in more traditional designs that were evolved over more than a century.

  • siclmn says:

    Like all old steel framebuilders will tell you, the old way was good enough and it still is. This may be true but, I like the new cool aid and I drink it up.
    Carbon is king and it aint going away soon.

  • Terrence says:

    Carbon is king for the time being. Currently, there is a slight backlash because the ride quality is diminishing in the effort to make bikes lighter and stiffer. I have two carbon road bikes, two aluminum road bikes and one steel road bike. The steelie is definitely the nicest ride of the bunch, but I do race on the carbon bikes and one my aluminum ones. I agree about his statement about rims being thecaliper on the traditional braking system. We roadies love fads, but they really don’t do anything to improve our rides even if they burn a bigger hole in our wallets. Perfect example of of this is HED. HED has never and will never use ceramic bearings in their wheels. Coincidence? I think not. HED claims that they are just a way to get more money from consumers, When the speed guru (Steve Hed) makes a bold statement like that, there has to be validity to it.

  • DrSmile says:

    Thanks for selling the Breakaway Tom! It’s opened up a whole new world of vacation cycling to me and I’m very grateful to you for making that available.

  • TBG says:

    Yes, a rim is a big disc. One that is laced to spokes and not easily or cheaply replaced and with a narrow braking surface. Since we ride around on those rims and we don’t want sidewall failure we use pad compounds that are softer so we get more life out of the rims.

    From the aspect of overheating that is a bigger catastrophe on rims as your comes off, not common but it happens, saw it on the lower slopes of Ventoux…ouch. The mechanical aspect and physical strain on hands and forearms should be discussed too. We all know good disc brakes made true 1 finger braking possible and sustainable.

    I too can ride gravel just fine on a road bike and rim brakes, because like Tom, I have been doing forever and like to explore. Not everyone in the cycling world though is graced with natural balance, and skill to navigate on a road bike in crappy conditions.

    In time they can learn, like most of us did. Or, they can get a boost from technology, speed up the process. Find the joy we all have in these endeavors, I see no harm in that. Heck, just because I used ride gnarled singletrack on 50mm forks just means I have more historical knowledge and riding skills. It doesn’t make me a better person than the guy that wants to learn, and I don’t want to go back there.

  • Peter Locke says:

    LOL. Back when I first rode with Jobst and George Koenig, about the spring of 56, we were still gluing the tires on the rims, I think Jobst was the one who suggested to me that I stop partway down the hill, and turn the wheel around so that it would slide in the other direction.. You’d do that 3 or 4 times coming down from Mt Hamilton.

  • Len says:

    I wonder how many poor fools out there still believe the marketing hype over someone who actually knows what they’re talking about like Tom Ritchey?

    “I saw it in an ad in a glossy magazine, so it must be true. So what if that other guy has been in the business for 40 years and has forgotten more about bikes and bike tech than 99.99999999999% of ppl know?”

    Sigh. Kids.

  • Road Bikes says:

    it’s very good for me……thanks….

  • Square Tapir says:

    Ritchey’s components also have a lot of sensible innovation and design. His ideas are clearly the product of experience and practical thinking.

    Titanium offers some real benefits of both steel- durability, ride quality- and carbon- vibration damping, quite light. Too bad it is so expensive, but used Ti frames can be a good value.

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