Freewheelin’ is awesome and you should watch it.
In 1985, Wolf Ruck, a Toronto-based author and filmmaker, produced the 15-minute long mountain bike film Freewheelin’. It is both the most awesomely 80’s thing ever, and a marker of a major historical change in the way that people thought about bicycles. You should watch it.
Freewheelin’ was completed in 1985, but after it aired on the CBC and local television, the short film seemed to vanish from popular consciousness; a recent Bicycling magazine story called it “unearthed piece of mountain bike history.” It was forgotten at least until Brian Vernor, a California-based photographer and filmmaker, unleashed the film on an unsuspecting internet in December 2014, and the link was passed through social media.
This strange series of events means that thirty years after its creation — with a lot of help from social media and that Bicycling magazine story— Freewheelin’ has now become an object of interest for a whole new generation. It’s a viral video: it is conceivable that it has had more viewers online than when it was originally broadcast. And more than many other such viral videos, it may deserve the attention: Freewheelin’ marks a fascinating historical divide.
Brian Vernor has described it as the first mountain bike film, and makes a claim that it contains the first urban bicycle POV shot. I partially agree with Vernor’s assessment, though perhaps not for the same reasons. As Vernor recognizes, it’s surely not the first moving images of a mountain bike; “clunkers” had been shot in home movies and documentary footage since the mid-70s. But “Freewheelin’” sure looks like a first mountain bike film; intentionally composed by Ruck, it’s a work of art and not an instructional, didactic safety movie. Even more importantly, it’s quite possibly a historical turning point in the way that bicycles were presented in popular culture.
When he posted the film online, Ruck added what looks like descriptive text for use in directories or catalogs:
SUBJECT: Off-road Cycling Length: 15mins
They’re called “Mountain Bikes” or “Fat Tire Flyers” by off-road enthusiasts and these dynamic human powered machines are at the leading edge of the bicycling revival sweeping the globe today. Action-packed and instructive, this film brings alive the new-found freedom, challenge and adventure which characterizes this exciting variation of self-propelled sport and recreation. Featuring expert bike handling and astounding trick riding skills, this film is pure motivational entertainment for youthful audiences and the young-at-heart of all ages.
BROADCASTS: CBC National & Local TV
What’s interesting about the film, besides the retrospectively hilarious 80’s fashion choices, is that it is evidence of a significant transition in popular culture and ways of conceptualizing the bicycle. It might be the first film that treats the bicycle as a legitimate topic for adult enthusiasm; in North America, the bike had long been associated with childhood and children’s toys, and that connection continues in many corners. But in Freewheelin’, even though the catalog copy identifies “youthful audiences,” it’s adult all the way – the film begins by casting the bicycle as practical and exhilarating urban transportation, and continues by associating the bike with masculine competition, exploration of nature, and personally transformative, sublime artistic expression.
This is the major break with the past. The most common bicycle films in the decades before Freewheelin’ were of the genre that Geoff Alexander labels guidance films, which “had the prime objective of inculcating a certain form of behavior, or promoting behavioral change. They were largely dependent on the social values of a specific era, and thus could become quickly dated.” That is generally why such films are sought out today; their earnest declarations or fervently-held beliefs are comedy gold, as in the unintentionally hilarious cult classic Reefer Madness. As Alexander puts it more matter-of-factly, “today, many of them serve primarily as historical markers indicating societal change.”
But unlike the previous three decades of classroom films about bikes, Freewheelin’ is not a guidance film. It is not intended to shape the behavior of children; it does not promote adherence to expected social guidelines. It is instead an enthusiast’s film, meant to inspire by reveling in the emotions and aesthetics of human movement through the world. The fact that it broke the mold actually confused the potential purchasers of the film. According to Ruck in the Bicycling piece: “When I showed it to film librarians in Canada and the US, they were appalled that it wasn’t an instructional film on safe bicycling.”
This is a major discontinuity, and deserves some thought in explanation. What made the transformative moment possible? It probably wasn’t the fact that Ruck was from Toronto that enabled him to see the bike differently than Americans: as he puts it in a user profile on the bike touring website Crazy Guy on a Bike:
in Canada during the 50’s and 60’s, bicycles were viewed more as children’s toys and riding a bike as a teenager was generally looked down upon, if not met with outright derision, as WASPish North American society embraced ‘The Age of the Automobile.’
On the other hand, he wasn’t originally from North America: in that website profile, Ruck says that he grew up in post-war Germany, “where bicycles have always been recognized and respected as a valuable form of transportation, sport and recreation.” That perspective certainly wasn’t widespread on this side of the Atlantic.
