By Sal Ruibal
Photo by Anthony Smith
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Bike
John Tomac was mister everything in cycling during the late 1990s. A Durango, Colorado, cowpoke with a blond crew cut hiding underneath his cowboy hat, Tomac went against the grain in many ways, winning major championships in downhill and cross-country mountain biking, while also riding BMX and racing at the highest levels of European road racing with the famed 7-Eleven team. While much of the mountain-bike world was raging against the machine, Tomac was always on his machines, tearing up mountain-bike racecourses on a bike with drop bars. It’s doubtful we’ll ever see anyone do that again.
This was the hippy-dippy time in mountain biking: When California counterculture met the Union Cycliste Internationale and gave it the finger. But Tomac was too busy racing 100 days a year to give a shit about any of this. Bike videos on VHS were all the rage, and almost any tie-dyed pedal pusher with attitude could get his five minutes of fame by riding like some leotard-clad hoofer in “Flashdance.”
Tomac made a few appearances in these videos, but his most famous scene was in the 1996 “Retread” video. Instead of posturing and trying to act gnarly, he appeared as the real cowboy he was: A silent Clint Eastwood with sideburns and straight-legged jeans, throwing a saddle over his horse and riding down the dusty trail. Then the scene suddenly changes, and Tomac is kicking up clouds of dust on his namesake hardtail, locking up rear-wheel skids and carving his name in the dirt with his treads. Somewhere, someone at IMBA must have silently wept.
But instead of a cowboy hat, Tomac is wearing a red, white and blue, American flag-design Bell XC helmet with a screaming bald eagle worked expertly into the pattern. The Troy Lee paint job is his personal statement, his comment about exactly which side he’s on. The only guy in history to win a downhill national championship and also race road in the Tour of Flanders is not ashamed of his country. On the contrary, he’s putting its most potent symbols on the top of his head, where it will be seen in the pages of mountain-bike magazines around the world.
Tomac was a straight edge at a time when playing Ambien roulette and smoking doobies on the DH trainer at the top of the hill were considered cool. But not for John Tomac: a pale rider on a pale horse. And an eagle wrapped in a flag on his helmet.