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Editor’s note: We were happy to meet Joe Breeze on the show floor at Interbike 2010. We had already spoken with him via email about doing an “e-interview” for Bikecommuters.com, and he was very receptive to the idea. Despite a very crowded and active display booth at Interbike, Joe was gracious enough to spend about 45 minutes chatting with us…he is extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the bicycles he develops and rides and was a pleasure to spend time with. Special thanks go to Paul Tolmé, public relations guru at TRUE Communications for help introducing us to Joe and helping us prepare some worthwhile interview questions. Let’s kick this baby off:
It is no overstatement to say that Joe Breeze is one of the most influential bicyclists of the modern era. In the 1970s he and a group of buddies including Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchie and other icons of the sport took to the hills of Marin County, California, and began racing so-called clunkers—heavy Schwinn paperboy bikes that they beefed up and retrofitted with motorcycle parts and junk shop finds. In 1977, Breeze built what is recognized to be the first brand new mountain bike. Others soon followed, and a new sport was born that has spread to all corners of the globe. While modern mountain bikes look nothing like modern transportation bikes, the early mountain bikes gained popularity partly because they were far more practical and comfortable to ride than the ubiquitous 10-speed racers of the era. And those early mountain bikes introduced a new generation to the joys of bike riding. A decade ago, after 20 years of building mountain bikes, Breeze stunned his industry colleagues by deciding to focus his attention on building the best American commuter bikes. This seems an obvious choice today due to the recent explosion in popularity of transportation bikes, but a decade ago it was a bold and forward-thinking move that cemented Breeze’s reputation as one of the fathers of the American commuter bike movement.
Today, Breezers are recognized as among the best American commuter bikes, having won Bicycling Magazine’s Editor’s Choice award for best commuter bike three years running. Breeze still lives in the Bay Area’s Marin County, near his boyhood home in Mill Valley. He now lives in neighboring Fairfax, where he works from a shop in his home and still gets out to ride the trails around Mt Tamalpais where he and a rowdy bunch of bicycle enthusiasts forever changed the sport of cycling.
1. Please give us a little background on your history, particularly your involvement with transportation-oriented bicycle development.
I’ve been an intercity bike traveler since 1965 when as a fifth grader I rode with neighborhood friends to the local bowling alley, 14 miles round trip. It was with a great sense of accomplishment that we crested the 300-foot hill along the way and made it home under our own power. By 14 and 15 years old I was going on rides of over a hundred miles, to get to places like Lake Tahoe and the southern Sierra Nevada. In 1971 I took a ride through Europe with a dozen friends. Before leaving I perused my library’s phonebooks for my European cycling heroes so I could seek them out. I was fortunate enough to meet Cino Cinelli at his factory in Milan. In the Netherlands I had my eyes opened wide by the practical bicycle infrastructure. Seeing cycling there, how intrinsic it was to everyday life for people of all ages, was a lifelong inspiration. Short of hope for immediate success of the same in America, I buried myself in road racing, which I saw as a first step in getting out the secret of cycling: that right here in America bikes can provide joy and travel in our everyday living. I also started building custom-built road-racing frames in 1974. The foray my friends and I took into what became known as mountain biking was at first just an off-season diversion from road racing. In 1977 I built what is recognized as the first successful all-new mountain bike. For the next twenty years I focused on my Breezer mountain bikes.
Mountain biking got a lot more Americans onto bikes, and many of these new cyclists realized that bikes could be used for more than just fun in the woods. In the latter part of the 1990s and early 2000s I worked with our local bike coalition to make Marin County a model for bicycle transportation for adults and school children. I knew that good infrastructure was key to transforming transportation choices here, but at the same time I saw that the US was sorely lacking in bikes equipped for everyday life. In 2002, I re-formed Breezer as a company focused entirely on transportation bikes. I designed a line of fully equipped bikes and went out to convince the industry that transportation bikes were the future. At first, many people thought I was crazy to turn away from a successful career designing recreational bikes, but I felt that transportation bikes were vital to this country’s health.
2. Our readers are well familiar with the benefits of transportation bicycling for healthier communities, healthier lives and affordable, sustainable transportation. Tell us how you incorporate transportation cycling into your life in Marin, California.
