TOMAC TUESDAY – AN INTERVIEW WITH MOUNTAIN BIKING’S ORIGINAL ICON

The legend continues

John Tomac was the 1991 UCI World Champion in cross-country and the runner-up in downhill, but he was also one of the best dual slalom riders of his time, as seen here at Big Bear, California. Photo by John Ker/Mountain Bike Action

Story and interview by Steve Thomas

John Tomac is perhaps the greatest mountain bike racer of all time and a true icon of the early days of fat-tire style.

The mere mention of his name brings a hot flush to any mountain biker of a certain age. American racer John Tomac was one of the original greats of the early days of mountain biking, a racer who could go out and win world titles and World Cups in both cross-country and downhill in the same weekend, and all off the back of a pro BMX career and sandwiched between riding the great road classics and grand tours. This all-American hero quite possibly stands as the most well-rounded bike racer of all time; however, it was not just his results that made Jonny T the defining icon of the sport in that era; it was his crisp good looks, his humble nature, and his racing showmanship that made him the mountain biker we all wanted to be—the James Dean of fat tire racing.

Sadly, the legend of Tomac is somewhat lost on younger riders, which is a cultural sin. We caught up with the original to talk about his racing career, his life as a rancher, and about managing his son Eli’s flourishing motocross career.

Shown here at the ‘95 Cactus Cup, Tomac was the first XC star who was as well-known for his jumping skills as he was for his endurance. Photo by John Ker/Mountain Bike Action

 

Where exactly are you living?

I’m in Cortez, which is a bit west of Durango, southwest Colorado. I was in Durango most of the time while I was a mountain bike racer, and then in the last two years of my career, I was in Cortez.

You have a ranch. What is the setup?

Yeah, we have a working ranch. We sell retail hay, basically bailed animal feed.

We have a small vineyard that my wife makes red wine out of, and I have some cattle, beef cattle also.

Obviously, the world, communication and cycling have changed a great deal since the 1990s, and the rumors were always of you taking on marathon training rides. How did you train back then?

I probably did some of the most volume for a top-level mountain biker at that time, because I was also racing on the road. I did a lot of volume, but I also did the right amount of intensity.

I did do a lot of work, and I tended to do most of it by myself. I didn’t really want to let people know what I was doing, although it wasn’t too hard to figure it out if you were Ned Overend and lived in the same town.

People would see me see me leave my house at 8–9 a.m. and see me come back at 2–3 p.m. and know pretty much what I’d done that day.

”Johnny T” rode with drop bars in 1990 while splitting his time between road and mountain bike races. Photo by Zapata Espinoza/Mountain Bike Action

 

Was your training very technical for the time or more old school?

I was fairly technical, really. Back then, we didn’t have power meters, but I always wore a heart-rate monitor, which was as techy as we got. I was pretty religious with it, and I liked to study that, and I was pretty interested in the training aspect while I was doing it.

At that time, they were just starting to map out workloads related to heart rate, and the only watts we saw were when we did tests at training centers. We didn’t have power meters on bicycles.

That was about as technical as you could get, and I was also savvy enough to do volume when I could. But when I was racing or during the season, I didn’t do that much. I backed it down and brought up the intensity.

Long ago, we saw images of you cross-country skiing in winter. Did you do much cross-training?

Yeah, I did do cross-country skiing, and I still do quite a bit in the winters. I really love that sport. If I’m not with my boy Eli in California, that is (training him for motocross).

Back then, I cross-country skied, dirt biked, ran a little bit, hiked a bit; it was kind of what I would do in the off-season. Once I got into the season, from December–January, I was pretty much on the bicycle or doing gym work.

That was also something that I did, and I think it was a little bit different from what the other guys were doing. I did a lot of gym work all the way through the season. I was pretty tuned in to trying to keep my power all through the season.

After his years spent riding for Yeti, Raleigh and Giant, Tomac closed out his career riding for his own brand aboard a bike that he and Doug Bradbury designed. Photo by John Ker/Mountain Bike Action

You worked with Aaron Gwin for a while. How differently did you train him compared to your original ways and balance that with modern technology and demands?

I did my last few seasons as a downhiller only, and I did all my own programs. I had my race team, and I worked the training programs for the riders on my team. I was into what I felt downhillers needed and what worked for them.

I did my own program for the last couple of years, and I ended up training Gwin. I think a big part it was about fitting him into a structure so that he did his work, and if he kept doing the work and built on it, that he would end up in a really good spot.

I kinda did that with [Loic] Bruni, too. I trained him for a couple of years. I think it was maybe a little bit different from what other guys were doing at the time, but it’s hard to say because I’m not really embedded in gravity mountain biking anymore.

