West Branch custom bike builder dies on RAGBRAI

Teesdale's designs served as prototype for modern mountain bikes, UI professor said

In this Gazette file photo from 2004, Tom Teesdale (left) fixes a flat tire at Cyclefest in Iowa City. (Gazette file)
In this Gazette file photo from 2004, Tom Teesdale (left) fixes a flat tire at Cyclefest in Iowa City. (Gazette file)

A nationally-known custom bicycle frame builder from West Branch died Monday while riding RAGBRAI.

Tom Teesdale, 63, had a heart attack while riding between Terril and Graettinger in northwest Iowa, said Steve McGuire, a University of Iowa professor who was friends with Teesdale and his family. Teesdale was taken to an Emmetsburg hospital, where he died.

“Poetically, he went out while riding his bike,” McGuire said. “I hope I go that way.”

Teesdale, owner of TET Cycles in West Branch, spent nearly 40 years building custom racing cycles, touring cycles, mountain bikes and tandems — some of which became models for mass-produced bikes.

“He made design choices that really shaped the mountain bike of today,” said McGuire, a professor of 3D design and metal arts. “The modern Fat Bike frame was prototyped by Tom.”

Teesdale built a bicycle for McGuire’s son, Chris, who has cerebral palsy. Teesdale and McGuire taught together for several semesters at Iowa and were collaborating on a new project they planned to exhibit, McGuire said.

Teesdale was also one of a handful of specialists who could build a bike to fit a client’s unique body, disability or athletic goals. He designed and built many bikes for Special Olympians.

Tom Healy, a bike mechanic for Bike World in Ames, said he worked on several Teesdale bikes over the years.

“You can see the craftsmanship he put into the bike,” Healy said Tuesday from his bike repair booth set up in Bancroft, a RAGBRAI pass-through town. “It’ll be a while before someone else steps in. Craftsmen like that don’t exist anymore.”

Teesdale began building bicycle framesets in 1976, during the height of the “bicycle boom” that followed the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, according to a 2006 Gazette interview. He had been attending college to become a math teacher, but got hooked on building bikes.

“I sold my second one, and made rent,” Teesdale said in 2006. “After that, I was a bike bum.”

Teesdale built bikes on contract for Gary Fisher, one of the leading mountain bike brands, and Terry Precision, which makes bikes designed for women. In recent years, he focused on custom jobs for his own clients.

The last person to die on RAGBRAI was Stephen Briggs, 68, of Waverly, who collided with another cyclist and suffered a head injury in 2010. Twenty-nine people have died in 42 years of RAGBRAI, according to the Des Moines Register, which sponsors the ride.

About 8,500 cyclists make the week-long trek across Iowa, plus others who ride on single days.

Gazette reporter Brian Morelli contributed to this report.