Sandusky man builds BMX course for Beijing Olympics

SANDUSKY Tom Ritzenthaler Jr. speaks a language not familiar those who grew up watching the big thre
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

Tom Ritzenthaler Jr. speaks a language not familiar those who grew up watching the big three staples of American sports --baseball, basketball and football.

"The first jump is a step up, triple, step down," Ritzenthaler tells an interviewer from the BBC. "Coming out of turn one you have two big doubles ... coming out of turn two we have the step up, pump roller, double, pump roller, double, double into turn three."

What in the name of a safety blitz or walk-off homer is Ritzenthaler talking about?

He's describing a BMX racing track.

And if you're like a huge number of American sports fans you have no idea what he's saying.

That could all change in the next couple of weeks, though, as BMX racing joins the 24th Olympiad as an officially sanctioned sport.

And there will be a local connection at the BMX venue at the 2008 Olympics, which start today in Beijing, China.

Ritzenthaler, a Sandusky native, designed and built the track that will be used for the BMX racing events in Laoshan.

The 40-year-old Ritzenthaler, a 1986 graduate from Perkins High, is one of the top BMX track designers in the world.

He's designed and built tracks for such high profile events as the Winter and Summer X-Games and the Mountain Dew Tour. He began the process of designing the track for Beijing in 2001.

"We drew it up in a local tavern in San Jose (Calif.) on nine bar napkins," Ritzenthaler said in a phone interview from his home in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, earlier this week.

The track took 21 days to build. Twenty-one thousand yards of dirt were used in its construction.

"A normal BMX track, like the one in Norwalk, used about 2,000 yards of dirt," Ritzenthaler said.

BMX racing rocketed to popularity amongst the under-30 demographic in recent years. It's a form of bicycle motocross where athletes ride on quick-handling, lightweight bikes with 20-inch wheels on specially designed dirt tracks.

Ritzenthaler's career as one of the world's foremost track designers began its meteoric rise in 1997 when he began designing and building tracks for the National Bicycle League. His big break came in 2001 when he hooked up with the Union Cycliste Internationale -- the sanctioning body that governs international cycling and also has ties to the International Olympic Committee. It was through the connection with UCI that Ritzenthaler got the Olympic job.

So what will Ritzenthaler's duties be in Beijing?

"I'll be observing, making sure the course is staying together and doing some interviews," he said.

One of those interviews is scheduled to appear on the "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams."

Ritzenthaler describes a typical BMX course.

"The normal courses are anywhere from 900 to 1,200 feet long. There are three turns and four straight-aways and it's about a 35-to-40 second sprint where you pedal as hard as you can while going over obstacles," Ritzenthaler said.

Ritzenthaler's raced bikes for 34 years and that experience provides him an advantage in designing tracks.

"Being a rider and builder I can keep the flow of everything going. You want it to flow. If your track doesn't flow then it just isn't any fun," said Ritzenthaler, who has built more than 200 tracks stateside and more than 100 internationally.

On occasion, he'll even ride one of his tracks against some of the sport's young guns, he said.

"They get a kick out of it. They're like 'You do ride your own tracks' and I'm like, of course I do. There are a few other builders around but they don't ride. They just move dirt around and let people shape it while I build and ride," Ritzenthaler said.

Ritzenthaler constantly seeks out feedback from athletes competing on his tracks.

"They know they can all talk to me. They can tell me this track is a piece of crap or they can give me a hug, tell me this track is great. If I get more than two or three riders complaining, I'll fix it," Ritzenthaler said.

The son of Tom Sr. and Rosa Ritzenthaler of Perkins Twp., the younger Ritzenthaler became interested in racing after a trip to a track in Norwalk when he was around seven. It's a love affair that's continued to this day. However, that doesn't mean building a track is all play. Far from it.

"I'm working from sun up to sun down. Especially in other countries," he said.

Ritzenthaler has built tracks in Brazil, China, Turkey, Greece, Switzerland, Denmark, South Africa and Russia as well as all over the U.S.

Said his father: "His passport looks like a Chinese laundry ticket."

That should serve him well over the next couple of weeks.

When to watch

The mens and womens BMX events are scheduled for Aug. 20-21.

Who to watch? Ritzenthaler recently built a replica of the Olympic BMX track for Great Britain female star Shanaze Read. Read should have no problem winning the gold medal in women's BMX, Ritzenthaler said.

The Ritzenthaler File

High School: Perkins, Class of '86.

Married to Lauren.

Has three children, Bianca, 11; Ana 10, Rayce 8.

Owns his own company, Dirtshapers, Inc.

Is already contracted to build BMX track for 2012 Olympic Games in London.