By Gary J. Boulanger | Photo: Courtesy of John Tomac
There must be something in the water in Owosso, Michigan, a small town of less than 16,000 where cycling legend John Tomac was born and raised in the 1960s and `70s. In an age where professional cyclists now focus on one discipline within their chosen field, Tomac decided to try it all, and with alarming success: BMX, road, cross-country, downhill, dual slalom. If it had two wheels, Tomac provided the brains, brawn and lungs to make sure he was ahead of the pack.
The late `80s and early `90s was his watershed era, where he raced more than 100 times a year as both a professional road racer and mountain biker all over the world, proving his mettle and worth to fans and sponsors alike. His days as a domestique for Team 7-Eleven's Steve Bauer, Sean Yates and Dag-Otto Lauritzen underscore his incredible bike handling skill and ability to suffer for hours in the saddle.
His downhill exploits on a drop bar-equipped mountain bike were—and still are—astounding.
1. A BMX racer from age 7 to 17, Tomac relocated to southern California in the mid 1980s, just as the mountain bike racing boom was beginning its foothold on the American sporting public. He added road racing to his regimen to supplement his training, becoming the U.S. National criterium champion in the process, earning a spot on the mighty 7-Eleven team.
2. Tomac was also a savvy businessman who understood the value he brought to sponsors, beginning with Mongoose bicycles, and continuing with Raleigh, Nike, Tioga, Oakley, Onza, Time and others. It's been reported his helmet deal with Bell alone was worth $250,000 a year.
3. Not satisfied to race domestically on the road, Tomac toed the line for Team 7-Eleven (and its replacement sponsor Motorola) in 1989, `90 and `91, including the brutally challenging Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Het Volk, Three Days of DePanne, Ghent-Wevelgem and Giro d'Italia. "I don’t think preparation has changed much from then to now, when I did these back in 1990 and ’91," he told me in 2009. "It’s probably a bit more specialized now, but in general I had to build my program of training and racing all the way up from December to a big peak in April. We bet it all on a two-week period and see if it paid off." Tomac's Top 20 placing in the `90 Ghent-Wevelgem gave him protected rider status alongside Steve Bauer for Roubaix.
4. Not content with a singular focus on racing downhill, Tomac added cross country and dual slalom to his race schedule, winning the UCI World Cross Country rainbow jersey and adding the gold medal to his trophy case in Italy in 1991. He jettisoned his road racing career to focus solely on the dirt in 1992, and peeled off the cross country effort to become a feared downhiller in 1997, when he finished second at Worlds. He retired from racing in 2000, but the lure of competition was too much: in 2004, at 37, he won the famous Kamikaze Downhill held in southern California. To show the youngsters how it's done, he returned in 2005 and won it again…in a full black rubber skinsuit.
5. Tomac's son Eli is a professional motorcycle racer in the US 250 Lites class, riding for the Geico Powersports Honda Factory Racing team. Eli became the first racer to win the first pro race he entered, last season's 250 Class American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) Motocross opener. The elder Tomac, 45, is Eli's trainer, something he's done for American Aaron Gwin, the 2012 World Cup Downhill Champion. There’s no denying the obvious: speed flows through the Tomac veins.