Best MTB Rider Ever? John Tomac

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I was looking around the internet last night and saw this interview, by Neal Rogers, at Cyclingtips, with John Tomac.    I guess Neal did the interview last year at Ned and Todd’s Gran Fondo in Durango.  I went there and rode and talked to Johnny T. a little.  I hadn’t seen him in a long time and he hadn’t really changed at all, which is great.

The interview is pretty good.  John was always modest and talked more with his legs than his mouth.  And, in my opinion, he did that better than any rider I had the pleasure to race with. Sure there are some other guys who might compare with John, but when you throw both cross country racing and downhill together, he’s my pick.

I raced with John pretty much throughout his career.  I rarely beat him ever.  I beat him in a few Specialized Cactus Cup Fatboy races, but that was riding a tight criterium on mountain bikes. Off-road, he would kick my ass.  Especially if it had a technical downhill on the course.

I thought I was going to beat him at the Olympic Trials in Atlanta, in 1996, gaining a minute on him the on the first part of the last lap, but then it got to a big technical rock section and he rode away, leaving me to finish 2nd.

Anyway, John was, by far the best downhill rider of that time period.  By far.  If they wouldn’t have let any rider pre-ride a course and everyone just went down it once, first time, John would have won all the races.  Plus, John was racing the cross country races before the downhill usually.

At the World’s in Italy, Johnny T. had the first XTR setup I’d ever seen.  And I was riding for Shimano too.  I might be wrong, but I think it went from a 28 big cog in the back to 32.  Those 4 teeth allowed him to ride the steep walking section.  I remember seeing the race on TV afterward and at the start, there was a huge pack of 150 guys climbing, with Johnny T. already a 100 meters ahead by himself.  He won the World Championships handily that year.

Last year, in Durango, I was at the start of the ride and lined up next to John.  He looked over at my bike, which was an Eriksen.  It was 9 speed XTR, hardtail.  John looked over and saw my barends and said, “Barends, I need to get me some of those”.    He nearly always rode what he thought made sense and made him faster.

Anyway, if you have some time and want to learn a little about him, click the link above.   It is a good interview.

Photo, by my friend, Tom Moran.  The photographer of the first era of modern day MTB racing.

33 thoughts on “Best MTB Rider Ever? John Tomac

  1. TNSean

    BMX national champion, Critetium National Champion, Team Time Trial National Champion, Multiple time Mountain Bike National champion to go with his world cross country and downhill championships, plus Giro, Flanders and Roubaix rides- is Tomac the best bike racer the US has ever seen if you are talking ALL disciplines

  2. darkcloud

    And now his son is racing pro moto-cross and from what I’ve been told, is doing really well. Sounds like John is a great moto-cross dad.
    Always got the impression that Tomac is a class act.

  3. KrakatoaEastofJava

    John owned the late 80’s and early 90’s due to his results alone. He never needed to fan the flames of his own publicity. Had he desired a European pro road racing career, he most certainly could have had it. And I suspect he would have been on a “Sagan-esque” trajectory. He wasn’t just fast naturally. He learned how to BE fast. He was a thinking man in a a thinking man’s sport. He not only had (HAS) the natural athletic ability, but he has the critical thinking skills required to maximize it and set himself apart.

    You knew about the 4-tooth difference, but the rest of the world saw only the 100M gap. Most likely, John analyzed the hell out of that start, and did what he felt he needed to do. Remember, back then, there was a manly taboo going around in regards to selecting “granny gears” (even in MTB racing). He helped teach everyone that it’s better to stay seated and pedal than to run.

    Great post Steve. I’m happy to see John getting some revived recognition. He’s lived a very quiet life since exiting the pro racing scene, and kudos to him for choosing to do so!

  4. Dude Ron

    John showed up at the first TDC in de Burghh one day after winning a Mtb Bike Race in Durango and rode in The Break all day with Mike Engleman and (Swart?). Mike powered to solo win that was in 91. Shout out for Dannny Chew!!

  5. Danny E

    Did you beat Tomac at the Olympic qualifier in Traverse City Michigan? I remember he had been fighting a stomach ailment that he got while racing in Hawaii and didn’t fare so well. I talked to him after the race, for a while, and he pointed out that I was wearing a counterfeit shirt with his likeness on it. He didn’t care, he just thought it was funny.

    I talked to you and Catherine at this race as well, but I don’t remember how you placed. I met a lot of riders at this race. Julia Furtado was out on the course with her dogs, cheering on somebody from an expert class. She was pretty chill, as was Travis Brown, who ran a fully rigid bike for that particular race. I’ll see if I can dig up pictures form it.

  6. channel_zero


    He rode on the road for Och’s Motorola in 1990 or thereabouts.

    If I recall correctly, he did a mountain bike race or two with drops because he was “just visiting.”

  7. KrakatoaEastofJava

    Indeed he did. I think if he’d stuck to road as a pure-play, he’d have been a superstar in the sport–given some time. Think about it, if he were not so naturally talented, would he have been able to swing that kind of pro contract and then been allowed by the team to do both disciplines? No way. He was being courted because he was so promising a prospect. Rarely does a pro team in the modern era make an investment in a rider.

