© Ingrid Taylar, for About.com
In his first documentary KLUNKERZ, filmmaker Billy Savage pays tribute to the Marin County pioneers ofmountain biking — the ones whose precarious feats on Mount Tamalpais and the slopes of Marin inspired the modern mountain biking industry.
Billy shares his perspectives on the film, on the people and on mountain biking, as well as his memories of San Francisco and Marin in earlier days.
What moment in Klunkerz stands out for you? Was there a person, an interview, or a response that captured, for you, the heart and essence of this film?
There were so many amazing experiences while making the film; it’s hard to pick one. The guys and Wende (Cragg) were all fantastic. I really enjoyed getting together with The Morrow Dirt Club. They have stuck to the same principles (and bikes) they were using in the ’70s. Those guys are just plain fun.
The real coup was getting an interview with John Finley Scott, the sociology professor from UC Davis. He had done everything the Marin guys did, but 20 years earlier. He built up what was, essentially, a mountain bike in 1953. He did tons of bike advocacy over the years, like lobbying to get bike lanes put on the streets of the United States. He also organized many legendary races, including the Davis Double Century. He helped push things over the top when he put up the capital investment for the first mountain bike company in the world, Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly’s MountainBikes.
He was a bit of recluse, and I tried everything to get him to talk to me. After a year or so of me pestering him, he eventually agreed to an interview. We spent half a day together up in Davis. He was a fascinating and funny man. On a very sad note, he was murdered not long after the interview took place. Thankfully, they caught the maniac who killed him, and he’ll never get out of prison. Scott’s passing is a great loss to cycling, and humanity in general. I dedicated the film to his memory.
Tell me a little bit about the earliest Klunkerz bikes — the modified bicycles that Marin riders took down the slopes of Mt Tamalpais.
I think those bikes, the modified Klunkerz of mid to late 1970s, were truly amazing — backyard engineering at its finest. The pioneers’ bikes were based on these huge beasts that Schwinn and others made in the 1930s and early 1940s. The pioneers found them in dumpsters, junkyards and second hand stores, and gave them new life. They took these old “newsboy” bikes of the era and stripped them down to the bare essentials. Anything superfluous or decorative, like the tanks, lights, fenders and chain guards, etc. was jettisoned.
The stripped-down bikes were good for going down the hill, but that was it. Eventually the gang wanted to explore new areas farther out on the trails, so they modified these old bikes with motorcycle parts, parts from ten-speeds, and bits that they fabricated themselves. They became these amazing custom cruisers, like hot rods or chopper motorcycles, reminiscent of what Big Daddy Roth was doing.
Lots of folks in Marin were building them, but Alan Bonds is generally credited as the guy who raised these modifications into an art form. He sandblasted them and repainted them to look like they’d just come out of the Schwinn factory — but with all the Klunkerz modifications.
They were “outlaw” bikes that reflected their owners’ tastes and riding styles. Everyone was using better and better parts on the bikes, and finally, Charlie Kelly asked Joe Breeze to build up a nice new frame to go with all these new parts. Joe finished that first frame in October of 1977, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Your cast includes mountain biking luminaries like Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher and Wende Cragg (the “only girl” among those riders). What should today’s mountain bikers know (and love) about the pioneers in this sport?
What I found fascinating is that all the pioneers are very committed to the bicycle as transportation, and to the ecological and physical benefits of cycling to this day. They gave those old Klunkerz a new life, rescuing them out of trashcans and junkyards. They were reducing, reusing, and recycling long before it was hip to be green. They all continue to live this way in all aspects of their lives.
Although they are living in one of the richest counties in America, there’s not a conspicuous consumer in the bunch. They take what they need and give what they can. That, coupled with the fact that they are all still riding, and riding a lot, are probably the most important things to know about these fine folks. They are all an inspiration to anyone who is concerned about our planet’s future — cyclist or not.
You’re a life-long mountain biker and former skateboarder. How did that help you in shooting and editing Klunkerz?
