Old Skool x New School

Tom Ritchey and The Bicycle Academy

When the Old Skool meets the New School. Legend Tom Ritchey and The Bicycle Academy.

Words: Mike Rose
Photos: Adam Gasson (event), James Hoppe (bike studio shots)
Video: Alex Rankin

This was my first visit to The Bicycle Academy (TBA), and it didn’t disappoint, it was everything I had hoped it would be. It literally was the coolest workshop you could imagine. Walking in through the doors, at first glance there was just too much to take in. There was the smell, a combination of metal, gas, concrete and grease, but that may have just been my imagination playing tricks on me. There were bits of steel, vices, files, hammers, cycling posters, bike frames, half completed projects, photos, cool ‘shit’, helmets, toys… just stuff… good stuff, and it was everywhere. It felt like I was walking into some kind of secret world, but in reality this place is open to all.

Steel benches stood next to pairs of gas tanks (Oxy and Acetylene… of course) brooding and torpedo–like… “these could blow the roof off the place” I thought to myself. Randomly dressed people were hunched over flaming blue torches. Some in ‘dudes’ shades, others in the more customary welder’s glasses. And it wasn’t all boiler suits and steel toecaps – more like shorts, T-shirts and Vans. I’m sure that H&S would have had a field day, but it all seem very much above board (it is).

As I scanned the room for familiar faces almost everyone seemed to fit the mould and looked like they were meant to be there. But (of course) there was one person that stood out a little. The Charles Bronson handlebar moustache was a bit of a giveaway, but this guy had an air about him. Tall, slim, athletic, he kind of floated around the room. Even though he was dressed in his work-gear (T-shirt, khaki pants, Crocs and his trademark flip-up welding glasses), there was a grace to him. All–knowing, comfortable in his own skin, not out to impress anyone, a calmness. This of course was Tom Richey, the reason we were all at TBA… one of the founding fathers of our beloved mountain bike. It was he who had built the first production mountainbike frame way back in the late 1970s.

I’d arrived a little early, and there was already stuff going on, but Tom didn’t really seem to be saying much. He was taking it all in, setting up, preparing. The environment was familiar to him, but of course this wasn’t his home workshop. Things were a little different here on this side of the pond.
We sat down at around ten in TBA’s kitchen, and over a coffee/tea introductions were made. Ritchey just sat there, calmly and quietly, but unnervingly silent. A question was put to him by Andrew Denham (founder of TBA and organiser of the event), “Tom, would you like to explain why you started fillet brazing…”, and the floodgates opened. Softly spoken, full of character, honest and humble, one of mountainbike’s true pioneers started to talk… and talk… and talk. I think he must have spoken for about an hour, all from just that one first question, but we were all rapt, in awe. His relaxed Californian accent lulling us into a mountainbiking stupor.

He talked about a lot of things. About his life, the industry, insider stories that he said not many people had ever heard. Of course there was some history, but mainly the story kept coming back to making bikes and especially his love affair with steel. He talked about the reasons that things were certain sizes (bottom brackets, hubs, etc.), certain geometries, about why if you suddenly start messing around with these sizes and their relationships with one another that it has a knock on effect to everything else. He quite often came back to the issue of clearance (specifically the tyre and chainring) and why they are crucial when building a mountainbike frame… the heart and soul. Essential elements.

Ritchey was of course a road racer and frame builder before mountainbikes came about. He had honed his craft and built his reputation many years before he saw Joe Breeze’s ‘Balloner’ bike on the street outside his workshop (Breeze had come to order a tandem for himself and Otis Guy). Ritchey liked the bike and thought that it would be a cool idea to build one. The next day he received a call from none other than Gary Fisher – Breeze had run into him and mentioned his conversation with Ritchey – and Fisher asked if he could build him one too. Ritchey agreed, and also built a third one… and that is how it all started. One of the things that stood him apart from his contemporaries was the fact that he had moved away from using fixed geometry lugs. These were holding back frame design, and by getting rid of these Ritchey basically revolutionised the way in which a bike frame could be made, and in turn what it could be used for. It enabled him to alter geometries and use tubes with different diameters and thicknesses. This was a pioneering move, and it was just the start in the development of the mountainbike frame that we know today.

