Ballooners, Clunkers and Breezers
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