KLUNKERZ is my first film. I wanted to do a project I felt strongly about — and cycling fit the bill. I realized I would be spending three or four years of my life, and a lot of money, trying to tell a story — so it better be something I was invested in.
My childhood in Marin was a magical time, and bicycles and skateboards were a big part of that, so I figured I could share some of that experience. I couldn’t believe that no one had done a documentary on these athletes, especially with the recent success of Dogtown and Z-Boys.
During my research some of the subjects told me that there were already several other filmmakers doing the same type of project. That information just strengthened my resolve. I knew these other filmmakers couldn’t have the same connection to the area and people of Marin.
My folks still lived in Marin, so I had a place to call base camp. I was committed to spending a lot of time there getting to know the subjects before I stuck a camera in their face. We rode, we had a few beers, talked about cycling, and got to know one another.
I hit some serious rough patches along the way, personally, and they all helped me out. During the production both of my parents passed away and I almost gave up on the whole thing. I drew upon my new friends’ strengths, and their belief in me, to finish the project. I’ll be forever grateful to them for that.
Oh, and skating. Ray Flores from Dogtown hooked me up with a board when I licensed the archival footage from him. I hadn’t really skated since I busted myself up in 1978 skating pools, but he got me into it again, much to my wife’s chagrin. Out on the festival tour I met so many surfers, cyclists and skaters that we kept in touch. At every festival I usually had an opportunity to get out in the water, in the woods, or on the concrete with these other filmmakers. This film really got me back in touch with some of my passions in life. It’s been a total gas.
What do you think it was about Northern California that fostered the whole mountain bike culture?
As the guys say in the film, there was this group of committed cyclists that really pushed the thing. They told their friends, who told more people, and it just blew up. They would race their road bikes during the season then cross-train on the Klunkerz in the winter. When Charlie Kelly started the Repack race series, that was the catalyst. Those competitions really got people fired up about this new sport and where it might go. Before Repack, it was a fun excuse to go cruise in the woods with your friends, but once those races started, it was on.
When you started mountain biking in the 80s, how had the scene changed since the early days you capture in this film?
The idea was the same: going out in the woods with your friends. But by the early 1980s you could actually go to a store and buy a mountain bike. Then, by the mid-1980s you could get a mountain bike just about anywhere. There were sanctioning bodies and serious races taking place all over the world. The whole thing just exploded in the 1980s.
By 1986 the mountain bike was outselling the road bike in America. That’s a very big deal. In the formative years it took weeks, if not months, to get someone to put one of these bikes together for you. You could ask Alan [Bonds] or Gary [Fisher] or whomever to build you one, but it took forever. They had to find you a frame somewhere, hunt down all the parts, and then wrestle the thing together.
It wasn’t cheap, either. One of these bikes cost several hundred dollars…that’s in 1976 dollars. You also have to consider that the frames were 40 years old at that point. Catastrophic mechanical failure was a way of life. There was no guarantee that your bike would survive a single run down Repack. Those old frames rusted from the inside, so you only found out about it when it split in half at the most inopportune moment. That’s really why I wanted to make KLUNKERZ, to show that you couldn’t always walk into a bike shop and say, “I want that!”
You mention spending hours in hospital waiting rooms. What’s the worst injury you’ve sustained on a bike or a skateboard?
I always liked these sports — but I guess I wasn’t really good at them because I was constantly getting hurt. I was pretty lucky on the bike. Never anything more than a few stitches here and there … road rash and some nasty bruises, that kind of thing.
Skateboarding was another story. I think I left patches of skin on all kinds of asphalt between L.A. and Marin. Besides the road rash, I dislocated both elbows, sprained both wrists and ankles, got a couple of concussions and broken fingers, skating in pools. My last crash in an empty pool was pretty brutal. My elbow would dislocate, due to calcium deposits from previous injuries, so the socket just sort of exploded. A piece of the bone broke free and shot right through a section of my triceps, severing it. I had some nerve damage and I lost feeling in my ring and small fingers on the left hand. I broke ribs and got a concussion on that one, too. I had another surgery on that elbow two years ago and they were able to decompress some of the nerve, so I can, mostly, feel those fingers now. That was it for me for skating, until KLUNKERZ.
