Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mountain Biking in the 70's - Midwest City Style

As many of you know from my previous articles, I grew up in the middle of Oklahoma – in a little town spawned by the announcement of the development of Tinker Air Force Base in the 40’s – Midwest City – which, in turn, was home to the one and only bike shop in town, Vic’s Bike Shop on 15th Street – whose owner, Vic, was himself a retired Air Force something-or-other. So much for the opening geographical paragraph to set the scene.

I started working for Vic at the beginning of the 10-speed boom of the 70’s. There was nothing more that I loved to do than to come to work right after a big delivery of brand new Schwinn Continentals and Varsities(along with a few Nishikis and Motebecanes and Orions) and start tearing open boxes and building up the new shiny road bikes. But alas, my specialty seemed to be repairing the old klunkers that Vic had the contract on from the neighboring Tinker AFB.

Let me take a moment to describe these Tinker klunkers. Imagine something like a 1930’s Schwinn Excelsior balloon tire bicycle. Now imagine that bike with forty-plus years of hard, hard, usage and abuse and then multiply that abuse times seven. Then imagine, in an effort at some point in time to make the bike look semi-new again, someone decides to give the bike a paint job – so, they get a gallon of enamel – let’s say like yellow – and then get a big old 5” flat paint brush and paint the bike – yellow. We’re not talking paint the bicycle frame – we’re talking paint the bike yellow – frame, wheels, handlebars, spokes, tires, seat… you know – paint the entire bike yellow! Or maybe green or maybe blue – whatever. This was possibly before the invention of masking tape. And then at some other point in time a tire goes flat or something gets bent or broken so that’s when the bike gets hurled towards a big pile of other yellow and green and blue bicycles at the end of Tinker Building 3001 and once or twice a month Vic will stop by and toss them all in the back of his Chevrolet El Camino and haul them all over to the bike shop…

 …for me to fix!

And so began my love of the old balloon tire cruisers - the good ol’ klunker - the trusty steed that was the fetus of the modern day mountain bike. And there I was, with a seemingly endless supply of worn out frames and parts to work with. My first all-terrain cruiser, Ol’ Trashmo, was built from a 1940’s Schwinn Wasp and rigged with Suntour shifting system and Universal center pull brakes. I, unlike the morons at the Air Force base, even put a fairly nice paint job on it – black frame with baby blue rims. She was a beauty.

Now, Midwest City is a fairly flat city – not the kind of city that one could ever garner any hopes for being known as the birthplace of anything that would eventually contain the word “mountain” in it – such as mountain biking. But there is this spot in the city where Key Boulevard goes under the train tracks that offers up a pretty decent downhill run. As kids, it was the first place we’d head for with our big pieces of cardboard – aka toboggans – right after any kind of a decent snowfall. The perfect place for a mini-downhill test of Ol’ Trashmo. In fact, all along the right-of-way beside the tracks offered a fairly decent run to enjoy some off-road riding with a quite a heaping helping of obstacles to maneuver around and attempt to jump over. Thus, in the fall of 1972, in the heart of the flatlands: The Birth of the Mountain Bike.

Unfortunately, as the spring of ’73 grew near, I found out I was horrendously failing Home Ec – which in turn caused me to have to take it in summer school – which I also failed so I had to take it the next semester - in the morning and the afternoon—as kind of insurance in case I failed one of them. Needless to say, I didn't really seem to be the Home Ec kind of person but my mother pretty much made me keep taking it until I finally got a passing grade and could graduate from high school. Also, needless to say, this took serious time away from me fully developing and marketing my invention of the mountain bike.

I’m pretty sure that there were spies in Midwest City in the early 70’s – especially since we were right there next to Tinker AFB – because what I discovered that had taken place during those nine years while I was in high school trying to pass Home Economics seemed just a little more than coincidence the way it mimicked those exciting moments that me and my bike shop buddies experienced on the downhill slopes of the Key Boulevard train track crossing. You be the judge:

1973 – Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly, Tom Ritchey and Gary Fisher build and ride klunkers (old Schwinn cruisers adapted for off-road riding).
October 1976 – The first Repack in Marin County at Mount Tamalpais.
1977 – Breezer One is completed.
September 1979 – Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly founded  MountainBikes.
May 1981 – Bicycling magazine features MountainBikes.
1982 – 500 Specialized Stumpjumpers are released in the United States.

I am fairly certain that had it not been for my mom forcing me to pass Home Economics, those 500 bikes would have been Ashtabula Trashmo Bikes (ATB’s) – in any color you want as long as it’s black with baby blue wheels!

Enjoy the Ride!

PS—For what many to believe to be the real history of mountain biking, check out the time line at

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