Being Frank – Best American Bike Racer


Brent Graves Cane Creek
Brent Graves, President and CEO

I rode Tomac off my wheel, and despite knowing that he was ill, recently retired, and not training, it was a surreal experience – one I’ll never forget and one he’ll never remember! For those of you not familiar with arguably the best American bicycle racer to date (“All-time” is a stupid thing to say as who knows what the future holds). Argue you may, but John Tomac was the fat tire version of A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti. They raced everything and won. I won’t go into a full bio here, but Tomac was a BMX national champion, a criterium national champion, a World Downhill champion, and won multiple national and international cross country and downhill titles. He even won at the highest level of mountain bike racing while at the same time competing in the greatest professional road races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders for top tier teams like Motorola. And he did it all with a unique style and grit that made him a fan favorite the world over. But that’s all public knowledge. Here’s the first time the story of my triumphant day has been shared.

While working for Manitou during its heyday in the late 90s and early 2000s, my initial job was to take OEM business from then-dominant Rock Shox. Manitou was killing it in the aftermarket, but Rock Shox owned the business with bike brands. While Rock Shox performed test rides with product managers, our tactic was to take it to another level and impress product managers with not only our product but our riding prowess as well – if memory serves me correct we won the Sea Otter Industry Cup two years in a row, and had great riders like Tom Rogers and Joel Smith. Thus Answer Camp was conceived. These were camps that we staged near Phoenix from 1999 through 2001. We parked the race trailer at a trailhead complete with the best technicians in the business and complemented the set-up with our complete product team. In 2001 this formula reached its zenith with us entertaining media and product managers for nineteen straight days. The days consisted of three to five one-hour or so rides that inevitably turned into races as egos and adrenaline rose.

Manitou was created some years before by a dirt biker mountain man by the name of Doug Bradbury. He and Johnny T were close friends, and at times business partners, that were both paid ambassadors for the Manitou brand. So they made their way to Phoenix for the ’01 Answer Camp. Tomac had an additional reason to attend – his young son Eli was racing the KTM future champions (and oh what a champion Eli has become!) event at the Phoenix Supercross. In 2001 Bradbury and Tomac were still rock stars in the mountain bike world that the journalists and product managers loved to be around. So what about that story you ask.

At dinner one night the banter was heavier than usual, and I think Joel Smith promised to drop Johnny on the climb in the morning. The glove had been thrown down. We were at South Mountain Park, and the following day’s ride plan called for taking pavement up for a couple of miles to the top of the technical “downhill” trail. So after breakfast I found myself in the midst of howling knobbies as we approached the start of the “race”. First Joel and then others one by one attacked out of the group. I was torched after two weeks of camp, but when Bradbury took off – I mean he was OLD, like in his fifties – I followed. Soon I found my legs and started catching riders until only Joel and Johnny were up the road. Then as my superior genetics and focus kicked in (what’s the font for sarcasm?), I caught and rode away from the best American bike racer to date. Despite reminding myself that he was retired, ill, and out-of-shape, my glow must have been seen for miles.

But the story is not over. While basking in said glow for about a mile, I was nearly knocked off my bike buy a blur that was none other than Tomac blasting past at TWICE my rate of speed. How… could… this… be? My scrambled brain could not make sense of this. How I even continued to pedal I don’t know. Then around a bend I see I helmet drop behind a rock, and as I passed by Johnny had his finger to his lips. Confusion transformed to enlightenment when the passenger van came by with Johnny clinging to the rear view mirror at thirty miles per hour. Wily world champion John Tomac had summoned a tow from the van and right before reaching a rider, he’d spring free and pass said sucker at lightspeed. While there was an explanation, I rode the remainder of the climb in a state like one feels after barely missing a certainly fatal car crash. How Tomac did a manual down a stretch of trail I had to walk down is a story for another day.

For more information on John Tomac as well as a video interview check out Bike Magazine’s article: 5 reasons why he’s john tomac and you’re not

Image credit: John Tomac