When I see the athletes now, they look pretty fit to me, so they’re doing the work. The downhill guys mostly look pretty strong. I think I was doing that [same] stuff, but maybe with a little bit more volume than the guys are doing now.

In the early days of mountain biking, many riders raced all disciplines, but things soon moved on, and yet you performed at the highest level in cross-country and downhill throughout that time and also transitioned into the pro road scene (after being a pro BMXer). How did you balance that from a training standpoint?

From when I started (mountain biking) in about ’86 all the way through ’96, I really built everything around cross-country racing and training.

Whatever I could accomplish in downhill was kind of happening without me focusing on it. That was one of the reasons that I wanted to focus on it during my last couple of years, because I wanted to give that discipline a real 100-percent effort to see what I could do with it.

Tomac pulled double duty at 1994’s Mammoth Mountain World Cup race. He placed second in the downhill but ran out of energy in the XC race after staging an attack on the leaders in the last lap. Photo: Mountain Bike Action

 

When you switched fully to downhill, how did you change your training?

There was a lot more intensity and gym work. My racing weight for cross-country was 163 pounds (74 kilograms) at the end of ’96. When I came out in the spring of ’97, I was 183 pounds (84 kilograms). I just put on 20 pounds of muscle. A lot of that was upper-body muscle, because you don’t have/need a lot of that for cross-country.

I was putting a lot of emphasis on heavier lifting in the gym and more sprints. I didn’t ride over two to three hours anymore unless I just wanted to do it. As far as training went, I rarely went over two hours.

When you switched fully to downhill you were in your mid-30s, whereas most downhillers were a little younger. Courses were also starting to get more extreme. What’s your thought on this?

I think that in the late ’90s/early 2000s our courses were the most extreme—at least in the U.S. they got pretty gnarly. I was building, and we were doing some course designs. We were on really gnarly and steep terrain. I think it kinda backed off and then got a little more reasonable again.

I kind of got to see it all, which was pretty neat. When I started, we didn’t have any suspension and had index shifting. We used toe straps and clips. When I finished, I was on a bike with 8 inches of travel and with disc brakes, basically a motocross bike without a motor on it. It was pretty cool to see all of that happen.

Tomac was always open to experimenting with new technology, which is what found him on this prototype Giant suspension bike designed by Paul Turner. Photo by John Ker/Mountain Bike Action

 

What do you ride these days?

I ride a Specialized Stumpjumper, and for the most part I ride 130mm to 150mm of travel, just because I’m more of a trail rider. I kind of ride all terrain, up and down a mountain or doing cross-country; occasionally, I’ll hit a bike park. I feel that works on everything.

What do you make of modern-day race circuits and formats and how technical courses have become? Is it a departure from the original ideals of the sport?

Not at all. I watched the World Championships the other week, the cross-country, and I thought that the downhill on the course was pretty good. The style of racing they do nowadays would have suited me really well, because they build circuits with technical downhills, shorter climbs, and the races are shorter, too. That would have really been in my wheelhouse on the World Cup side and the World Championship side. I blew myself up many times at two hours, or flatted, or just couldn’t quite keep up on extended climbs or whatever. The racing we used to do is marathon racing now, not cross-country. The downhills, they seem to me that they’re a little bit too man-made, too many jumps, banked corners, and I’m not a fan of that. I still like stuff like the World’s course (2020) in the forest; to me, that’s the real deal.

“The Tomes” experimented with the aero benefits of drop bars in his mountain bike races in 1990. Photo by Zapata Espinoza/Mountain Bike Action

 

You were always pretty much a privateer and looked after your own affairs, which has changed now as teams are more dominant. Now you look after Eli’s motocross career. With the advent of social media and the internet, how much has that side of things changed?

It’s similar in a lot of ways, but the whole social media thing is…it’s just a whole new ball game in that regard. That side of marketing is just so different than it used to be, and I’m really happy that I didn’t have to deal with that, because I wouldn’t have liked it. I don’t feel the need to tell anybody what I’m up to or what I think about things.

You always had an enigmatic and pristine image and were a marketer’s dream. Who cultivated that?

I think it organically happened, a little bit. The sport was really young when I started, and I was a really young guy in a really young sport that was growing super fast. I just think that I was a really good tool for marketing companies at the time. I realized that, and I tried to leverage that the best I could. It was just really good timing for me.

I’m grateful for the time I had in mountain biking and that I was able to be there from ’86 to 2000. That was a really cool time in mountain biking. That was a really great time for mountain biking, and I feel that people who were involved then will talk about how special it was back then.