Back at TBA the first (main) day was split into two parts. The day-time was a ‘Brazing Masterclass’ for a small group of Ritchey fans who had come along to learn from the great master, and then the evening was a ‘live brazing’ demo, with more people, beer, pizza, a film showing and a photo exhibition. The aim of the day was to show those in attendance Ritchey’s techniques but also to braze up a specially designed 650b frame that TBA and he had been working on, the “old skool meets new school” theme made flesh. It was a collaboration between the two parties, dreamt up and designed in the weeks and months leading up to the event, and it evolved in the background during the day as various people worked on it. The final brazes would be completed in the evening in front of the eager crowd and then on day two the bike would be ridden. From a pile of tubes to complete bike in less than 24 hours.

In the day-time session Ritchey would show us the way he did it. As the saying goes, “there are many ways to skin a cat”, and so too it seems when it comes to brazing (not welding) a bicycle. Whilst TBA go for the ‘one pass’ approach, building and shaping the fillet on one go (using a 3-5mm cone on the torch), Ritchey uses a technique of two passes, building up and flowing the braze around the joint (with a 8-10mm cone), then taking another pass to persuade the liquid braze to do what he wanted it to do. He described it as “a dance”. The TBA way seemed more mechanical (not in a bad way), whilst the Ritchey way had an almost organic feel to it. The molten metal being gently manipulated and massaged into the desired position and form. Both methods produce the same end result, a solid joint, but visually they are quite different. We all had a go. For some (myself included) it was the first time, but for others they already had the basics dialled, so this was more of a progression for them. Denham and Ritchey walked around offering insight and taking-in the way each other went about the process, giving advice as they went.

It was a relaxed day, and in the very industrial setting Ritchey’s presence and calmness as he went about his job softened the whole place. Jazz wafted out of the speakers and through the room. I felt like we were momentarily transported to Ritchey’s own workshop in the hills above San Carlos in Northern California as he showed us how he did it. We really were watching a master at work. Laid back energy at its best. It was fascinating to watch, scrutinising his every move. Watching how he handled the half built frame. Twisting and turning it. Resting it on his shoulder, the classic double diamond appearing before our eyes.

The day flew by, but as soon as we stopped late in the afternoon there was a different atmosphere in the room. Over 50 people were expected to attend the evening session, and the workshop needed to made ready. Photos were still being mounted in the makeshift gallery, the film needed setting up… stuff just needed doing.

As things in the workshop were moved around chain and seat stays were joined to dropouts on the collab bike. The frame was growing around us. It felt like they were cutting it a bit fine, but nobody seemed to be too stressed about it.

The evening was a huge success. At around 8pm the place was packed. Once again Ritchey started off quietly. Silently sitting down, sparking up his torch, flipping his glasses down, adjusting the flame… and then he set about his business. For a moment it felt like he wasn’t going to say anything. But just like earlier in the day, once he started talking the floodgates opened. People were transfixed. I got the feeling that if people could they would have stayed there all night listening to the great man. “Somebody should write a book about all this”. One day, one day.

I had to miss day two, but by all accounts Ritchey displayed an almost childlike joy as he rode the new bike (helmetless of course!) through the Bristol woods. Overnight (and as if by magic) the bike had been completed, stickered (raw finish) and built up with components.

Ritchey and a big procession of excited young builders rode around Ashton Court, plus a few others who’d heard about the secret “once in a lifetime” ride. A few locals couldn’t quite believe their eyes seeing “the” Tom Ritchey riding there. Food and beer followed, and of course there was a lot of chat, before Ritchey and his wife headed off to London to catch their flights home.

Tom Ritchey and The Bicycle Academy’s main man Andrew Denham.

I don’t say this lightly, but it only really dawned on me during my drive home that I had actually been in the presence of mountainbiking royalty. When it comes to exploring the roots and origins of the mountainbike it doesn’t really get any better. It may sound a bit grand, but he is a kind of Hendrix, Bowie or Dylan type of figure for mountainbikers, with an almost God-like status in the sport. This was a real coup for Andrew Denham and the team at TBA, one that they should be congratulated on. What a day. More please.

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