Editor’s Note: photo captions are in first person, as relayed by Billy Savage himself, to preserve the autobiographical nature of the series of photos.
Velomuse: KlunkerBill, how’d you get that name?
KlunkerBill: My name is Billy Savage and I made a film entitled Klunkerz, and the website is www.klunkerz.com, so I figured Klunkerbill seemed like a good screen name.
V: What made you decide to make a movie “Klunkers”?
KB: First of all, it’s Klunkerz with a “Z”. I always have to say that:). It was always my plan to have a title that’s never been used for anything else. Anyway, I love off-road bikes and I always have. I grew up riding BMX bikes in the early 1970s in Orange County, CA before I moved to Marin in 1977, which was 15 years before I moved back to SoCal. Whew! Anyway, back in 2001 a business associate of mine here in Hollywood asked me to come to a screening of a film he had produced at the Director’s Guild Theater. He and his team had just returned from Sundance where the film was a smash hit and won two awards. He knew I’d love it because I’m an old skater (see pix). The film was Dogtown and Z Boys. Some of the boys were there, which was cool because I had met and skated with a few of them back in the 1970s. It’s ended up being really funny because one of the guys in the Dogtown film, Ray Flores, really came through for me three years later with archival footage of the pioneers. It just so happened that he lived in Marin for a time back in the 1970s and he was the ONLY person to shoot the early Repack races on Super-8. Not only did he shoot all the Z-Boys skating the empty pools of SoCal, but he also shot the mountain bike pioneers on Repack. Amazing. I gave him an entire DVD extra on the disc, “Dogtown to Marin with Ray Flores”. Super cool guy. At the time of the screening I had been working in the development of feature scripts and I was writing one about Marin in the 1970s and it had bicycles in it. Watching Dogtown got me really stoked about the prospect of doing a documentary on the Marin guys. I had lived there and has some connections, so I thought I might be the guy to make it happen. I had worked on a lot of projects and even produced some stuff, but I had never directed my own thing since college and thought this might be the ticket. It took me a couple of years before research began on the project. It seemed no one had done a film like that yet, though a few companies were talking about it. I had to beat them to the punch. I watched all the bike porn I could get my hands on and figured it was about time for some counter-cultural programming. I did about a year of research on and off before my first shooting trip to Marin. The first time I pulled the trigger was in October of 2004.
V: What do you think was the most significant thing you learned about the evolution of mountain biking, while making the movie?
KB: That’s a tough one, because I learned so much and it all seems significant in retrospect. One of the things that really impressed me was how the pioneers came at this whole thing from such a place of innocence. They built the early machines out of pure passion for cycling. Most of them were super hard-core road racers who felt limited by the racing season and the restrictions of the paved surface. They figured that, just because the road ended, their adventures on bikes didn’t have to. Plus it was a great way to cross-train for the racing season and it was a hell of a lot of fun.
As the bikes developed it was a really great way for them to share ideas and push things forward, which is something radically different that today’s mentality of proprietary engineering. It was this communal aspect that was really crucial to the development of the bikes. One guy field-testing parts and ideas is going to take 20 times as long as 20 guys doing the same thing. When they found a better (stronger) frame, fork, crank or shifter they told each other about it. This open-source mentality meant that advances came quickly. Since it wasn’t about business, the guys wanted a level playing field to see who the best riders really were. It was about bragging rights. Everybody wanted to win the races, but nobody wanted to win a Repack race because the other guys had mechanical failures. I mean, the first Repack race only one guy out of the entire field made it down that goat track with his body and bike in one piece (Alan Bonds).
