Ballooners, Clunkers and Breezers

Friday, July 20, 2007
Fall, 1977. This photograph was taken in Fairfax by Jerry Riboli before the start of the first cross-country "Enduro" race, promoted by Alan Bonds. From left, Fred Wolf, Wende Cragg, Mark Lindlow, Robert Stewart, Chris Lang, James Preston, Ian Stewart, Charlie Kelly, Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Eric Fletcher, Craig Mitchell, John Drum, Roy Rivers, Alan Bonds.

Forty years after Ignatz Schwinn developed

the first Schwinn fat tire Excelsior bike, 20

year-old bicycling enthusiast Joe Breeze

paid five dollars for a 1941 Schwinn "ballooner"

at a bike shop in Santa Cruz, California. He

stripped it down and took it for a ride down Mt.

Tamalpais in Marin County -- big fun!

Ballooners were so named because of their

fat, knobby tires and are often described as the

old "fat-tire paperboy bike." Breeze's friends followed

his lead, and by 1974, they were racing

old ballooners down Mt. Tamalpais -- and breaking

bikes left and right.


In 1978, the Whole Earth Catalog published

the first article written about mountain bikes in its

spring issue of the Co-Evolution Quarterly. In his

article "Clunker Bikes: The Dirt Bicycle Comes of

Age," Richard Nilsen details the conglomeration

of parts used to build the clunker.

Nilsen credits Gary Fisher with triggering the

"revolutionary moment" in bike history when

Fisher put a ten-speed derailleur assembly on his

ballooner, creating a bike that, not only rolled

downhill, but also climbed uphill. Fisher would go

on to become an internationally acclaimed mountain

bike designer and a Mountain Bike Hall of


Nilsen described the typical Marin County

clunker as a hybrid built on a heavy-weight

Schwinn frame. The reinforced handlebars were

taken from a child's 20-inch motocross bike. Stock

coaster brakes were replaced with front and rear

drum brakes, and motorcycle brake levers and

gear-shift levers were mounted at the hand grips.

Nilsen cites "escapist hippies" as among the

earliest Marin County clunker riders, "looking for

the cheapest and easiest way to get to the local



In 1977, after breaking their frames, their seat

mounts, their front forks and virtually all other

parts of their bikes, Charlie Kelly and Breeze decided

to build a bike that could withstand the

rugged Mt. Tamalpais terrain.

Breeze built the frame of his prototype

"Breezer" using chrome-moly aircraft tubing. He

modeled the design after the Schwinn Excelsior

X but straightened the lines. He reinforced the

seat posts and forks and used all new parts. The

result was a much stronger, much lighter-weight


By spring of 1978, Breeze had built ten Breezers,

making him the designer-builder of the first

modern mountain bike.


In the early 70s, bikers pushed their ballooners

to the top of Mt. Talampais and rode the thrill on

a twisting trail that dropped 1,300 feet in two

miles. They reached the bottom of the trail with

coaster brakes so hot that the grease burned

away. The hubs had to be repacked with grease,

and the trail came to be called "Repack."

The first time-trials took place in 1976, with

Alan Bonds prevailing as the only rider who did

not crash. For the next three years, the

founders of the sport of mountain biking cut

their teeth (and their britches) at Repack downhill


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