Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Joe Breeze and the History of Breezer Bikes

Joe Breeze was one of the central figures in the development of mountain biking. He's probably best known as the designer-builder of the first successful modern mountain bikes. Joe became a leading designer and proponent of a sport that has gotten more people on bikes in the western world than at any time since the 1890s. Joe attributes his successes with mountain biking to his passion for bicycling, evident in his oft-quoted line, "We were just havin' fun." Joe has made bicycles his life's work--as rider, racer, designer, builder, and advocate.

Born in December 1953, Joe grew up in Mill Valley, California, at the foot of Mount Tamalpais, the Marin County mountain that would become famous worldwide as the birthplace of mountain biking. Joe's father Bill, a machinist, rode his bike to work in the 1950s. His job was specialty preparation of sports cars and race cars and he passed along to Joe an appreciation for lightweight, mechanically efficient vehicles and the view that the bicycle is the supreme example.

Like most kids of his era, Joe rode a bike to school and around the neighborhood. By the age of ten he and friends were riding beyond town. In his early teens he began touring California by road bike. He started racing road bikes at age sixteen, in 1970. In 1971 he took a cycling tour of Europe, where he met famed bike builder Cino Cinelli and was inspired by the cycling infrastructure of Holland. He saw people of all ages using bicycles to get places and was deeply impressed with the positive effects that transportation cycling had on communities. Back at home, he began studying machining and metal technology, learning the art of bicycle framebuilding, and looking into the rich history of bicycles. He built his first road bike frame in 1974 and was soon in demand as a custom builder.

In the road-racing off-season in the early 1970s, Joe and several friends from Velo Club Tam--including Gary Fisher, Otis Guy, and Charlie Kelly--began refurbishing old balloon-tire bikes from the 1930s and '40s and riding them off-road for fun. The old bike frames were not built for the demands of these off-road riders, who broke many old frames in their exploits. In 1977 Joe Breeze agreed to make a stronger, lighter mountain bike for Charlie Kelly. Word got out, and eight other orders quickly came in. Because he had to work out so many ideas, Joe first designed and built himself a frame, which he completed in September 1977 and immediately rode to victory at the Repack downhill time trial. He then produced nine more, building each into a complete bike, from late 1977 to June 1978. These were the first successful frames designed and built for use as mountain bikes. Joe built them up with all brand-new parts, including 12 or 18 gears depending on the buyer. They are generally considered the first modern mountain bikes. They were called Breezers.

Joe analyzed, refined and shared his ideas and helped formulate succeeding generations of mountain bike design. As Joe continued to race, design and build bikes, Gary Fisher teamed with Charlie Kelly in 1979 to sell mountain bikes built by Tom Ritchey under the name MountainBikes. A sport was launched that now boasts over 20 million riders in the U.S. and is hugely popular in Europe. The lineage of today's mountain bike industry traces directly to the "playing around" and work of a few Californians. Breeze, Fisher, Ritchey and Kelly were all inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in its charter year, 1988.

Over the next two decades, while Joe's fame grew in the mountain bike world for innovative, efficient designs and fine fabrication, he kept his interest in bicycle transportation and used a bicycle to get around (he didn't get a driver's license until he was 25). Through the 1980s Joe did custom and small-run framebuilding. His frame innovations continued to be widely influential--for instance in the early 1980s he designed the Unicrown fork, which became the industry standard. He designed an aluminum production mountain bike (the American Breezer), and designed and sold bicycle parts including his patented Hite-Rite seat adjustor, one of the first mountain bike accessories. Joe and others in the Bay Area founded NORBA, the National Off-Road Bicycling Association, in 1983, to deal with trail-access issues and to serve as the sanctioning body for mountain bike racing.

In 1990, Joe designed a line of high-end production Breezer bikes, which were sold in North America, Europe and Japan. These models, produced through 1998, included the Breezer Lightning, Jet Stream, Twister, Thunder, Storm, and Beamer, and a road bike, the Breezer Venturi. The Breezer Ignaz X (1996), a tribute to Ignaz Schwinn, was Joe's first production foray into the bike transportation field. All Breezers were acclaimed for design excellence and superb performance and are now highly sought after on the aftermarket. Students of bicycle design often note the industry-wide influence of Joe's road frames as well as his mountain bike frames. Joe's efficient, elegant solutions to overall concepts and fine points of design and fabrication are frequently imitated, but never equaled.

Joe's love for bicycle transportation eventually overtook his interest in producing and promoting recreational bikes. In the late 1990s, the Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC) was formed with Joe as an active member and advisor. With his visionary approach and extraordinary attention to detail, he produced a bicycle map of Marin showing existing routes, and also potential routes-ways that people of all ages and abilities might ride to work, school and play. The MCBC has become one of the most active local coalitions in the United States. A key to its success in improving cycling conditions has been its cooperation and effective collaboration with local town councils, public works departments, law enforcement agencies, schools and businesses. Joe's vision and idealism combined with his realistic, practical, hands-on approach has been a great help; his intensive study of existing infrastructure has helped the MCBC and the County plan effectively for the future.

In 2002, Joe took a step he had long hoped for when he launched a new line of Breezer bicycles to provide healthful ways for North Americans to get the places they need to go in everyday travels. His new Breezer business is entirely focused on "transportation for a healthy planet." Throughout his years of bicycle industry and advocacy work, Joe researched transportation bicycles and formulated his ideas. He designed a line of bikes that combine the great performance Breezers have always been known for, with a wealth of useful equipment. Joe's new Breezer designs integrate well-built frames with transportation features such as generator lights, fenders, racks, reflective tires, locks and even bells. As Joe sees it, you should be able to walk into a bike shop and buy a fully equipped vehicle that is useful in your everyday life. The new Breezers have the performance to satisfy experienced riders, and they're comfortable and easy to operate, even for novice riders. North Americans who had not thought of themselves as "cyclists" are now using bikes for errands, shopping, commutes and rides with family and friends. Joe's lifelong dream is being realized.

In Joe's words: "When I built my first Breezer mountain bikes back in 1977, I had no idea how popular mountain biking would become, but one thing was clear: People who gave the bikes a try invariably returned with big smiles on their faces. As people today ride my new breed of Breezer Town and Range bikes, I’m reminded of those earlier times. Their faces light up—they feel like kids again, filled with energy and optimism. People are delighted to discover a bike that not only gets them places and carries things but also is comfortable, easy to use, and a joy to ride. Yes, you can fit fun, transportation and exercise right into your life, not just onto it. On a Breezer, you can save time. The better a bike feels, the more it gets used. So naturally I had to make these bikes way fun to ride!"

To learn more about mountain bike history, visit the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame

Klunkerz is a great new documentary about mountain bike history.

I found this brief history of Joe Breeze at http://www.breezerbikes.com/index.cfm

1 comment:

Repack Rider said...

Great article on Joe. You might want to check out my website. Joe is all over it.