    I wonder if he ultimately sided with MTB because he didn’t instantly start winning everything in Europe (like he was used to back in the states).

  8. CurtloDude

    Rishi, and Furtado, Weins, DeMattei, Ruthie, oh man, I could go on and on. That was such a killer era. I sucked, mid pack at best, but I went to many NORBA races, every one at Traverse City, being a Chicagoan, and couldn’t have had more fun. I still have a few VHS tapes of the norba races. They used to show every one on some channel.

  9. mv

    I would still say Julien Absalon for the best ever.
    Several guys are close. Hard to compare era’s.

  10. Steve Tilford Post author

    Danny-Yeah, you’re right. I beat him in Traverse City one year.

    I think that was because it was super hot and the Colorado guys we’re ready for it. I passed Dave Wiens on the last lap and he was done. Before the race he said the course was’t hard enough. JW wasn’t used to a course where you had to pedal the whole time.

  11. Mark G

    Eli Tomac is a chip off the old block, supercross starts tomorrow night in Anaheim,he is #3 on Kawasaki. Hope he does well, last year was tough for him after having surgery on both shoulders.. All the top motocross riders put in a lot of hours on a bicycle, and are usually sponsored by a bicycle company.

  12. Fausto

    Amazing natural talent and smart enough to improve any weakness if he had any. The Euro road thing is hard to measure since the Dope was growing at that time and changing everything. Not sure what year it changed the MTB circuit but believe it came later. Would he fall between a Hampsten and LeMond? Probably.

  13. Tman

    Vail Worlds 1994, most of the guys walked baileys bailout. Most of the women rode it. Johnny T, he launched off that thing with such style and grace that made the rest look like beginners. Tim Gould broke his collerbone I think?

  14. Steve Tilford Post author

    Tman-I was 12th there, 3rd American, and other final lap, I was told I was the first guy to ride Baileys. Guess everyone ahead of me was happy with their positions. Or we’re scared of the drop off.

  15. Large D

    That’s what is so funny bout this post, there seems to be some sneering towards MX where most of the bicycle choads don’t realize that much of the mountain bike suspension designs came from MX (where they already knew what worked). Rock Shox-was founded by Paul Turner who was a factory MX mechanic in the 70s. Specialized FSR suspension design, they bought the design and rights from Horst Leitner, an Austrian engineer that owned AMP Research and produced the ATK motrocycle in the 80s and then AMP mountain bikes in the 90s. There is so much crossover between the two sports I chuckled at comments about the podcast being MX heavy at the start (alluding to skipping over it). Without MX you’d still be riding the Gary Fisher/Joe Breezer clunkers.

  16. Taman

    Agreed, I was into road cycling and off road motorcycling in the 80’s. Had a Can-Am with White brothers suspension and a Reynolds tubed frame. When theATK’s came out I wanted one so bad but “settled” for a CR. When I finally got into MBing in the late 80’s it was obvious that the engineers were wisely using proven off-road motorcycle technology in a lot of MBing’s rapid advancements in the 90’s. Defanently a fun decade to be a mountain biker.

  17. Danny E

    Is this the race?

    Dave Wiens tries to ride the bailout at 2:45 and biffs it pretty hard. He said that the clip of him crashing ended up on some TV show. “Yeah, Susan was riding it. I dropped in on the first lap and ate shit, did a 3/4 flip and ended up on a Fox TV show called Things You Should Never Do, or something like that. My race was forgettable but Susan’s was killer!”

  18. Scott Boyer

    RE Tomac choosing MTB over RR:
    I was not as close to John as many commentators here, but he could have chosen to go back to MTB after getting enough exposure riding for Motorola in Europe to understand that RR at the Elite level was rife with doping and MTB was much cleaner where a clean athlete could still excel…..and that what John was about being an honest athlete.

  19. Donnie McTrump

    Greatest cyclist ever was definitely Myron Grubowsky of Swine Hollar, South Carolina.

    He had a 3 speed Schwinn with the banana seat and 3 speed shifter. The red letter slick in the back didn’t hurt either. I know he was the greatest ever because I finished 2nd to him so many times. Even beat him once.

    And who says only old guys, like Trump, are good at self promotion ?

    I know a lot of tremendous self promoters right here on this terrific board. NOT! Sad !

  20. Tman

    That was a crazy weekend for myself and my Sioux City pals. We ambushed Missy for a photo and ended up drinking with Heinrik at the Red Lion? Hank was tanked already so he just chatted/slurred

  21. caliracer

    And don’t forget the best Junior MTB rider from that era, So Cal rider John Mutolo (from Parkpre), who won the Junior World Championnships in 1991 in Italy. I used to race with him on the road quite a bit. Sadly he almost died in a race in 1993 and IIRC that was one of the catalyst that caused the USCF to change the rules and start requiring all the protective gear now worn in MTB racing.

  22. dchanes

    Good podcast. Thanks for sharing. If you want to hear what he has to say about Lance skip to 40:00. Kinda brief but to the point.


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