John Tomac is one of the most recognizable and iconic riders mountain biking has ever known. During a racing career that spanned decades, John won major national and international titles in four disciplines and proved he is one of the most talented all-around riders to ever hit two wheels. More recently, his son Eli has also seen success as a Supercross racer, proving the legendary Tomac versatility isn’t limited to human-powered machines. We sat down with Johnny T to find out what made him—and his moto-racing prodigy son—the successful racers they are today.
How did your riding career start?
I started riding BMX bikes in the mid ’70s. I raced BMX from the age of 7 up to the age of 17. I stopped BMX racing in 1985 and started to transition into mountain biking at that time.
Were you into moto or other sports prior to your success on a bike?
I played some other team sports, but I really focused on my BMX racing as a youth. I also had interest in motocross, but I did not really race or ride any moto in my youth.
At what point did you realize you could make your living as a professional mountain biker?
In 1986 I won my first major national-level race as a mountain bike pro, the Ross Fat Tire Stage Race, at the age of 18. Mongoose offered me a professional contract to race mountain bikes for 1987. At that point I knew I could cut it as a mountain bike pro.
If you had to pick one particular bike as your favorite, which one would it be? A World Championship winner? One with your name on the downtube? Or simply whichever one you’re riding at the moment?
My favorite bike is the Tomac 204 Magnum DH bike. It was a ground-up bike developed by Doug Bradbury and myself for World Cup racing back in ’98, and it could still easily be a World Cup- level downhill bike. We did a lot of revolutionary design work with that bike that is actually now starting to trickle into the market- place. We basically had a Boost-style rear hub and bottom bracket spacing back in ’98. We had our own specific bottom brackets and rear hubs made so that we could have a symmetrical rear wheel for spoke angle, increasing rigidity and strength. It also allowed us to have a much more solid main pivot swingarm connection and a wider stance for the whole rear-end assembly. It was a very solid design that really performed well.
You raced at a time when “mountain biker” meant that a rider had to be skilled in downhill, cross-country and everything in between to be considered successful. You raced several different disciplines, sometimes even on the same bike. How do you feel about this change in the sport, where now the disciplines require such specific equipment and training?
That is all normal evolution of a sport. I consider it special to have been able to race fully rigid mountain bikes all the way up to 8-inch-travel downhill bikes. I experienced the full evolution of the mountain bike. Really, from 2000 up to the present day, things have not changed all that much other than weight and wheel sizes. However, from 1985 through 2000, drastic and revolutionary changes in frame construction, suspension, brake, shifting and pedal systems happened. As the bikes became specialized [and became more specific to their disciplines], so did the athletes. I always enjoyed all aspects of mountain bike racing and stayed involved and competitive in both gravity and cross-country disciplines.
Who were the key people along the way who helped you with your riding and racing success?
I had my bother-in-law Robby Rupe at the time back in ’85 who showed me some of my first mountain bike experiences. I also had a friend, Byron Friday, who I rode and raced with a lot back in the day. Those two were quite influential in my first exposure to mountain biking. Mongoose was also a very important sponsor that supported me the first three or four years of my professional mountain biking career. I also had support from Bell and Oakley early in my career, and I still work with them to this day. That’s over 25 years of steady support.
We heard a rumor you used to pedal to the top of the downhill tracks rather than taking the chairlift with the other competitors. Can you confirm this?
Yes, I used to call this “paying the gravity gods.” But in reality, if the timing was correct, sometimes I would climb the mountain for warm-up. I was used to this, doing big warm-ups for the downhill. But I was also really fit. I was a good World Cup cross-country racer at the time. Climbing up the mountain was no big deal. If the mountain was short, it was also a waste of time to sit in line for a lift or shuttle, so I would just ride up the hill.
You’ve adopted your training pro- gram to several different riding disciplines. How have the training needs for racers changed over the years?
Well, once the disciplines became specialized, you had to adapt for each type of racing. For example, Slalom or 4-Cross racing requires very BMX style training (sprint and strength oriented). DH requires power with a mix of some endurance, and cross-country of course is a full-on endurance sport. I was always quite specific and scientific about my training. I always trained with a purpose and goal. I was somewhat self-taught with my training plans, but I had a lot of good advisors along the way. I always studied the training aspect of the sport.
How did Eli get started on two wheels? Was he always a moto guy, or did he start on a mountain bike first?
Eli raced BMX first, when he was 4 or 5. Then he transitioned to motocross at age 6. He seemed to really enjoy the moto, so that’s the sport we did with him as a youngster. He has always ridden mountain bikes. He really likes it and has done a few cross-country races. Mountain biking is also an important part of his training plan now.
What has your role been with Eli as he’s grown as a Supercross racer?
I now do some ride coaching, training plans and also help him manage the business side of being a professional. I did all of this for myself during my 15-year professional mountain biking career, so I have valuable experience that helps guide him in all these areas. I always helped him with the sport as he was growing up. As he became older and reached higher levels, I would simply get more detailed with his program. I had to be careful not to overdo it in his early years. I held back a bit on purpose so that he could be fresh and motivated as a pro. I didn’t want him burnt out at the age of 18.
What advice can you give to an aspiring rider or racer who wants to go pro?
The most important thing is that you love the sport. You have to enjoy the work of being pro. It’s not easy if you want be great. You have to grind it out daily. If you don’t have that, you will not succeed at high levels. Then, of course, the next important thing is to have good planning for training and racing and also pay attention to your equipment. Optimize your bike and make it work for you.
What can you tell us about Tomac bikes? We’d be thrilled to see a resurgence of the brand that’s made so many cool bikes over the years. Will Tomac bikes be making a come- back?
I am currently licensing the Tomac brand to Planet X USA. The bikes are available at www.planet-x-usa.com. We currently have a carbon fat bike, the “Hesperus”; a carbon 29 hardtail, the “Lone Mesa”; a carbon ’cross bike, the “Mesa Verde”; and a carbon gravel grinder, the “Montezuma.” I really hope to bring some additional trailbikes into the line soon, so keep an eye out for future offerings.
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