I don’t know if this counts, but I messed myself up pretty bad on my first surf trip to the North Shore of Oahu. A section bowled up on me at Chun’s and I got bounced off the reef, head first. I suffered a serious compression injury in my neck between C-5 and C-6. I had to get surgery to free the nerves coming out of my spinal cord. That was pretty sketchy.
On my first shooting trip to Marin on KLUNKERZ some guy rear-ended me on the 5 Freeway, blowing out a disc in my Thoracic spine. They gave me a series of spinal injections — “nerve blocks” I think they call them. I know that one doesn’t really count — but I did have a bicycle on the back of the car.
That was a really fun time in my life, with very few responsibilities while catching lots of shows. I always felt like I missed my era musically, by 15 years or so. But working for Bill, you had the feeling you were part of that scene. He was always there — picking up trash when no one was looking and working hard to put on a good show for the audience. It didn’t matter if you were pouring drinks, or unpacking a truck. When he walked by, he’d make eye contact with you, and it just made you feel like you were part of something big.
He might have rubbed some people the wrong way over the years, but everyone respected him. He led by example, and didn’t expect anyone to work harder than he did, because he was a worker. My friend, Slug, who was working for him at the same time, used to say that at BGP you’re either a worker bee or a wanna bee, and wanna bees get thrown out of the hive. It wasn’t exactly short hours and big money, but it was fun and a lot of camaraderie. Plus, there’s nothing like sleeping four to a motel room with a bunch of guys who’ve been slinging steel for 16 hours to teach you about work ethic.
I remember, at The Stones’ Steel Wheels show in ’89 at the Oakland Coliseum, we’d just had the big quake — and the aftershocks were going crazy. There were 5.0s happening every hour or so. The stage was immense. It had these giant elevator shafts — 80 feet or something — on either side. The steel guys were rigging them way up at the top and we’d get an aftershock. The guys in the harnesses would hoot and holler like drunken cowboys on wild Mustangs while the shafts would sway back and forth. And we’d cheer them on.
Nobody complained, no one climbed down; they just did their job and had fun. That’s rock and roll. No doubt they were insane, and those are the kinds of people who made BGP what it was. And it was fun. I used to marvel at Bill’s pilot, Steve. He’d bring Bill down to the Shoreline [Amphitheatre], drop him off at the helipad up on the hill, then fly into the venue and go back and forth, with the skids a few feet off the ground, blowing the water out of the grass so the audience wouldn’t get their asses wet.
That’s what I take away. That kind of rabid employee loyalty to the boss is a testament to the kind of guy he was. He, Steve and Melissa are all greatly missed.
You’ve spent a lot of time between the Bay Area and Southern California. Having lived in L.A. myself, I have strong sentiments about each place. How do you characterize the difference between the two Californias? And what are the things that draw you to both places?
They really are two different states — and states of mind — to me. I spend time in Fairfax when I go north these days. It hasn’t changed much since I was a kid, but everyplace else up there sure has. West Marin will always be wild and beautiful, but the overall feeling of Marin is not what it once was. It feels much more moneyed and conservative to me now. It’s great that so much of the land is still protected, but the demographic is pretty frightening.
As a kid, I always felt like Marin was a refuge for the artists and musicians from San Francisco to come and settle down. But you’ve got to be a pretty darn famous artist or musician to settle there now. The monetary issue seems to weed out a lot of the cultural aspects that I grew up with. I mean, Novato was a cow town, and now it’s got low-income housing from the mid-700s. There was always a lot of cash in southern Marin, but now it really seems permeate the whole place. You have to look at a lot of Hummers and Mercedes before you spot a VW bus, that’s for sure.
