Co-Evolution Quarterly, Spring 1978

The First Published Article on Mountain Bikes


In 1977 freelance writer Richard Nilsen discovered the proto-mountain bike scenes taking place in Crested Butte, Colorado and Marin County, California. He was the first person to put into print the possibilities of off-road bicycling.

This article from the Spring, 1978 issue of the Co-Evolution Quarterly, with photos by Mike Castelli, is the first written reference to mountain bikes, before that name was even applied to them. Note the title of the article. Apparently the name "clunker" didn't quite catch on.

See at the end the sidebar about the Crested Butte to Aspen ride and the Repack Downhill.









In Marin County, California, a combination of recycled bicycle parts, human ingenuity, and a network of hilly dirt fire trails has produced a new kind of bicycle and a new sport.

The basic component, the heavy-framed, 26-inch balloon-tired "paper boy bike" has been a familiar sight in America ever since 1933, the year Ignatz Schwinn introduced the balloon tire from Germany as a sales gimmick to imitate automobile tires and hopefully save the bicycle industry from the nosedive it had been in since the advent of the motorcar.

Balloon-tired bicycles remained popular through the late 40's, when a medium-sized tire began to gain popularity. These gave way in the early 50's to English 3-speed bi kes with smaller tires, and by the late 50's the move was,on to the even smaller-tired, lightweight European racing bikes. Continuously improving roads made these changes both possible and practical.

So by the late 60's, the balloon-tired bicycle was clearly in the category of a forgotten relic waiting to be found. The finders, at least in Marin County, tended to be escapist hippies looking for the cheapest and easiest way to get to the local woods. They were cheap because in those days they could be found by scrounging at the local dump, and they were practical because they' were so ugly no one would want to rip off your bicycle; ergo, forget locks, chains and paranoia.

They were and still are called by many names: junkers, clunkers, trashmobiles, bombers, ballooners, cruisers. The classic price for one around 1970 was $5.00. Gradually the term clunker began to prevail, and became a verb as well as a noun: "You want to go clunking today? We went on a good clunk yesterday."

A revolutionary moment in this history occurred three or four years ago, when Gary Fisher got the idea of putting a ten-speed derailleur assembly on a balloon-tired bicycle. (Gary, who is acknowledged in these parts as being the first person to create such a hybrid, is a lightweight bicycle road racer, who also happens to hold the record time on the local clunker downhill race course, the Repack.) It took some fiddling, of course, European dimensions vs. American, but when it was finished, the result was a bicycle that not on1y would roll down the hilly dirt trails, it could also be pedalled back up them. It could be ridden over deer and cow trails, and unlike dirt motorcycles, it could easily be carried over fallen logs and gullies. And it was quiet!

The potential of clunker bicycles has scarcely been explored. I have the distinct feeling that someone, somewhere else in the world must have hit upon this same combination of rugged frame, big tires and many gears. Perhaps the Chinese have millions of them. In Marin County today they are used primarily as suburban recreational vehicles, though a few owners are using them as a means of not having to own and maintain a car. But in forgotten rural America, where there are too few people to create much of a market for anything, clunker bicycles have a real future as everyday basic transportation. Anywhere that the roads are "too bad for bicycles," a clunker now offers an alternative.

As their popularity increased, the $5 clunker became the $25 clunker. In the trial and error of off-road use, virtually every part of the bicycle that could be broken was broken: seat posts, brakes, front forks, handlebars, gears, crank arms, rims. Subtle design changes and a desire for rugged replacement parts resulted. By now, bicycle shops and junk-yards in Northern California and a good part of Oregon have been scoured for old parts. With the bicycle industry today concentrating on lightweight racing bikes, and 20-inch banana-seat "motocross" bikes for little kids, new parts for clunkers just aren't made anymore; or if they are made, the quality is often inferior.

In 1965, Schwinn stopped making its heavyweight frames entirely, and the quality and workmanship on the older frames is far superior. A 40's Schwinn frame is therefore better than one from the 50's, and if you have one from the 30's, you now own a bicycle worth locking up. Other makes of sought after old frames include Shelbys and Columbias.

With these changes, some of the early pioneers began to call their creations by other names. "To refer to a $300 bicycle as a 'clunker' is a contradiction in terms," says Joe Breeze, who calls his radically designed, homemade bicycle a ballooner.

Popularity has also brought abuses. Clunker bicycles on narrow dirt trails are not particularly compatible with either hikers or horses. Many clunker bikers don't ride on weekends just for this reason, or else choose trails where they are less likely to encounter people. But how to explain these fine points of user responsibil ity to a group of 16-year-old clunker enthusiasts is an unanswered question. Andrea Sharp, the CO office manager, has had to leap off of hiking. trails in Marin to escape an oncoming pack of clunker riders. She says they are worse than dirt motorcycles, because they give you no warning of their approach.

The advantages of a clunker on dirt become disadvantages on pavement. The heavy frame is that much more mass to move, and the big balloon tires have a high rolling resitance. Those looking for a bicycle to use both on and off the pavement should consider an intermediate weight frame and a tire such as the 1. 75 inch diameter size - smaller than aballoon tire, but larger than a racing tire.

Clunker bicycle racing is the third, and certainly the least-known about, kind of off-road bicycle racing. The oldest is European cyclo-cross racing. The bicycle here is a very refined, lightweight knobbytired ten speed, the track length varies from 3/4 to 1-1/2 miles in length, with enough laps to make a 15 - 20 mile °long race, that usually takes about an hour to run. From 30 to 40 racers compete together.

The catch is that there are as many as ten mounts and dismounts for obstacles in each lap -logs, gullies and mudholes. The trick is in being able to leap the obstacles on your bike, or else to dismount, run through the obstacle and remount, all without breaking stride. Needless to say, this sport requires great physical stamina.

The second and more recent off-road sport is called bicycle motocross, or BMX. Described as the largest two-whee1ed sport in America, it is for kids too young to have licenses to ride motorcycles. It is largely supported by the motorcycle manufacturers as a nottoo-subtle means of instilling product identification in the minds of its future customers. Racers ride 20-inch, one-speed MXers in heats of 5 or 6 over quarter to half-mile manicured dirt tracks with jumps interspersed. The courses are very gentle, and no body training is required. These small 20-inch MX style bicycles can be seen lining the walls of any bike shop in America today.

Clunker bike racing as it is practiced in Marin County, is a downhill event, with each racer taking his or her turn against the clock - much like a downhill ski race. Other variations exist elsewhere (see box). The dirt course is two miles long and drops 1,200 feet. It is a fire road with numerous blind, off-camber hairpin turns. The best times have been turned in after rains, when the course is less dusty and better packed. Gary Fisher's track record of 4:22.14 was set in December of 1976. Any time under five minutes is considered good, since that time requires an average speed over the track in excess of 25 mph. Which means that if you are not braking and skidding through one of the turns, you have to be pedalling downhill like crazy.

The racers have the course memorized by heart, and with 100 foot maximum visibility and 200 foot stopping distances, it's easy to see why. "The Repack course kind of comes on like a recurring dream," says race organizer Charlie Kelly (he owns the synchronous timers). The course got its name from the old coaster brakes, which used to come smoking across the finish line and would have to be repacked with grease.

Clunkers are clearly capable of providing enough off-road versatility and thrills to entice a few dirt motorcycle riders to give up straddling a mechanical vibration and find out instead what warm leg muscles feel like. But since clunking does involve perspiration, the American male's love affair/addiction to the internal combustion engine - insofar as dirt motorcycles are concerned - will probably remain good to the very last drop of oil.

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