Taylor‘s journey to rediscovering a love for bicycles included building a modern klunker from a 1954 Schwinn Hornet frameset. After plenty of experimentation with parts and modifications, an unlikely entry into a local race would prove fortuitous for Taylor and his vintage rig. Continue reading below for a detailed rundown of Taylor’s build project, racing his klunker at local events, and more from Skidway Island!
The heart is an engine too…
I was born and raised on a small island on the Georgia coast, where I discovered early the twin pursuits that would come to define my life: riding and writing. Today, I’m a novelist by trade and also the founder and editor of a custom motorcycle publication, BikeBound.com, where we feature café racers, scramblers, street trackers, bobbers, and other hand-built machines from around the world.
Like so many of my fellow moto aficionados, my passion for motorbikes sprung from my love of bicycles. I was one of those kids who’d pin baseball cards to the seat stays of his BMX, making it BRAAAP like a dirt bike, and I’m a lifelong believer in the words of George Fitch of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, who wrote in 1916: “A motorcycle is a bicycle with a pandemonium attachment…designed for the especial use of mechanical geniuses, daredevils, and lunatics.”
A whole little gang of us spent our youths pedaling all over our 12×3-mile barrier island, which was much less developed than the present day. We cut trails between neighborhoods, built berms in empty lots, and we were always, always “looking for jumps.” In fact, whole summers were spent just this way—at least that’s how I remember it.
For me, it was especially liberating, as I was born with bilateral club feet, which necessitated several reconstructive surgeries from childhood through high school. I couldn’t always run or even stand for long periods of time, but I was fast and free on two wheels.
In high school, I worked in a small bike shop that mainly rented beach cruisers to tourists. My boss, Fred Griffin, was a wizened old hot-rodder who smoked Swisher Sweets and liked to tinker with vintage bicycle parts. He was a font of knowledge, though I was admittedly more interested in my Cannondale Killer V500 at the time.
In 2005, I sold my car and moved to San Francisco. I still remember the first time I saw a cyclist bomb downhill on a bike with no visible brakes—only to stand poised as a statue at the next intersection, both her feet balanced deftly on the pedals. My mind was blown.
Soon I’d found my way into the fixed-gear community, spending my Tuesday nights racing around the polo fields of Golden Gate Park and riding the Wiggle back to my apartment in the Mission. My life moved on two wheels, powered by pistons or legs, but I was oblivious to the stories of Gary Fisher, Wendy Cragg, Tom Ritchey, Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly, and all of the MTB history lurking just across the Golden Gate Bridge!
Fast forward to 2020, and I’d been living back in the South for a decade. Pedal bikes had taken a backseat to motorcycles, as I had my hands full keeping our small stable of vintage motorcycles running—mainly 1970-80s scramblers and enduros. During the pandemic, however, our local dirt bike trails closed down, and I found myself climbing the walls, crazed for a way back into the woods.
In the summer of ‘21, my girlfriend and I did a big trip out west in our ’96 GMC van, “Bruiser,” where we spent several days broken down in Silver City, New Mexico. One of the mechanics at Gila Hike and Bike had a 70s Suzuki very similar to the 1978 Yamaha we kept strapped to our van—a bike that became our primary mode of transportation while Bruiser was in the shop.
Talking to those guys about the riding they did out there, both on bicycles and motorcycles, got my mind running again along pedal bike lines. I didn’t hear the name Monē while we were out there, but perhaps some magic klunker dust was floating in the atmosphere…
When we got home to Savannah, I delved deep into the lore of Klunkerdom and early MTB history, with William Savage’s Klunkerz, Frank Berto’s The Birth of Dirt, and maestros like Cjell Monē as guides and inspiration.
I bought a State Klunker, converted it to fixed-gear, nicknamed it the “Hosscat,” and raced it in the Blythe Island TT that fall. But I wanted more. I decided to build up a vintage klunker for the trails I was hitting every morning on Skidaway Island—yes, that’s the real name of the place!
Since I’m 5’6”, I had the idea of shoehorning larger 26” wheels into a Schwinn Hornet youth frame for a smaller, lighter, more agile klunker than you normally see—better for our twisty, narrow East Coast trails. I could only find one person who’d done it before, in an old thread on Rat Rod Bikes, but I had my heart set on the idea. I was really picturing a moto-inspired klunker, a pedal version of the “vinduro” (vintage enduro) motorcycles I love.
On eBay, I picked up a crusty 1954 Schwinn Hornet frame with a 16” seat tube and 390mm fork, designed for 24” wheels. Then I went to work, fitting a wheelset of Sturmey-Archer drum brake hubs (XL-FD front / X-RD rear) with BMX rims, a 13/16” solid seatpost, and heavy-duty clamp from Atomic Cycles, Renthal motocross bars I already had hanging in the garage (cut down to fit the tight parts of our trails), and a KMC half-link chain with Sunday Knox 28T guard sprocket—the bicycle version of an engine bashplate, ha!