It’s really cool that these guys saved these of frames from the scrap heap and gave them a new life, but it definitely presented some problems. Since the frames were from the 1930s and 1940s, catastrophic mechanical failures did happen frequently, like frames snapping in half. Not good. They rusted from the inside, so you never knew when something might ‘let go’. Most of the bike frames and parts spec were VERY similar towards the end of the Klunker period. By late 1977 and early ’78 they had outfitted these old bike frames with all new parts. This exact parts spec was transferred over to the first Ritchey frames that Tom welding up for Gary and Charlie’s company. Mike Sinyard also used the exact same parts spec on the first year StumpJumpers. Mike made out like a bandit on the spec R & D for those early bikes. Those first set-ups came from the blood and sweat of the Marin pioneers…Mafac cantis, T/A cranks, Suntour thumbies, motorcycle cables and levers…everything.
Interestingly, Joe Breeze was pretty much the last of the hold-outs as far as technology goes. He was riding a 2-speed Bendix coaster brake bike with an inch pitch chain right up until he built Breezer #1, which was the first custom mountain bike frame with all the new parts listed above. Joe also won more Repack races than anyone (50% of the races he entered) on that old, rusty Schwinn, so what does that really say about rider ability versus technology? I’ve seen Joe ride that very Schwinn down Repack, and it’s a sight to behold.
It’s also interesting to note that all these guys are still riding, and many are well into their sixties. I don’t mean just riding down to the store at the end of the block, either. Many of the people in the film were out there on Thanksgiving day, doing 20 miles in the fog and the mud at the Appetite Seminar. Most of them haven’t missed that ride since it started in 1974. And when they got to the bottom of Repack this year I’m sure they all had a bunch of mud in their teeth because they were smiling the whole way down. They use bikes for fun, for transportation and for their health. No matter how successful they have been in their lives, they all live quite humbly, too. There isn’t a conspicuous consumer in the bunch. They were reducing, reusing and recycling long before it was a political catch phrase or bumper sticker, and they’ll never stop. Just the same way they saved those old frames from the trash heap back in the day. They are committed to the bicycle as an answer to what ails society. You see a lot of that pioneering spirit in the kids today taking the European road frames from the ’70s out of trash cans and giving them new life as fix-gear city bikes. The wheel keeps spinning.
V: Where would you like to see mountain biking a few years from now?
KB: What I’d really like to see is more access for off-road cyclists. I mean, they don’t pollute, they don’t make noise, they’re not a fire-hazard, and they don’t thrash the trails as much as some folks would have you believe, so why are they classified the same as an ATV? I just don’t get it. And RIDING BIKES IS GOOD FOR YOU! If more folks rode bikes, there would probably be less of a burden on the healthcare system in this country. I think Charlie Kelly had it right when he said about 20 years ago that…” in the future out of shape kids will be sitting on a couch playing a computer simulated game based on the Repack races. If kids could ride trails closer to home they just might get off that couch. What I really DON’T want to see is some kid getting killed in front of the cameras jumping off a cliff in Utah, and I think that it’s only a matter of time until that day comes. That will be a really dark day for our sport. I think it’s amazing what these athletes are doing, 85 foot gap-jumps, double back-flips and whatnot, but it scares the hell out of me.
V: Who do you think is most likely to continue riding Klunkers at that time?
KB: There will always be retro-grouches like me out there. It really seems like the Klunker-thing has taken off in the last few years, though. There are quite a few websites devoted to those early bikes now and there are vintage mountain bike races held all over the world, which wasn’t happening too much when I stared production. Alan hadn’t built any bikes in 25 years when I started on the film, and now he’s building ‘em again using the old frames. Or check out what Jeff Archer and the guys at First Flight bikes are doing (see link below). It’s pretty cool to see. The vintage mountain bike-thing is big in the U.S. and HUGE in the U.K. Even though our economy is in the crapper and deflation is rampant, check out eBay for prices on quality vintage mountain bikes and parts and you’ll see. A few months ago on CraigsList one of Joe Breeze’s early bikes sold for $10,000.00…and it wasn’t even from his first batch of bikes from ’78, it was made in 1980!