I do not have my own car, so I use a bike to get most places I go locally. Actually I did that for most of my life even when I did own a car. (I didn’t get a driver’s license until I was 25.) It wasn’t until the 1990s that I had a bike that was fully equipped with rack, fenders, lights, etc. and I realized how easy that made it to ride still more and drive still less. My wife has a car and I do drive it sometimes. My own car eventually started mulching in the front yard; a few years back we realized we might as well get rid of it.
3. In 2008 you sold Breezer Bicycles to Advanced Sports International, which also owns Fuji and several other brands. How has your role changed now that Breezer Bicycles is under the ASI banner, and do you still have a free hand in design, specification and development?
I am still with Breezer as designer. The association with ASI has freed me from all of the details of running a company and allowed me to concentrate on design and product development. I don’t have the same level of control over all details of every finished product, but I’m able to do many more projects and create many more bikes, than when I had my own company. I am continuing with transportation bikes, for Europe as well as the US, and I’m also doing mountain and road bikes again.
4. What emerging technologies do you see playing a larger role in transportational cycling’s future? I’m thinking of belt drives and other alternative drivetrain systems, in particular. What else looks promising?
As the secret of everyday biking is getting out in America I see a lot of growth for cycling in the coming years. New cyclists tend to appreciate things that make cycling easier, so internally-geared hubs like Shimano’s Nexus series of low-maintenance, easy-to-shift transmissions are becoming quite popular. New technology is inspiring. I myself was certainly inspired by the Nexus hub; I saw it as an opening to introduce a Netherlands-type cycling lifestyle to the US. I first spec’ed a bike with the Nexus 7 hub in 1996 (the Breezer Ignaz X); then I designed my Breezer Town bikes around Nexus hubs in the early 2000s. The 2011 Breezer Uptown Infinity (∞) has the NuVinci transmission hub with infinitely variable ratios. NuVinci is even easier to shift. People have asked for a fully automatic bicycle transmission forever, and this NuVinci hub will develop into a game changer. Though bicycles have remained fairly constant for a century or so, the bicycle of tomorrow could be quite different.
5. Breezer now has several electric bikes. What’s your take on electric and pedal-assist e-bikes? Any plans to add more electric systems to the Breezer commuter line?
Electric bikes will see much broader appeal too. Of course we hope to offer more here as well.
6. The U.S. seems to be lagging far behind other countries in our adoption of cycling as a valid form of transportation. What are the top policy changes that our government and nation can make to get more people on bikes?
Level the playing field: Reduce car-driving subsidies, most of which the public is unaware of. Make motorists pay more of the full cost of driving. Current gasoline taxation does not come close to paying these costs. This gap ends up robbing funding for better things like education. When there are healthier, more enjoyable ways to get around, why give a false sense of the cost of driving?
7. Do you have any tips or insights for beginning commuters or those looking to reduce their reliance on automobiles?
1) Get a fully equipped bike. At minimum it should have a kickstand, rack, full fenders, chainguard and generator lights. Without the full bill, it’s too easy to find an excuse not to ride: It might get dark. The roads might get wet. I might need to carry something, etc.; 2) Get clothes that make riding more comfortable in a broader range of weather. 3) At first, just getting past your front door may be the biggest obstacle. Once beyond though, you may wonder why it seemed so difficult.
8. We are currently in a recession and the nation faces high unemployment. Do you see a future for more Made in the USA bicycles, and can a more vibrant bike culture in the United States create jobs and help our desire for a more sustainable economy?
Certainly. Bicycling is a growth market with a huge future around the globe. The US is a leader in new technologies, some of which will be applied to bikes.
9. Have you signed the People for Bikes petition, and do you feel it is an important statement for bicyclists to join?
Yes. Make your voice heard. Doing so is a tenet of a functioning democracy.
We’d like to thank Joe Breeze for sharing his thoughts with us…it’s not every day that we get to rub shoulders with someone SO influential in the bike commuting world, and we’re happy we made his acquaintance. To learn more about the Breezer Bikes lineup, swing on over to their website — you’ll be glad you did!