Mountain Bike Icons – The John Tomac Story

[Words by Steve Thomas]

In terms of mountain biking, there has never been another rider quite like John Tomac, and there probably never will be. From humble beginnings, Johnny T began competing on two wheels at just seven years old and quickly rose to national prominence as a BMX racer before turning pro for Mongoose in 1985.

Despite some success in top-level road racing, mountain biking began to gain prominence in the mid-1980s and Johnny decided to give it a shot. The rest, as they say, is history – and that history was written by the man, the myth and the maestro himself.

tomac2.jpg, by Steve Thomas

The path of dust

In 1986 Joihn left BMX behind and started serious mountain biking. By the end of the decade, he was a highly accomplished off-road racer, and his all-around ability on a bike led him to road racing as well.

In the United States, cycling as a whole was still a very emerging discipline. In Europe, however, road racing was very traditional and a sport largely dominated by the working class, as John discovered when he joined the 7-11 team, the first American professional team to race the Tour de France.

“You can feel that in Europe when you went there in the late 80s/early 90s. You felt like it was a working class sport, which was where I was from. and to that kind of industrial origin of the American Midwest. In America it wasn’t like that – cycling was so aberrant at that time. It just wasn’t on the radar, so you couldn’t really categorize it.

Cycling’s old guard hadn’t quite accepted mountain biking at that time (and maybe even since) and didn’t like the idea of ​​top riders mixing up their races – but that’s exactly what he did. “It was completely different from the mountain bike culture at that time. The original mountain bike culture was quite hippie and based on free living and a free spirit. It evolved quite quickly and became more serious.

“Road cycling has always been quite regimental and strict. It was team oriented and very disciplined team action. I enjoyed that aspect of road cycling so it didn’t necessarily bother me.

The experience of being something of an underdog was nothing new to him, even during his previous BMX-MTB transition. “When I got to mountain biking I was pretty much an outlier. I was a hard working guy who wanted to win. In the mid-80s, it was more about the hippies going out and churning their cruisers. It was definitely different, but I didn’t have a problem with the transition.

In recent years it has become more “acceptable” to mix road and other disciplines at an elite level – at least for a small group of riders (like Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock). Could we see more of this by following the example of Tomac of yore?

“I don’t know. I feel like you can do cross country and probably road racing at a pretty good level if you’re smart about how you do it.

“But, having said that, back then it was normal for guys to do 100 to 120 races a year, that’s exactly what you did. You raced all year. I feel like in the mid-90s, that’s when it started to change.“

Early in his off-road career, John raced it all on a drop-bar bike, which added to Tomac’s conundrum somewhat – although in truth he only did it so he could achieve the same position than on his road bike and he admits that it was a handicap on the descents.


John was not only a star on the cross-country mountain bike circuit, but he was also a demon of downhill racing – and is the only male rider to have won world championship titles in both disciplines, without talk about countless other wins and podiums in both. (even on the same World Cup weekend, which is unimaginable these days).

During the latter part of his racing career, he focused entirely on downhill racing. “I wanted to give this discipline a real 100% effort and see what I could do with it.”

His last two major victories came in the 2004 and 2005 Mammoth Kamikaze, considered the unofficial downhill world championship in pre-UCI times. At that time he also managed his own Tomac Racing team before coaching Aaron Gwinn and Loïc Bruni.


tomac1.jpg, by Steve Thomas

The new generation of Tomac

Despite his fairly reserved nature, John was a publicist’s dream thanks to a cocktail of good looks, a flamboyant nature on the bike and, of course, his incredible class and ability on the race track.

He was also very individual, a privateer who managed his own affairs, which served him well in the “afterlife”. He now plays an important role in managing the career of his motocross superstar son, Eli, whose backers include Bell Helmets and Oakley, both longtime sponsors during John’s mountain biking career.

“I’m pretty practical. I take care of its commercial management and training. And I help him on the track when he rides with technical coaching.

“It’s a pretty wide sweep in what I’m doing with him. We’ve been doing it for a long time and we’re probably in our final years. I don’t know how involved I will stay in the sport when he’s gone. I still haven’t figured that out,” the 54-year-old told us.

The image of the cowboy

During his career, John was often photographed and portrayed in advertisements as a “High Plains Drifter” almost like a cowboy figure and, ironically, fate had it.

He moved to the high plains and mountains of Durango, Colorado for training early in his career and shortly after gliding south to Cortez where, between managing Eli’s affairs, he runs a cattle ranch and small vineyard with his wife Kathy. .

“I’m at 5,300 feet (a little below 2,000 m). For Colorado, we’re in a pretty warm place. If you go west or south from here and drop a bit in elevation, it’s pretty desert terrain.

“There’s not a lot of variety here. We grow Merlot and we get a few different reds from other places in western Colorado to make the blend of wines that she [Kathy] Is. It’s a bit of a harsh climate, but it works if you choose the right strains.

He also rides mountain bikes occasionally, as does Eli.

Looking back

Scattered among his trophies and medals, those from the 1991 World Championships in Italy stand out as the most important – because during that week in El Ciocco he won the cross-country title and he also finished second in the downhill race.

It was those early pioneering days of the 1980s and the way he mixed everything on his own terms that defined Johnny T – and still gives him the most personal satisfaction.

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