The real pre-war Klunker bikes built by guys like Alan Bonds (frames from 1935-1941) are going to go nuts in the future, just like the pre-CBS (before ’65) Fender Stratocaster guitars. Though some may disagree, I think it’s kind of a bummer that, like those old Strats, many of these bikes will end up in collections gathering dust. I still ride the crap out of my 1935 Schwinn Excelsior that Alan built up. I took it down Repack a few months ago, with my tooth fillings rattling and my drum brakes howling. It’s a great bike and it would be shame not to ride it. I love the geometry. I can ride wheelies on that thing for days. At speed you do wonder about what’s going inside that frame, though:).
V: Is there any other bicycle technology that made a social impact with its innovation, on a level comparable to the Klunker?
KB: Not for guys like me. I don’t spend my time training for the Red Bull Rampage or practicing my wheelie-drops at Whistler, I go riding in the woods with my friends. I don’t need 27 gears and 6 inches front and rear to get that done. That’s not to say that Paul Turner, or anyone else, didn’t have an a major impact on the development of the mountain bike, it’s just that the Klunker bikes really started it all. A strong frame, fat-tires, multiple-gears, good brakes, flat bars…what else do you REALLY need?
V: What is your goal for “Klunkerz”?
KB: I have already achieved many of the goals I had for the film. The first priority was actually to finish the film. Not as easy as it might sound. Both my parents died up in Marin during production, and that was difficult. I knew they wanted me to finish the film no matter what, so I’m very thankful I had something to focus my energy on. My dad went first, then mom passed away a few days before the world premiere at The Mill Valley Film Festival (see pix). She really tried to hang on for the screening, but it just didn’t happen. We were planning to transport her to the screening and everything. Her funeral was the day after the premiere out on the San Francisco Bay. I do feel fortunate that I got to be with them at the end. We hadn’t spent much time together in many years, and doing Klunkerz gave me that opportunity. I’ve got to say that some of the guys in the film, and on the crew, really came through for me at the heaviest time in my life, and I’ll forever be indebted to them for that.
I also wanted to preserve a very cool slice of California history. Good or bad, I got to make the film I wanted to make, which is what you get to do when you put your name on the loan papers:). Once I decided to make it a really personal film and forgo the corporate sponsorship route, it gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I feel very fortunate that I got to say what I wanted, the way I wanted.
The people in the film really seem to like it too, and that was also a primary goal. To get the guys behind it was very important to me. That’s why I wanted to meet them all and hang out before I ever stuck a camera in their faces. Once I got to know them a bit, I felt a lot of pressure to get it right. So much has gone down between this crew of people over the last 30 years, it’s no wonder so many of them were reluctant to let me interview them. Although I didn’t receive direct support from Gary’s company, he personally couldn’t have been cooler. Once he knew where I was coming from, he was in 110%. I really couldn’t have done it without him. He was reluctant, as most of the subjects were, in the beginning. It was the same way with Joe, Charlie, Tom, Alan, all those guys. They are my heroes. Over the years in the press many of them have been misquoted, some of their accomplishments have gone unrecognized, all kinds of stuff, so it was quite a feeling when they all came to the premiere and hung out all night at the party afterwards. Well…almost everybody was there, with the exception for one person, the 72-year old Professor from U.C. Davis, John Finley Scott.
I feel really good about getting the Professor some recognition for his many accomplishments. He really started it all. He built up his first Klunker in 1953, some 20 years before Gary, Charlie, Joe, Alan or any of those other pioneers. It was a really good bike, too. He was a major influence on the Marin pioneers, and was the first investor in Gary and Charlie’s company, cleverly called “MOUNTAINBIKES”. I was very fortunate to get to interview him. Sadly, he was murdered shortly after our time together. I’d like to think his presence in the film had a little something to do with his induction into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame this year, but I don’t know. I’m just very sorry he wasn’t around to see it. I made a tribute film for the occasion, some of which you can see in the links below.
