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: