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Pedal-Driven

Director: Jamie Howell

(US DVD: 16 Apr 2013)

Remember the opening lines to Queen’s “Bicycle Race” single? Freddie Mercury sang beautifully with gusto, “I want to ride my bicycle / I want to ride my bike”. Those lyrics are essentially the premise behind the new documentary Pedal-Driven: A Bikeumentary. Pedal-Driven explores the present conflict between avid mountain bikers and the federal land managers tasked with protecting America’s public lands.


The film opens deep within the forests of Washington State, where the two groups are at odds concerning the illegal biking trails that have been built in places like the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. As it turns out, there are few sanctioned riding trails in Washington State, but there are plenty of mountains. Bikers go onto the land and build illegal trails with names like “Xanadu” and “Ribbed” complete with manufactured ramps. Then, the U.S. Forest Service goes in and destroys them, turning the man-made structures into sawdust. It’s no picnic for either side.


Pedal-Driven, directed by Jamie Howell, asks idealistic questions like “Who owns the forests? The governments that take care of them or the people that love them?” but it really fails to give profound answers. Within a few minutes, Howell loses any sense of balance and the documentary becomes a glowing piece of PR skewed completely toward these mountain bikers in search of vigorous riding paths on U.S. Forest Service land. What’s odd is that the many bikers interviewed don’t really have much to argue in favor of their cause, other than their love of the growing hobby, which seems like a missed opportunity.


And no matter how many different cover versions of “This Land Is Your Land” are played while the thrill seekers careen down trails or explain their plight to the camera, the film ends up making their simple argument appear to be just that: simple. With all due respect, I doubt it’s what Woody Guthrie had in mind when he penned the tune almost 70 years ago.


As the film touts in an opening scene, “Today 35 percent of the land in the United States belongs to the government, which means it belongs to you.” And if it belongs to the bikers, why can’t they ride their bicycles all over it? As a land manager says early on, “You’re not the only interest.” Consequently, despite the glaring bias, there is some weight given to the complications. To its credit, the film was created in partnership with both the U.S. Forest Service and the International Mountain Biking Association.


What’s equally engaging and off-putting is how unapologetic the dozens of riders interviewed are about building illegal trails on land protected by the U.S. Forest Service. A land manager named Vaughan Marable shoulders almost all of the perspective of the forest rangers himself, as he’s the only reoccurring “talking head” to speak to the camera at any significant length about why building trails left and right might not be the best idea. As a result, his viewpoint, even when it’s sympathetic to these freeriders, is drowned out.


Instead, we’re shown many trails (both legal and illegal) and countless interviews with passionate advocates of mountain biking.


Blaring indie music from the likes of Jimmy Eat World and The Let Go, the rocking soundtrack seems to serve a dual purpose: to enhance how exhilarating these biking trails are from fast-paced jump to jump and to remind you how hip the advocates are from interview to interview.


Howell covers a lot of ground, but returns to Leavenworth, Washington, home of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, often throughout the documentary, as it’s the focal point of his tale. However, the film itself lacks a real narrative focus. For better and most often for worse, the “bikeumentary” takes a lot of detours in its brief 63 minute runtime as it ping-pongs across the nation sharing various aspects of the modern mountain biker’s struggle. Cyclists are interviewed in the mountain biking capital of the Northwest, which, apparently, is Oak Ridge, Oregon. Time is spent in Boulder, Colorado, the home of the International Mountain Biking Association. Audiences are shown the resounding success of a biking festival in Canada. We visit a cycling trade show in Vegas. An expert in sustainability from Arizona State University gives a brief lecture to the camera about the benefits of mountain biking. Viewers even experience a bizarrely creative riding trail underneath a freeway in downtown Seattle.


That’s all well and good, but much of it feels like tedious filler unrelated to the core premise of Pedal-Driven.


Meanwhile, the film introduces but spends little time discussing the real issues that seem to be at hand including the bikers’ difficulty overcoming the government’s “red tape”, like the waiting process involved with official appeals and proposals. There has to be more to be said about the actual conflict between land managers and mountain bikers; it’s just not here.


There are strokes of brilliance to be found, but they are few and far between. A fleeting but fascinating piece of animation demonstrates how the shape of the bicycle has changed since the 1820s. And a there’s an intriguing segment (that could easily become its own film) about a couple of IMBA employees who live out of a Subaru Outback for ten months out of the year, traveling 50,000 miles in total just to teach people about biking and trail building. 


And at least the film seems to answer the question, “Is mountain biking a sustainable activity?” with a resounding yes as shown through examples like 1,200 miles of biking trails approved by the U.S. Forest Service in Bend, Oregon.


That said, the ample amount of mountain biking you see on screen is exciting and beautifully photographed. The film won the Best Cinematography award at DocUTAH and is more than deserving of such a prize.


Oly Mingo’s cinematography is easily the wondrous highlight of the film as he puts you in the cyclist’s seat and demonstrates both the adventure of cycling and the epic charm of the outdoors.


Riders barrel down trails, careen down twisting mountainsides, soar over creeks and his camerawork makes it as rousing any extreme sports event. There’s a convincing use of close-ups, slow motion, and even point-of-view shots (thanks to helmet cams) to help convey the rush these enthusiasts must feel. God’s creation is also showcased with majestic wonder with sweeping helicopter shots of snowcapped mountain peaks and grand pines.


By the end of the documentary, it’s clear a partnership has formed in contrast to the opposing sides we were shown at the film’s start. This all builds to an ending with the enthusiastic bikers doing X-Games style stunts on a new, legal government-sanctioned trail in Washington, appropriately named “Happy Ending”. And even in a biased, imperfect documentary, progress always is a fine thing to witness.


If you only watch one film about mountain biking this year, watch Pedal-Driven; for all its flaws, it does proclaim a real, yet unfortunately obscure issue via some boundless cinematography.  But, if you’re looking for a highly entertaining film that actually takes a balanced look at this important, complicated issue, like the DVD case itself promises, you might want to just go ride your bicycle, instead.

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Jeremiah Massengale is an assistant professor of communication arts at the University of the Cumberlands where he also advises the award-winning college newspaper.


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