I made KLUNKERZ to give the audience a glimpse of what Marin was like back then, because it was really magical. I moved from Marin to San Francisco in 1986 and I left for Los Angeles in 1991. In the early 1990s AIDS was still ravaging the city, and I was losing some friends. This was just before the dot-com boom.
I had two roommates in a 10,000 square foot warehouse down off 10th Street in SOMA. It was an amazing time. We lived South of Market because it was cheap, and nobody cared what we did late at night . . . and we could afford tons of space. We had a silkscreen operation, a surfboard shaping room, a video arts studio, and a garden on the roof. It was in the old Art Rock space, which made it even cooler.
The place was crawling with talent, and the nightlife was amazing. Five nights a week you could find a nightclub with 1500 people dancing their brains out. Back then the artist lofts down there actually had artists living in them. There was always a gallery opening, or a band to catch, or something going on, and usually it was free.
That was before things got re-zoned and developers marketed the idea of “loft living.” They sold the idea on the premise that it didn’t matter that you worked at Wells Fargo from 9-5, because when you went home at night, you were an artist and you were hip. It was great for the developers, since they didn’t have to put up walls or any decent finish work, but it really drove out all the people that made the scene. That’s progress, and I love seeing how vibrant the neighborhood is now, but I’m glad I lived there then.
I may live in Los Angeles now, but I go back to San Francisco whenever I get a chance. San Francisco will always be the Paris of the Americas. The location is so beautiful, the food is amazing. The people are terribly sophisticated, the architecture is fantastic, and the music scene still thrives. What’s not to like? The only reason I left that world was to follow my heart. I fell in love with a girl from Los Angeles, and I made the decision to chase her down here. Eighteen years later we’re still together, with two beautiful kids, and I couldn’t be happier.
L.A. has everything — but you really have to know where to look. Compared to San Francisco, it’s so spread out. Los Angeles is about drive times from here to there. There is a lot of beauty here, too — not the bottle-blonde, fake-boob kind. My neighborhood, Los Feliz/Silverlake, is great. Parts of it remind me of my favorite areas of San Francisco.
In the end, I love everything that California has to offer. I feel very fortunate to have lived in both places, and I pledge no allegiance to either.
Check out some of Billy’s recommendations and favorite spots in San Francisco and Marin.
How has the experience of your first documentary film, KLUNKERZ, changed your life or launched you on a different trajectory?
KLUNKERZ taught me that I could actually finish something. It sounds simple, but it’s not. After getting to know the subjects, and how truly special each of them is in his or her own right, I felt a real responsibility to make this a special film.
It was a lot of pressure, since every phase was a huge learning curve — but they’re happy with it, and so am I. It’s not easy to have the subjects happy with a film, just ask Stacy Peralta. They trusted me to treat them with respect, to honor their accomplishments. And in the end, I feel I succeeded.
I’m thrilled that I had the opportunity to tell this story and spread it around the world. My heroes, who were the subject of the film, are now my friends. And my friends, who were the crew on the film, are now my heroes. I hope to make many more films, but KLUNKERZ will always be the one that meant the most to me. I’m anxious to start on my next project, but since my name’s on the note, I’ve got to figure out how to pay for this one first.
Where can people get information about upcoming screenings or DVD purchases?
KLUNKERZ is now available on DVD. It can be ordered at klunkerz.com or from cycling retailers nationwide. If your bike shop doesn’t carry it, tell them “I want my KLUNKERZ!”
Editor’s note: Visit the KLUNKERZ website for additional information or posted screenings of the film.
And last — totally free-form final words — cast, crew, film, art, life, anything:
I just want to thank all the participants in the film for giving me this amazing opportunity, my crew for putting up with my neurosis, my parents for always believing in me, and my family for their infinite patience. Always remember that a healthy respect for our past insures a better future for all of us. Ride on.