Tom Teesdale: A Remembrance

Tom Teesdale: A Remembrance

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.

TeesdaleMatthew Hoist, Press-Citizen

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.”

Teesdale Bike - 30th Century Bicycle

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).

White Bike - GVH Bikes

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.

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  1. Pat O'Brien

    What a nice read. There is something magical about someone who works with their hands, mind, and heart and lets the results speak for themselves. Bye Tom, and thanks Irene.

  2. Jeff Cozad

    Yeah… We were all stunned on Tuesday when we heard who it was while we were riding on RAGBRAI. A number of us had been touched by Tom over the years. I’ll be thinking even more about him when I pull out one he made for my next ride. RIP Tom

  3. Dean Wright

    I have only met a very few people in my life who had the Talent conviction and stubbornness to live life there way and by there own rules . Tom was one and a great one at that . I was lucky enough to work next to Tom for the better part of 3 years and every day he amazed me in one way or another, it was a great time to be a brick in the wall that built the mt. Bike scene . I am saddened by his passing as much for the loss of someone i had the utmost respect for , and for the loss the rest of the cycling community wont even realize they suffered.

  4. John Bolton

    Tom and I go way back. I remember his days at the Bower rolling bearing factory in Macomb, Illinois. He’d come home with grease up to his armpits; I am not sure he ever got it washed off. We rode everywhere in McDonough County and to his family’s farm in Niota — Tom’s Dad was a sheriff in Hancock County, his Mom a gracious farmer’s wife. When Tom moved from one apartment to another we did it by bike and bugger. He had his frame jig built by an engineering firm in Macomb, and last time I saw him, he was still using it. Tom built some of his first bikes for me. My wife and I still have 3 of them. I also have the frame of a time trial bike he built for me back in the ’70s. Ishiwata tubing (very light tubing) and 531, Zeus track drop outs, pearlized pink paint job. It made me faster than I was. The last time I saw Tom was when I picked up a built to order single in West Branch. It was, and is perfect. I am deeply saddened by Tom’s passing. As young men, we had some times together! My sympathies to Cathy and his family and friends.

    1. Randall Wilson

      Hello John, this is your old friend from the 1970’s in Macomb, Illinois. We rode together on the 1976 Bicentennial Centurion Ride around McDonough County. I just left a tribute to Tom on here further below. Tom was a legend of bike frame builders, a great guy, and frankly, this old dog of a cyclist is glad he kept Tom’s T.E.T. Custom built Racing Machine. It still has a lot of miles left to go and is a work or art, in my opinion. We will miss Tom beyond words, as he was dedicated to the sport of cycling, was a great guy, and I, for one, will never forget this old friend !!

  5. Don Jagoe

    Really nice story–makes me sorry I didn’t know him. Now I’ll be watching every frame go by for that name.

  6. Stewart Kaufman

    Being difficult to fit, I found Tom on the Internet when I rediscovered cycling and needed a custom frame about 15 years ago. Having no adult experience with cycling, it took at least 6 months of consulting with Tom via email before we settled on the final specs. Tom was patient, responsive, thoughtful and a pleasure to deal with throughout the entire process and built me a great frame at a great price. Two years later I bought a second frame from him. I’m still using both.

  7. Joshua Creem

    In 2007, I decided to get myself a big present – a custom steel training bike, which in Portland, Oregon, means a full-fendered “rain” bike. Portland has no shortage of builders (the wonderful Ira Ryan among them), but I was not interested fad or paint, just simple and perfect function and – most of all – experience. I scoured forums, blogs and anecdotes and somehow, luckily, I come across Tom. Very direct and a bit gruff, over a series of emails and drawings he designed and built a perfect bike for me – his road racing frameset extended for long reach calipers and full fenders. The racing bikes in my garage come and go, but the Teesdale will stay. Each Fall comes, and each time I start riding it again I just can’t get over how smooth and perfect it is. Not to mention how often others admire its simple beauty. Thank you for sharing your genius with me, Tom.

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  9. Dan B

    So sorry to hear this news. I sold my teesdale frame to a friend and it was stolen.i miss that bike one of my all time favorites, the man was an artist.i spoke to him and he was a cool guy to talk to and generous with his time,rest in peace

  10. Jim

    A couple of years ago I was looking for a custom frame, looking for the best bargain around. I kept coming back to TET Cycles. I corresponded by email a few times. Finally I realized that he was doing TIG welding, when I asked about a lugged frame he basically laughed and said something to the effect of, “I build bikes to ride, not show off.”
    I really wanted a lugged frame so I moved on…. probably my loss.

  11. R.Jinks

    I’m riding a T.E.T. fillet brazed 29’r belt drive bike, and I would say the ride is the best part! 2014 was my first season on this bike and I’m looking forward to many more years in the saddle. He was an artist and a craftsman, he will be missed.

