In September 2016 Tom Ritchey, who should need no introduction, visited the UK’s premier frame building school, The Bicycle Academy, for the first of TBA’s Old Skool x New School demonstrations, and it was a learning experience for everyone involved.
Tom is one of mountain biking’s most innovative figures, having designed and produced many concepts that have today become standards throughout the sport, such as modernized mountain bike geometry and front and rear-specific tire tread patterns.
Ritchey Design was founded by Tom in 1974 and he’s still president and lead designer there. He doesn’t build frames as much these days, but he has made a vast number of them, and he came to the UK to share his knowledge with The Bicycle Academy.
The Old Skool x New School demonstration consisted of a Fillet Brazing Masterclass during the day, with Tom and Andrew Denham — founder of TBA — showing Tom’s personal style of using heat and brass to assemble a frame.
The frame was designed by Tony Corke and Andrew, and Tom Sturdy prepped the tubes. Tom Ritchey then brazed the main tubes together, which Andrew and Sturdy finished off, brazing the bridge & braze-ons. The rear dropouts were TIG welded by Paul Burford.
For an extra insight, I asked Andrew what tips he was able to glean from watching Tom work: “Tom (Ritchey)’s signature 2-pass brazing technique is something which is instantly recognizable both on the bike, and when watching him, torch in hand. It’s the proportions of the fillets and the way he moves the flame and frame around.
“The first pass is used to get a lot of heat into the join, quickly, so that he can flow the brass all around. The second tops up the volume and then, as he puts it, he’s “doing the dance” with both frame and flame so that he can control the distribution of the brass around the joint with a combination of focussed heat and gravity.
“At The Bicycle Academy we use a different technique, where we create the volume and form of the fillets in one slower pass, whetting the puddle forwards into the seam of the joint as we go to produce either a smooth fillet, for carving, or the ‘stacked coin’ look for those who want to leave their fillets raw.
“We achieve the two different finishes by varying the working temperature of the puddle and how frequently we reposition the frame to maintain constant control of the puddle.”
Geometry is a crucial factor in the success of a custom frame, so I wondered how this frame was designed: “We designed the frame to be reasonably neutral to ride, it’s got conservative trail bike geometry and is sized as a medium so that it could be enjoyed my as many people as possible.
“We wanted the bike to be recognizably a Ritchey so getting the proportions right was important. But at the same time, we wanted to mix things up a bit, and update the geometry from the current offerings by shortening the back end so that it rides really well on the tight and twisty stuff that we love in the UK.
Andrew continues: “(The front center was) lengthened by the same amount, and finally, we made sure that the BB was a little lower than standard so that the combined center of gravity would be better for carving fast turns.
“It still climbs really well, has the right proportions, but the BB has been shifted back and down a little to keep things fresh on the downs.”
It was interesting to hear of Tom’s impression of The Bicycle Academy, too. “Tom was super impressed by The Bicycle Academy,” Andrew said. “He’d first heard about us from some Ritchey employees and knew a bit about what we’ve got going on, but until he came here he hadn’t fully appreciated the strength of the scene here at TBA and the effectiveness of the way that we teach.
“He really admired the level of detail that we go into and the fact that we teach the underlying engineering principles along with the hand skills. It was a real privilege to show him what we do, up close and unedited.
Seeing as how Tom is so entrenched within the US frame building scene, I wondered what his impression of the UK frame building scene and industry. Andrew filled me in: “A group of builders came down to go for a ride with Tom on the second day of the event. All young builders. Tom spent time talking to each of them, riding their bikes and giving encouragement.
“He told us a story of how his first experience of the UK frame building scene was back in the 70s and 80s when he would get asked by locals to repair beautiful, but poorly made, frames and forks made by acclaimed British builders.
“It was how he realized that he could do better and one of the reasons he’s so keen to emphasize the importance of functional quality, not just artistry.”
I asked Andrew if Tom had any insights into the current state of the custom market. He replied, “Tom has always been involved in production, and while he clearly has huge respect — and admiration — for the many custom builders out there, he’s most excited about seeing people creating high quality products whilst increasing their production. Batch builders and small brands seeking to make more than one frame at a time.
Tom completed the frame in front of 50 onlookers during an intimate evening at the Academy, followed by a screening of TBA’s infamous Hack Bike Derby film, accompanied by local beers and pizzas. Sounds like a great night in.
The finished frame is an incredible example of both Tom’s style and the vision of The Bicycle Academy. The luminary to appear at the next Old Skool x New School demonstration hasn’t been announced yet, but whoever it will be, it’ll again provide a rare opportunity to learn from the best.
Alex Rankin made an awesome short film about the event: