For close on 15-years American John Tomac was at the very forefront of mountain bike racing history. He was an enigma, a rider bursting with class, both on and off the bike. Humble, stylish, innovative, committed and blessed with the versatility of a Swiss Army Knife, Jonny T was an icon and an inspiration to close on two generations of young mountain bikers.
Tomac made an early name for himself in BMX, rosing to pro level in his mid-teens, and at 18 he made the decision to turn his attention to the emerging sport of mountain biking – the rest, as they say, is pure history.
It didn’t take long for Tomac to start winning major US races, in an era before the sport was recognised by the UCI.
That official seal finally arrived in 1990, when the first official World MTB Championships were held in Colorado. As a rider, Tomac was unique – dominant in both XC and downhill, winning the World XC Championships in 1991, as well as taking silver in the Downhill – a feat unlikely to ever be matched.
During his career, he won numerous World Cup races and World Championship medals, in both disciplines, and continued to race downhill at a slightly lower level up until 2005, when he bowed out of competition after taking the famous Kamikaze downhill title in Mammoth, California (for the second year in a row).
But what really set Tomac apart was his road career during the late 80’s-early 90’s, with the 7-11 and then Motorola teams, and although his biggest victory was in the US Criterium Championships, he also rode classics such as the Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders, as well as the Giro d’Italia.
During his early offroad career many riders mixed disciplines, but none could match Tomac’s versatility. At that time courses and equipment were, clearly very different – XC races were much longer and courses more natural in design. Downhill courses were also not anywhere near as extreme as they are today – and naturally, the equipment technology was far less advanced.
Tomac embodied then what mountain biking was all about. A rider who loved to go out into the wilds for epic all day rides, not just for the training, for the pure joy of riding. Today he still takes on MTB and gravel bike rides around the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado.
He remains a living legend and huge inspiration for many old enough to remember his glory days and those who understand what the Tomac name embodies.
It’s tough to say the extent to which the different disciplines of mountain biking have separated was inevitable, or “manufactured” by the bike industry and media. But what is interesting is the rise of Enduro, bringing together aspects of XC and Downhill - disciplines someone like Tomac would have perhaps dominated.
Back in the early days, you were branded either as a mountain biker or a roadie. Even if you’d been riding road since before the invention of mountain bikes you were still seen as different; almost as if you were not considered to be pure enough to be a true mountain biker – ironic, given that many original mountain bikers are now road converts.
I was always just a cyclist, or a bike rider – two wheels and a saddle and a lust for adventure were all that was needed. This still stands true, even if the adventures are today a little less extreme.
In today's off-road scene rigid bikes and Lycra are seen as something of a faux-pas, at least if you want to be considered a real mountain biker. Now it’s rare to see a magazine use images of riders in anything but baggy shorts and wheels off the ground.
And with a growing supply of handcrafted trail centres, a generation of riders are missing out on the rewards of mapping and planning a route through uncharted territory. Setting out on a three-hour ride that leaves you coming in eight hours later, uplift-free pushes, dead ends and the solitude of an empty mountain with unpredictable trails, and all done on whatever bike you happen to own – not one driven by the latest trends.
These adventures are still out there, of course. Just as attainable as they were 25-years ago and enough to make me want to head out on a wild new ride and to put the mountain back into mountain biking – that’s what Jonny T would do.