Another race, another national title. Photo by John Ker/Mountain Bike Action

 

A few years later, doping seemed to become apparent in mountain biking. How did that change the feel of it for you?

It was disappointing on the cross-country side, because I saw it coming. I saw it happening and knew that there wasn’t a lot I could do about it but try to do the best I could.

I won some World Cups during that mid ’90s era, but they were few and far between. I remember that in ’96 I had really good cross-country form, and I feel like the ’96 World Cup final in Hawaii was the fastest I ever cross-country raced in my life. I was at the best I could be, the peak form I could achieve—and I got fifth place and said to myself, “Hey, that’s as good as I can be.”

Tomac’s likable personality, good looks, and incredible riding ability made him the most highly valued mountain biker in the world in the early 1990s. Photo: Mountain Bike Action

 

Can you tell us a little about your time in the bike industry with Tomac Bikes?

I’d always been pretty techy with everything that I was working with on the bike side, and so it was always something I was very involved with.

With the companies I’ve worked with in the past, I worked pretty closely with all of them on the technical features of the products. I wanted to build bikes, competitive World Cup bikes, and we did that at the time, and it was really fun.

Doug (Bradbury, of Manitou) was a really good guy, and we were good working partners. He was able to fabricate what I wanted and what I wanted to feel in a bike.

We started that in ’98/’99, and in 2000 I was racing Tomac bikes, running and managing the race team and building and selling bikes.

We never had a lot of production numbers, but we were building exactly what we were racing and selling them. At that time, they were built in Colorado, and so it was a pretty cool project.

But, it wasn’t going to last; the outsourcing, the Asian production, the pricing of those bikes, you couldn’t compete with it.

We could have stayed more, making 500 frames or so a year, but you’d kinda get trapped in that. We tried to go bigger, but you can’t really do it that way as you end up having to take on bigger partners, and that’s the route we took.

Pre-racing the Olympic course in Georgia in 1995. Photo by John Ker/Mountain Bike Action

 

When the name John Tomac is mentioned, two iconic images spring to mind; the dropped-bar Yeti with a Tioga disc wheel and the full-black skinsuit. How much of this was based on marketing and how much on practicality?

The Pearl Izumi speed suits were very much functional. The disc wheel was somewhat functional, but it was a massive marketing tool for Tioga. It wasn’t something that you’d necessarily go out and say, “I’m going to spend four to five hundred dollars on a wheel,” and get a massive performance gain. It was better than spokes for the most part, on a hardtail rear, because it was a softer ride.

Unless you were racing down the Kamikaze, then aerodynamics for a mountain bike wasn’t a big deal, but it was a great marketing tool for Tioga.

The dropped bars—the only reason I did that was because I was riding on the road professionally at the time, and I just wanted my bikes to be the same. It was definitely a sacrifice on the descents of cross-country courses and especially in the downhill races I did on them at that time.

Of all the bikes, trophies and memories from your career, if you had to narrow it down to a corner of your garage, what would be there?

My World Championship in Italy (1991) where I won the cross-country and was 2nd in the downhill was pretty special as a racing event. I was on some really good form at that time, and I was also road racing at the time. It was a heavy schedule, and I managed it properly and made it work.

It was pretty cool when Doug and I built the bikes, the downhill bike, and I was able to ride it at a pretty high World Cup level.

But then I think back to the very first races I did back in ’86/’87. It was just different, so new, so young and so cool. I got to do so much—BMX, cross-country, downhill, slalom and road cycling. I got to experience a lot of disciplines, which was also a great experience.

 

JOHN TOMAC GALLERY

The racing world first took notice of Tomac when he won the 1986 Ross Stage Race aboard the chromed Mongoose bike. Photo: Mountain Bike Action

 

MBA and Tomac enjoyed a symbiotic relationship in the late 80s that served each other well. In fact, he appeared in our photo shoots so often that people began to refer to the magazine as “Tomac Bike Action”
Shortly after his summer-long stint with Yeti Cycles, Raleigh jumped in with a hefty contract offer and JT rewarded them with an XC world title in 1991. The carbon/titanium signature bike they made for him was one of the most expensive production bikes at the time. Photo by Sean McCoy/Mountain Bike Action

Test riding a Jamis Dakar for our second issue, November 1986.
Photo by Mike Van Camp

John Tomac also spent some time as a test rider for BMX Plus! Magazine when he was an up-and-coming pro BMX racer in the mid-1980s, right before he switched from BMX to mountain biking.  Photo by John Ker/BMX Plus!

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