Pedal-Driven is a documentary about the relationship between mountain bikers and the US Forest Service, regarding the former’s right or privilege to recreate on public lands. The conflict is fairly well summed up early on: public lands are our lands, so we want access to do what we like on them; but on the other hand, we (mountain bikers or mtbers) are not the only user group in “the public,” and even beyond present-day users, the USFS (Parks services, etc.) feel a responsibility to a future public as well. Therefore the needs/wants of today’s users (mtbers and others) are balanced against a need for conservation and preservation.
The USFS doesn’t want to be entirely anti-mtber, but they can’t condone the practice of building trails on public land without permission; this is illegal. But what is a mtber to do? To go through the proper channels is a 5, 10, or even 15 year process; at some point, we’re building trails for our kids to ride, which is nice for them, but who knows if we will get to ride those trails at all. Then again, builders of illegal trails risk having their work torn down at any moment.
While I’m not particularly on the side of illegal activities – and illegal building of anything on public land rubs me the wrong way – I sympathize with the mtbers, obviously, as I am one myself and understand the desire for trail to ride. Without trail, we can’t be mountain bikers. As I summarized them in my first paragraph, all those user groups indeed deserve their rights and their voices being heard. It’s a sad quandary. This film was in danger of just depressing me, early on, with the stalemates portrayed (centrally in Leavenworth, Washington, not far from where my parents have recently settled; also in the loss of trail systems in Montana). But it does circle back around to success stories like those in Oregon; hope is not lost.
I will say that, for me, one weakness in this film is in its specificity to freeriders. Freeride is mountain biking that involves jumps, tricks and stunts; it generally requires what we call “structures” (bridges, dirt jumps, big constructed berms, skinnies, teeter-totters), and structures are a good part of the USFS’s problem with illegal builders. Don’t get me wrong; they wouldn’t let you build natural-surface trail, either, but I think it would be less offensive than the construction in question. To give you some idea:
Talking about building freeride-style trail with structures, then, is a certain kind of conversation. And it has left out the even larger group of cross-country (XC) mountain bikers: this activity is performed generally on natural-surface trails (bridges thrown in for function – to cross a stream or gulley – rather than for the chance to catch air), and keeps the rider mostly on the ground or close to it. XC riders look different from free-riders: no full-face helmets, different bikes, even sometimes brightly-colored spandex. These are generalizations, and there are exceptions, and there’s crossover between the two groups; but the point I’m trying to make is that as an XC rider, myself, I felt a little left out of the story that this film tells. And that’s a shame; because really, we face the same challenges in using public land, in trail construction and access and our relationship to the public and the government. I would have appreciated a little more inclusive story being told here. On the other hand, maybe there isn’t such a story about XC riders – maybe our conflicts haven’t been played out so dramatically or on such a scale, or such a stage. I’m honestly not sure. And I haven’t been deeply involved in advocacy battles as of yet (except on a local scale where I’ve done some volunteer trail work), so I want to be clear, I’m not criticizing the fine folks portrayed in this movie. Their work can only benefit my kind of rider, too. And you never know, I may find myself in a full-face helmet high up in the air one of these days too! Who knows what the future holds?
As a film, I found Pedal-Driven to be very well put together and visually impressive. I had a few minor gripes with the soundtrack (some of it was great!), but you can’t please them all in that respect! I enjoyed seeing the riding, and I ended up on the hopeful side regarding access and advocacy issues. Most of all, I’m super glad that these issues are being discussed. So thank you, Howell at the Moon, for this movie! It makes me want to ride my bike!