I had to cut/extend more than an inch of new threads into a 26” Schwinn balloon fork to make it work with the ultra-short headtube of the Hornet frame. None of the local shops had a cutting die, as nobody had requested this service for years, and the Park Tools fork threading set is nearly $300, so I bought a cheapo 1” 24 TPI non-adjustable die from Amazon and did it myself—it worked a treat! Meanwhile, the new fork’s internal butting wouldn’t allow the stem to seat low enough, so I shortened the quill with an angle grinder to get it down to the height I wanted. A 7/8” flex hone and power drill were used to clean up the seat tube enough for the post to go in.
With a bottom bracket height of just over 10 inches—nearly two inches shorter than my State and Hank klunkers—I went with 155mm Sunday Saker BMX cranks for maximum pedal clearance, and I decided to keep the bike single-speed, not fixed, to avoid pedal strike.
I would make adjustments each night, then take the bike out each morning on the same trails to test the differences, experimenting with a 24/26” mullet setup versus the 26” rear wheel, as well as different fork lengths, handlebar rises, gear ratios, tires—this Schwinn klunker taught me more about two-wheeled geometry than any motorcycle has.
At the same time, it carried me out to see the same red fox every few days on the trails, along with raccoons, opossums, armadillos, and whitetail deer bounding beneath the Spanish moss of the island’s old gothic oaks. I tried to be out there right at dawn, so I could stop on one of the river bluffs to see the rising sun flow like lava across the blackwater creeks of the salt marsh.
In the midst of a tough personal time, with BikeBound going strong but the pandemic crushing sales of my fourth novel, Pride of Eden, I found my pedal-powered Zen. There was something in the flow of the trails that seemed so similar to writing for me, too—that strange balance of faith and drive, trusting the front wheel to find traction among the fallen leaves and pine straw and roots, like searching for the thread of truth buried in a story.
At the same time, I went on a bicycle reading tear, consuming everything from Tim Krabbe’s fabulous novel The Rider to Paul Fournel’s lovely essays in Need for the Bike to Jody Rosen’s cultural history Two Wheels Good to Joe Parkin’s European racing memoir A Dog in a Hat to Guy Martin’s autobiographies detailing his experiences on the Tour Divide—I could write a whole bibliography to accompany this reportage!
In March, our local SORBA (Southern Off-road Bicycle Association) chapter put on an annual “Marsh Madness” race on Skidaway Island. I signed myself up for the seven-mile sprint division, just hoping the ‘54 could survive the entire distance—and hell, I reckoned it would be fun to show up to a SORBA-sanctioned race on a 34.6-lb rigid single-speed klunker with drum brakes.
I didn’t dress up—I just wore what I always wear, denim and flannel cutoffs. The bike and I definitely drew some friendly pre-race attention, but I’m sure no one thought we’d be competitive.
Our class had about 25 riders, all of them on bikes with gears, disc brakes, and front or full suspension. When the flag dropped, I sprinted like a madman, surprised to find myself moving toward the head of the pack, only to lose the front tire on an early berm and wipe out. I’d been too hurried, feeling the other riders chomping at my heels. By the time I leapt back in the saddle, I’d slid down in the ranks.
As we came to a longish straightaway, the pack began to form into a peloton. I knew if I could get ahead before we reentered the tight and twisty woods, I might be tough to catch—after all, I could run these trails nearly blindfolded from all those dawn rides. I decided to make a break, spinning like crazy on my 28-14 gearing.
Back in the woods, I started passing other riders. I thought they were from my same class, but as it would turn out, I was starting to catch folks from the two- and three-lap waves that started ahead of us. I was at redline—just under vomiting speed, you might say—and I had no idea where I was in the pack, so I just kept it pinned. I passed the hecklers and cowbells slack-jawed and slobber-mouthed, going for broke and loving every damn second.
I’d ditched my usual Bicycle Society-induced Shred mode for full-tilt Hammer, but as The Byrds and Bible say (don’t they?): There’s a time to every purpose under Heaven. A time to Shred, and a time to Hammer . . .
Imagine everyone’s surprise—myself, most of all—when I crossed the finish line, crashed in a heaving puddle of sprawled limbs, and waited for the stars to clear from my eyes, only to learn I’d taken the win on my 68-year-old Schwinn, jorts and all!
Taylor Brown is the author of five novels from St. Martin’s Press, and the editor-in-chief of BikeBound.com. You can find more of his cycling shenanigans at @klunkingainteasy.