  12. Ken Lefler

    Irene, thank you for this article. When we talked last July I had a million things on my mind, it was day one of a multi thousand mile motorcycle trip. Tom’s death was still very fresh on our minds. When I returned to Iowa, I went back to work and forgot all about the interview. Yesterday a friend contacted me because they are planning a Tom Teesdale Memorial ride and wanted me to be a part of it. That got me thinking and I did a search for the article. It was very nice and I think you captured the spirit of Tom well in it. Wednesday nights we call Open Shop Night in my garage, it is a few hours that people can come over and talk about bicycles, work on bicycles or have me work on bicycle and drink beer. For the cycling world, we have some pretty nice VIP’s Jason McCartney is there a lot and people like JJ Haeto wander through. Last night I looked around and I still own 6 Tom Teesdales including my daily commuter, still my favorite bike. Thanks again for the article.

  13. Mike Hogan

    I bought a Teesdale frame used. I took it up to Tom’s shop and explained what i was going to use the frame for in the future. Tom made some modifications and Cathy repainted the bike. This was back in ’86 and I still ride the bike to this day. Great frame and Tom and Cathy were great to work with.

  14. Willi from the Alps

    Tom has build many Frames. I owned 3 Brave Cycles (the founder Doug Gloyd) build by TET. And one Kona Hot build by TET.
    All bikes were good bikes.
    I still ride steelbikes and can recommend steelbikes

  15. Randall Wilson

    I knew Tom back in the 1970’s/80’s when he was working at the bike shop in Macomb, Illinois, along with John Bolton, the head Bike Mechanic. I rode with John and four others in a pack around McDonough County, Illinois on July 4, 1976 for the Bicentennial Centurion Ride. We completed 100 miles in around 7 hours. Tom built a racing bike for me back in 1984 and I still own it today. It’s real classic racing bike with , what was then, top of the line Columbus tubing, Campy/Cinelli hardware and a real beautiful work of fine craftsmanship !! Tom’s abilities as a frame builder and designer were always well respected in those days moving forward ! Tom was a great guy with a dream and he realized that dream in the years to come after those days ! God Bless his work, his dream and his memory.

  16. David Huggins Daines

    I went to boarding school a couple of miles down the road from West Branch, and spent countless hours biking around on the local gravel roads and county highways, but it wasn’t until many years later that I found out about Tom Teesdale’s frames on the Internet. I knew that if I were going to get a custom frame built, it would be one of his. It’s a 26″ wheel road/touring bike that I ride almost every day, for going to work, getting groceries, going camping, etc…

    Sad to hear that he’s no longer with us. I had the bike powder-coated a couple years ago (didn’t have the money to get it done in the first place and the paint really suffered through a couple of Montreal winters). I’ll have to get some new decals made for it in order to properly honour his memory.

  17. Rod Lang

    I went to his shop then in Davenport, and got measured for a touring bike in 1976. Tom shipped it to me in Charlotte, NC. I still have that bike, one of my treasured possessions.

  18. Jason Couch

    Tom was straight up one tough, funny, kind ,cool dude .
    I remember freaking out during the first Gulf conflict with Bush senior and worried the draft would be reinstated. Tom and Cathy were there saying, “don’t worry , we’ll stash you here if needed!”. I wouldn’t have done it, but what a cool dude for the offer!
    We lost another one of the good ones. You will be kindly remembered Tom…

  19. Ryan Jinks

    I have a fillet brazed TET frame, possibly his last since it was built in 2012. It’s amazing and definitely my favorite bike.

  20. Doug

    I am late to the story. How exciting to learn more about the legacy of a frame building master. I bought a Brave MTB used for about $300 from my roommate in Santa Barbara CA . It was July of 1995 when I put that frame through nearly 5k miles of glorious hell from the Santa Monica pier, through route 66, down Texas, and in/out of every small town in Louisiana until stopping in Florida. I named the frame and offered it all of the reverence that I could, which still fell short of what was deserved. The Brave frame is still with me today and is the most prized non-living something in my life. And that is not an exaggeration.

    I decided to do some research today about the history of my bike as I knew who made my Brave. I wanted to say how much the frame has meant to me. Anytime I think of something in my life that appears tragic or insurmountable, I think of all of the miles and indelible experiences riding across the country when it was just me and a bike made by Tom Teesdale. Thank you, Tom.

  21. Matt

    I’m real late to this discussion, but today, I just took out my TET Dirt Research Cabello cyclocross bike out for a ride at lunchtime.
    The bike had been in storage for a few years (I moved from Detroit, Michigan to Parts Unknown, Montana). That bike is superb!
    The funny thing is, it wasn’t built specifically for me. I bought it used on Ebay about seven years ago. What an amazing bike. What an amazing builder! God bless Tom Teesdale and his family.

  22. Ricky Bermudez

    I have this Dean bike for the last 20 years and I emailed Dean bikes to ask what was the TT stamp that my bike has in the bottom of the bottom bracket. They cheerfully replied that it was a Tom Teesdale steel bike that he used to build for them. so as I am so infatuated with the ride of my bike I started researching him to see if I could find him to order another bike and that is when I found this remembrance.some time ago. For what I have read above I can see ha was a happy man that lived the life he wanted, the way he wanted. Now looking at the welds of the bike I can really appreciate and feel the bike, like the kids say theses days” I feel you”. From Denver to 7 years in Puerto Rico and the last 9 years in Seattle the bike has outlasted all kinds of weather. Thank you Tom you make my day almost every day! God bless

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