It’s also nice to know that many of the relationships that had fallen away over the years and now back on track. The film brought many of the pioneers back together after a great many years. There’s been enough water under the bridge that now the pioneers can look back and remember the good times, and forget about whatever unpleasantness may have gone down in the past. That party in Mill Valley was the beginning of some pretty cool healing. The festival had to, literally, kick us out of the venue. If they hadn’t, we would have gone until sunrise. The whole thing kind of started the day before. I got a bunch of the guys to go do Repack on the old bikes. The Morrow Dirt Club guys had never ridden it before, so that was pretty significant. It was sweet, pre-war madness. Joe hadn’t ridden that Schwinn down Repack in more than 20 years. I was second, right behind him off the line…for about the first 500 yards. The last I saw of him he was flat-out, jeans and flannel flapping in the wind. He was out in ‘the marbles’ at the very edge of the trail with a gnarly cliff inches from his tires. He was in a two-wheel drift with both feet on the pedals, no hesitation. At the bottom I said to him “That was insane! You were killing it.” And he said “I didn’t mean to got that fast, I just forgot that these bikes don’t have much in the way of brakes.” Classic.
I’m also very pleased that the film has been used to raise funds for cycling-related causes. Since I ran out of money and couldn’t properly market the film, I decided to let people screen it for fundraisers free of charge. Perhaps not the smartest business move, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I figured that way I could give the film some visibility and, hopefully, some people might buy the DVD. To date it’s raised over $100,000.00 for cycling -related causes. That’s pretty cool.
Financially, it’s been a total disaster, but I sort of expected it at a certain point. It was my first film and I made a lot of mistakes. Then there’s the technology issue. About one out of three people I’ve talked to who have copies of the film actually bought it, the rest burned it. I always get ‘em with…”so what did you think of the artwork on the back of the cover?” It’s just the times we live in. Why pay for something when you can get it for free? It’s really hurting the little guys in the arts, that’s for sure. With no real marketing from a major bicycle company it’s pretty hard to make a significant blip on the international cycling radar screen, and that’s what I needed to happen to have the film break even. I’m still optimistic that, one day, I’ll pay it off.
I must say I’m truly amazed by the amount of press and the positive reviews I’ve been able to get with none of the usual publicists, management, agents, etc. that usually are involved with a film. It’s probably the most widely reviewed, independently produced, bike film of all time. That’s pretty cool. I never thought I’d get hits in the ‘straight’ press like USA Today, The New York Times, Filmmaker Magazine, MovieMaker Magazine, Movie Magazine International, STUFF Magazine and the rest. I guess I was just a real pain in their ass, so they caved:). The bike magazines have been just amazing. I can’t afford to buy ads in their publications, and they still threw me as much love as I could have possibly hoped for. I’m just surprised that it didn’t really translate into any significant sales. The ugly reality is that I started my research just about 5 years ago, shot for nearly two years, edited for nearly a year, and spent more than a year on the film festival circuit. I finally made a distribution deal with VAS Entertainment at InterBike in September of 2007, so the DVD has now been in release for one year. In that time the sales have roughly equaled the INTEREST on the loan, so I guess I wouldn’t mind paying off the loans some day. Yeah, I guess that should be a pretty good goal for the film, too.
Outside of my wedding and the birth of my children, making Klunkerz has been the most amazing experience of life. Sure, money is nice, but ultimately that’s not what life’s all about. It’s kind of like the last killer ride you went on. It’s wasn’t so much about where you were going, but it was about the journey, the people involved, and what you get to see along the way. I still can’t believe that I actually got to finish something that was so very near and dear to my heart. Even more significant is the fact that I made friends that will last a lifetime. Oh yeah, and I had some very serious fun along the way, too. (see pix).
Well, that’s about it. I hope is somewhat interesting to the readers out there. CAUTION: SHAMELESS PLUG! Don’t forget that Klunkerz makes an excellent stocking stuffer for the riders in your life.
P.S. Remember: Ripping and burning isn’t just against the law…it’s bad Karma.
P.S.S. And it’s Klunkerz with a “K” and a “Z”.