Joel Smith is the current man behind the John Tomac bicycle brand. The son of motorcycle legend Malcolm Smith, Joel started his career as a journalist with Dirt Rider motorcycle magazine. But Joel had a passion for bicycles, and it didn’t take long for him to move to a mountain bike magazine. He then moved into the industry as product manager for Answer-Manitou, before teaming up with John Tomac in 2000.
BikeRadar caught up with Smith to learn more about Tomac 3.0 and how it all began.
BikeRadar: What will the world see from Tomac at the upcoming Sea Otter Classic April 16 – 19?
Joel Smith: We will have a bike at Sea Otter called the Carbide SL. By name, it’s just a lighter version of the Carbide, but this is really an all-new bike. It’s pretty exciting for me because it took so very long time to develop, and I feel like it actually meets the product goals we originally set.
The Tomac Carbide SL, a reflection of what Smith believes to be best in a full sus carbon bike
When we started working on it three years ago, I had been riding a few of the competitor’s lightweight full suspension bikes and I was flabbergasted with the lack of stiffness. I am a big guy, so I tend to put more force on a frame than normal riders, but still, I could not get these noodles to even turn or the suspension to track. So, we set out to make this light bike, but one that would surpass everything on the market as far as stiffness.
Both my subjective ride testing and our lab testing shows that we have achieved our goal. It was not easy, but really rewarding now that it is done.
When did you first meet John Tomac?
I interviewed him a few times after races as a journalist, but the first time I REALLY met him was at Mammoth back in the early 1990s. I was riding down the road from the upper village and I hucked a huge gob over my shoulder. As I did this, I looked to see a guy behind me swerve out of the way of the flying wad. At the signal, Johnny pulled up next to me on his bike. I nearly shat myself: I had nearly spit on my hero!
Tomac leads a Specialized factory rider during an early 1990s NORBA cross country race
Anyway, he didn’t seem too bothered by it, and we rode along for about the next ten minutes just talking about things: him telling me all about racing, his bike and his chances for the weekend. He was the great guy I imagined he would be, and nothing has changed since.
What sparked the idea to relaunch the Tomac brand? And why in Nebraska?
After the relationship with American Bicycle Group ended, Johnny was looking for a new partner. At the time, I was working at Answer Products and I had a really great gig going. I wanted Johnny to find a good home for the brand and began trying to help him do that.
Tomac and Smith, two peas in a smiling pod
After a few conference calls with potential suitors, it was clear that they could be divided into two distinct categories: ones with money and no bicycle industry experience, and ones with lots of bicycle industry experience and no money. Obviously, you need some combination of both to restart and run a bicycle company.
Then after one such conversation, Johnny asked me about taking on Tomac. It took me back a little bit, because I had honestly never considered it. I was both flattered and scared. Over the next six months, I worked on a very detailed business plan. Soon enough, we were knee deep in new bike designs and we have been going full throttle every since.
We’re in Nebraska because of family (my wife’s), but it’s also a good place for a new business. The costs are low and it’s pretty centrally located for distribution. Also, we are close to Colorado, where we spend at least three months of every year riding, testing and generally having some fun.
Tell us about the working relationship you have with JT.
I have a very good personal and working relationship with Johnny. I think he trusts my decisions and is very supportive of the direction the brand is going. Most people don’t realize that he is still quite involved with the brand. Besides the bike development work, which is really Johnny’s main focus with the company, he also provides a ton of advice on how we run the day to day operations. He has been through it all before, so he helps me avoid the same mistakes.
You pump out a lot of models for such a small company. How do you pull it off?
Through pure energy, tenacity and passion. I love working on new products because it’s the ultimate creative outlet. How many people can dream up a bike and then some day actually be riding it down their favourite trail? It’s completely satisfying, so it’s become a focus for the company because it’s personally fulfilling.
What motivates you these days?
Riding bikes! I’m more motivated than ever to ride my bike. Slipping away for an afternoon ride is a big benefit of owning Tomac. I’m also really motivated by the growth of the company. We had a really good year last year, and it’s fantastic to see the hard work begin to pay off.