Documenting the klunker revolution
Like any epic singletrack trail, the origins of mountain biking are filled with smooth sections, rough patches, zigs and zags, dips and turns, and quite a few characters.
Except for a relatively small group of cycling enthusiasts who have done their research, most of mountain biking’s story has never really been told. But local filmmaker Gregg Betonte and his partner, Vernon Felton, are about to change that in an upcoming documentary on the subject.
The way Betonte sees it, the standard story on the invention of the mountain bike is pretty straightforward: A bunch of guys got together in Marin County and started welding derailleurs onto tough, beach cruiser-style bikes so that they could ride up and down the slopes of Mount Tamalpais.
Inevitably, a few big-name players who are still involved in the industry get mentioned, Betonte said, and for good reason. However, there are a lot more people who were involved from the sport’s beginnings who have interesting stories to tell.
“When people talk about the origins of mountain biking, they typically talk about three folks, guys who were really prominent players: individuals like Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze and Tom Ritchey,” Felton said. “And we’ll definitely include them in the story, but there’s a huge cast of people that had a really important stake in mountain biking.”
The short list is made up of at least 54 people who, Betonte said, one could argue are true fat-tire pioneers. So he and Felton are including those people and their stories in the film.
“Mountain biking is very much like gumbo,” he said. “It’s a stew that everybody contributed to.”
Revealing the ingredients of that stew is what Betonte and Felton hope to accomplish with their documentary ” tentatively titled “Klunker” after the nickname given to the original mountain bikes. And making the end result spicy enough for general audiences is their ultimate goal.
“Most people in the general public will never ride a mountain bike. So if you just created a movie showing people riding bikes and talking about [bicycle] technology, it would bore the hell out of them,” Felton said. “But I think people are always fascinated by other people, and if we did a story that explains how a group of people were changed forever by the mountain bike, that would be kind of interesting.”
The idea, according to both filmmakers, is to do for the history of mountain biking what Stacy Peralta’s documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys” did for the history of skateboarding.
“That was one of the first documentaries that really was a whole different genre,” Betonte said, “the sports-action film meets a wide audience.”
Walking the line between making a film that is detailed and accurate enough to keep cycling enthusiasts happy while at the same time capturing the human drama that makes the story appealing to wider audiences will be a challenge. But Betonte and Felton should benefit from their familiarity with the cycling industry and the access they have to the characters who will be telling their stories in the film.
Betonte said he expects to have hundreds of hours of footage when they are through with the interviews. With that much editing needed, there is always the worry that the end result will suffer from the editorial bias of the filmmakers. But according to Betonte, neither he nor Felton want to put any kind of spin on the final outcome.
“All we want to do is be the conduit for the story,” he said. “That’s about as far as you can get because the rest of the story is written by the interviewees.”
While people still debate who built the first real “mountain bike,” there is a general consensus that riders in Marin County took the first step in that direction by welding derailleurs onto “klunkers” ” big Schwinn Excelsiors and other beach cruiser-style bikes back in the 1970s.
When that wasn’t enough, riders started welding together custom frames designed for durability and off-road handling, and eventually, small companies started building mass-produced bikes.
From there the trend took off, until mountain biking had entered the American consciousness and mountain bikes started popping up in national ad campaigns and television shows.
“What I find interesting is the sport has dramatically changed people’s lives,” Felton said. “You had a group of relative misfits ” hippies, dropouts and people who were on the fringe up in Marin County ” and for one reason or another, they were able to launch the sport when it could have been launched a hundred years before. What was it about this group of people that made mountain biking leap off the page and into the public consciousness?”
And while the history of the mountain bike will play the most prominent role in the film, “Klunker” will also explore the complicated and often contentious relationship that mountain bikers now have with other trail users in Marin.
If all goes as planned, Betonte and Felton hope to be able to complete the editing and production of “Klunker,” which will be done in Betonte’s own Side Effects Productions studio in Truckee, by the end of this summer and then premiere the film at the 2006 or 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
Betonte and Felton are looking for archival footage, photos, bikes and parts from the early days of mountain biking. Anyone with materials for the film can call Side Effects Productions at (530) 550-7469.