Joe Breeze: on naked bikes and self-propelling prophecies

MTB pioneer admits trail biking was a “diversion” from his real passion

It’s not even lunch time yet and Joe Breeze has already blown my mind. Breeze ~ who with Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey, and other Mountain Bike Hall-of-Famers basically invented the sport ~ has just admitted over the phone that if he hadn’t been so distracted by that whole fat-tire repack thing, he might have gotten down to what he really wanted to do a whole lot sooner: design commuter bicycles.

“The off-road thing was a diversion from my plan,” admits the creator of Breezer Bikes from his Marin County work space, “It wasn’t part of the script. It just happened…like life.”

“My interest in city bikes came long before mountain bikes,” he explains. “My father commuted to his job in the 1950’s by bike, so I grew up aware of that aspect of bikes.” Breeze rode to school and around his neighbourhood as a kid, but it wasn’t until the 17-year-old bike-toured in Europe that his eyes opened to bike transportation culture.

Says Breeze, “Nowhere was this so pronounced as in Holland with their extensive bicycle thoroughfares, cloverleaf interchanges and bicycle traffic signals….I thought, ‘We’ve got to do this in America!'”

Joe returned home inspired, and got involved in the beginnings of the region’s bicycling infrastructure. Perhaps more significant to the history of cycling, he also paid five bucks for a beat-up 1941 Schwinn Excelsior and turned it into what would eventually be called a “mountain bike“.

As Joe puts it, “One thing led to another and soon I was flying down a Mount Tamalpais fire road thinking ‘a-ha!'”. Breeze’s refurbished cruiser, then the series of “Breezers” he built after that, begat a sport that put Marin County on the map and North Americans on their bikes. Breeze continued to build off-road bikes through the 1990’s.

“For me, the diversion essentially lasted twenty years. By that point, the mountain bike was well on its way and I kept coming back to city bikes as a way to get more people on bikes.” The trouble was, there weren’t a lot of non-mountain bikes that fit the bill so Breezer created the Ignaz X: a cruiser tribute to Schwinn’s founder. “I know it got style points,” admits Joe, “But I wasn’t particularly happy with that bike because it was designed after a cruiser, and cruisers will never be very ergonomically efficient.”

Joe uses the word “efficient” surprisingly often when he describes bikes. “Bicycling is the most efficient method of transport ever born or devised,” states Joe matter-of-factly. “Maybe I wasn’t aware of that when I first learned to ride at age five, but I soon was entranced with how far I could get down the road with so little effort.” He also learned that a better pedal stroke and a better bike made biking even ~ better. Jokes the still-ardent commuter cyclist, “it was a self-propelling prophecy.”

It was Breeze’s love of efficiency ~ as well as his advocacy efforts with the Marin County Bicycle Coalition and proddings from his new business partner John Doidge ~ that prompted his next step. “[John] had been to many bike shops expressing his desire for a purpose-built bike with fenders, a rack, lights, kick-stand, et cetera ~ and the common response was, ‘why would you want a bike like that?'”

Joe’s answer? Given the choice of a reasonably-priced town bike that is efficient and fun to ride; or an expensive car that is frustrating to drive, why wouldn’t you want a bike like that? Breeze created what he calls a “civilized vehicle” ~ a ready-to-go bike that shares the basic features of a car: “…fenders for grimy roads, lights in case it gets dark, ways to carry stuff things and protect your clothes; and the ability to stay upright when parked.”

“They’re like a European town bike,” says Joe of his new Town and Range models, “but I tailored them to my view of the North American market which requires a sportier bike.” Unlike the boutique Dutch-style bikes becoming popular with Yaletown flat-landers, a Breezer’s geometry and lightness make it agile enough to sprint up Vancouver hills. And unlike the bare-bones mountain-bike styles you find everywhere else, a Breezer is not naked.

“We’ve been selling naked bikes for decades!” exclaims Joe with exasperation and just a hint of confession. He explains that while experienced bike owners know they have to add after-market accessories to a recreational bike to make it useful in the city ~ novice riders (and the majority of the population) don’t. “I’ve run into people over the years who have said to me, ‘why can’t bikes be useful?'”

If the Joe Breeze of twenty-five years ago is guilty of denuding bikes of their useful accessories, he’s now making amends. Today Breezer’s motto is “Transportation for a healthier planet” and the company has officially switched from recreation to transportation bicycles. “It is time to unite cyclists, environmentalists, and health and cycling advocates,” Breezer proclaims, “so that bicycles will be fully appreciated as the wonderful vehicles that they are.”

Now that sounds like a self-propelling prophecy.

I recommend…
As well as providing links to his favourite cycling advocacy and education organisations, Breeze’s web site also describes the birth of mountain biking in his own words.

Published in the August/September 2006 issue of Momentum Magazine.