Tom Teesdale. It’s a name unfamiliar to most cyclists. It’s a name that arguably did as much for the industry as Gary Fisher, Mike Sinyard, or Tom Ritchey. It’s also a name that deserves correction for the first statement, and recognition for the latter, because tragically, Tom Teesdale is no longer with us.
Here are the details surrounding his passing: On Monday, July 21st, Teesdale suffered a heart attack while attending the 2014 RAGBRAI, and according to the event’s website, was quickly transported via ambulance to the nearest hospital. He was 62 years of age, and is survived by his mother Norma Teesdale, his wife Cathy Jo Dunker, his four sons (John, Matthew, Andrew, and Jacob), and his daughter Kate. He had grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. He will be missed by many.
But more than mourn him, I want to illuminate a bit of what made him so special to those of us who pedal on two wheels. Because Tom, up until the very day of his passing, built some of the best frames to ever carve singletrack or climb a mountain pass.
If his name, or the company under which he built, TET Cycles, rings no bells, then maybe these names will: Dean. Kona. Gary Fisher. Ritchey. Terry. Marin. He built bicycles for each company. He also made frames for many top American racers, the most famous being Jason McCartney, who later went on to race for Discovery Channel and Radio Shack, winning a stage of the Vuelta a Espana in 2007. He could build anything. Road racing bikes, mountain bikes, ‘cross bikes, randos and yes, even that opening image of a fat bike. And consider this: if he hadn’t been such a good builder, mountain biking might never have gotten off the ground. His creations handled well and were as durable as … well, you’ll find out if you keep reading.
But a builder is more than a resume. A builder is a collection of stories, and each bike they touch in turn contributes to the story of someone else.
Like custom builder and Breadwinner Cycles co-founder Ira Ryan. Ryan grew up in a very small Iowan town where Tom also happened to live, and went to school with a few of his sons. He began to race at the young age of 14, and as a high school graduation present to himself, he decided to order a custom Tom Teesdale frame.
“It was my first real road racing bike,” remembers Ryan. “It was orange, it was custom built for me, Columbus ELOS, 1-inch stiff tubing, TIG welded. It was built specifically for road racing and crits, so it was very low slung and stretched out. I had worked in bike shops before but didn’t go to him with a list of specifics, I just told him how I wanted it to ride and what I would use it for, and he made it happen. It’s amazing to put your faith into someone at that degree.”
But Ryan has other stories, too, that go beyond that first Orange bike. “ I remember going to his shop, and he had a VW bug that was pretty old and beat up, but every year he and his kids and some friends would drive from Iowa to Utah, mountain biking. I thought that riding a mountain bike in Utah was crazy at the time, nobody had even heard of it. He was aware of the world beyond the walls of his own shop, and it was nice to have his influence at a young age.”
Steve Goetzelman of 30th Century Bicycle in Iowa City also has stories.
“The first time I met Tom was when I first moved to Iowa City, I took a road frame to have cantilever posts brazed on it. He had a weird shop, and a dog named Pig, I didn’t know how it was going to work. I showed him the frame and what I wanted, (it was an old Bob Jackson). At first he turned the frame this way and that, not hemming or hawing, but telling me why it would be hard to do what I wanted. But then I told him I didn’t care about the paint at all, and he said, ‘Oh really? Then I can do that right now for you.’ He brazed them right there on the spot, charged me $20, and sent me on my way.”
But perhaps the most telling story comes from one of his oldest friends, Ken Lefler. Ken was kind enough to speak with me in the middle of a motorcycle trip, and before anything else, I asked what the first words were that came to mind when thinking about Tom Teesdale.
“Hippy,” he replied, and then laughed. “Tom didn’t care about having a big reputation or being a big name,” he went on to explain. “He stood behind his stuff, and he loved what he did, and he was a master at what he did, but he mainly just wanted to make a living, not seek out the spotlight.”
Ken then pauses, and says, “I found out that he was gone on Tuesday, but it didn’t really hit me until Thursday. I was riding home, and looked down at my all-time favorite bike in the world, and it was one of his. It’s a cyclocross bike Tom built as a training bike for Jason McCartney back when Jason did most of his training on the dirt and gravel roads around Iowa. He also did some cross races on it. Eventually, Jason gave it to me and I painted it from orange to black and turned it into a daily commuter. It probably has at least 75,000 miles on it, and it’s still as solid as the day it left the shop.”
I too have a Tom Teesdale story to share. Last summer, my good friend, a fellow custom steel bike collector, and I swapped names of which builders were Must Haves for our stables, and the IM exchange unfolded in this way:
Me: I sort of want a Tom Teesdale (TET Cycles).
Mainly because I saw his resume, saw the clean classic bikes, saw his price list, and thought there is just no way you can live with yourself if you don’t make sure you have one of his in your stable. Thoughts?
Friend: Teesdale. Great name and great find, obscure but 10,000% legit.
I never did get that TET Cycles, and you have no idea how hard I kick myself for it. One could say the very fact that his name remained obscure despite such a prolific resume is ironically his calling card. It’s a strange duality that many others who quietly build for top names yet never seek the recognition they deserve share. It’s a love of craft over a love of self.
Tom Teesdale. Father, husband, friend, framebuilder, and 10,000% legit.