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BicycleSource Newsletter


The first successful high quality fat-tire bicycle was built in Marin County, California by Joe Breeze, who with others rode down the rocky trails of nearby My Tamalpais. They used balloon-tire one-speed clunkers from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s to descend these trails with coaster brakes. In that pursuit, one of these trails got the name "Repack" because one descent was enough to vaporize the bike's grease, requiring the hub to be re-packed.

Joe Breeze, Otis Guy, and Gary Fisher, all still in the bike business today, were top category USCF riders. Many of the Tamalpais riders were members of road club Velo Club Tamalpais, wearing a blue and gold jersey with the mountain logo. In October of 1977, Joe built a fat-tire bike of lightweight tubing that was previously found only on better road bikes. It had all new, high-quality parts and 26" x 2 1/8" Uniroyal "Knobby" tires on Schwinn S2 rims and Phil Wood hubs. Joe built ten of these first Breezers by June 1978. Breezer #1 has been on display at various places, including the Oakland Museum, where it has been on permanent display since 1985.

However the first Breezer was predated by a frame built for Charlie Kelly by Craig Mitchell earlier in 1977. As the Breezer frames that followed, it was made of 4130 chrome-moly airframe tubing. Kelly equipped it with the parts from his Schwinn Excelsior. These parts included SunTour derailleurs and thumbshifters, TA aluminum cranks, Union drum brake hubs, motorcycle brake levers, Brooks B-72 saddle, Schwinn S-2 rims and UniRoyal Knobby tires (essentially, the best parts found on clunkers of that day). In spite of this, Charlie chose switch back to his Schwinn frame, which he rode until June of 1978, when he got himself a Breezer, and for one reason or another the Mitchell frame was not further developed.

In January 1979, Joe and Otis, who were planning another transcontinental record attempt, visited Tom Ritchey, who was building their tandem frame, and brought along Joe's Breezer mountain bike. Peter Johnson, another noted frame builder who happened to be present, was immediately impressed with its features, as was Tom who also sensed the significance of the concept, being a veteran road bike trail rider in the Santa Cruz mountains. Gary Fisher got wind of Tom's interest in fat tire bikes and asked Tom to build him one. Tom built one for himself, one for Gary, and one for Gary to sell.

After building nine more frames later in 1979, Tom couldn't find buyers for them nearby in Palo Alto, so he asked Fisher if he could sell them in Marin. Fisher and Charlie Kelly pooled a few hundred dollars and started "MountainBikes" which became today's Gary Fisher Bicycles. It was the first exclusively mountain bike business. It was Tom's bikes, and Fisher and Kelly's business that made the introduction of the mountain bike take hold. There was an obvious gap in the market, most builders focusing on road bikes left this an open field for innovation.

If anyone's name stands out as the builder of the earliest viable mountain bike, it is Joe Breeze, who today still produces Breezers. The marketing push first came from Tom Ritchey, Gary Fisher, and Charlie Kelly and the ball was rolling. At first the USCF felt it below their dignity, as did the UCI, to include these bicycles, but after NORBA racers began to outnumber USCF racers, they relented and absorbed these upstarts, as they certainly would recumbents if they had similar public appeal.

By Jobst Brandt, jbrandt@hplabsz.hpl.hp.com.
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