It’s possible that one of the things that enabled Freewheelin’ to break with history is the design of the mountain bike itself. By the time of filming, riders had been experimenting with equipping heavy-duty adult-size frames with wide, knobbly tires and multi-speed derailleurs for nearly a decade. For much of North America, however, the technology would still have been new in 1985, and both the film and the bike it portrays served in many ways to sever the link with childhood. In a way that the small-framed BMX bike could not, the mountain bike established itself as a coveted tool for adults. Adult-sized, and capable of high speed over rough terrain both urban and wild, the mountain bike was a serious (and occasionally seriously-expensive) piece of equipment more associated with West Coast outdoor sports lifestyle than suburban, single-speed Leave it to Beaver-era children’s bikes. The bike was being recast as part of what Andrew G. Kirk has identified as a particularly West Coast expression of pragmatic, lifestyle-related post-1970s environmental consumerism.
Close analysis of the film itself demonstrates its departure from previous cultural expression. Completely without narration, the camera follows a series of adventures, each different in tone, terrain, and challenge. It begins with an introductory sequence with a front-fork mounted, point-of-view camera shots of an unseen rider leaving a darkened garage to take to the road and weave through Toronto traffic. The urban sequence is complete with righteous 80’s guitar and a brief glimpse of a TTC streetcar.
After that introduction, the film is segmented into six scenes of different bike riding forays in various natural landscapes. The first scene continues the POV shots into a wooded singletrack, but pull back to reveal a helmeted rider (possibly Ruck?), and give some clues as to the mounting technology by revealing a fender- and pannier-rack equipped mountain bike. Heralded by a change in the music, the next set is a race or competition through a wooded area and looking a bit like a 21st century cyclocross event. Another follows a pair of riders in a cross-country jaunt. One scene features a BMX bike with a small frame, crossbar-equipped handlebars and rear mag wheel. The last is a trials ride around an empty California public beach picnic area, enhanced with surf-guitar. While the first and last scenes are in Toronto, the intervening sets are in the US, stretching from Massachusetts to Marin County, California. But whatever the scenery, the focus is on the bicycles, the landscape, and the movements of the riders. Occasional close-up shots reveal the riders considering their surroundings, rock music swelling around them.
When placed in context with the guidance films of the previous decades, the most incredible part of Freewheelin’ is that there are no children visible anywhere. The only other contemporaneous bicycle film that I know of that has such an adult focus is the American Automobile Association’s Only One Road (1975). And that film, while different in tone and content from so many other guidance films, is still an educational film meant to promote safe driving and bicycling behavior. Freewheelin’ is doubly unique – there are no children, and it is not an educational film.
In its conclusion, the film returns to the introduction’s POV camera and mega guitar riffs; the unseen rider is now clearly in downtown Toronto. Riding with traffic or to the right of the traffic lanes, and occasionally on the sidewalk, the bike eventually stops in front of a downtown office building – revealing finally not only that it is a mountain bike that has been ridden through town so fearlessly, but that the rider is a 80’s career woman wearing persimmon-orange heels and a matching handbag. She locks the bike and heads inside to the office. While the appearance of the high heel pump is framed as a shock, it still doesn’t feel like a comedic reveal. It’s more like a final trick on the audience’s assumptions, playing with their expectations of the possible uses of the bicycle and who might be riding it.
It it’s not a guidance film, then what is it? There’s a lot of similarity to 1960s and 1970s surf films like Jim Freeman and Greg MacGillivray’s Five Summer Stories (1972). These films are shot for a niche audience of enthusiasts, and are meant to inspire or evoke the experiences that the audience has in their own pursuits of the recreation depicted on screen. In this, what Freewheelin’ resembles most of all is a non-comedic bit from a Warren Miller ski film – especially the contemporaneous 1985 Steep & Deep or the 1983 Ski Time. With trance-like instrumental music laid over artistically-shot and carefully-edited footage, each scene implies that it is a continuous story of a single adventure; following the riders as they transition from one part of a trail to another in a continuous narrative. While the footage may actually have been shot over several hours — with each camera position carefully set and then broken down — the scene proceeds as if it is one continuous ride, with one or more bikes entering the frame from one side and leaving from the other, to reappear in the next shot heading in the same direction of travel, implying continuous coverage with only a single camera setup. Occasional slow-motion, tracking, low-angle or dutch-angle shots of particularly tricky moves or terrain are interspersed to add interest.
I can’t get away from the film without mentioning the awesomeness of the early-80s fashion choices throughout. There’s a brief appearance of cut-off jeans worn unironically with tube socks in the race scene; a later set has what looks to be Vuarnet sunglasses equipped with Chums, which is like the most 80s thing ever.
That rider has also paired a wispy blonde mustache with a magnificent, mane-like mullet. There may or may not have been a possibility that I, at one time, aspired to such coolness. The bibs-over-jersey worn with a fanny pack of a later scene, however, inspired no one ever.
While the 80s fashion awesomeness is a fun little diversion, it doesn’t change the fact that Freewheelin’ was a important new expression of the bicycle in North America. Even if it had a limited viewership at the time, the film is a historical milestone. In its scenes, the bike is not an environmentalist energy-saver; it is not a child’s toy; it is not a European oddity. Most importantly, it is not comedy. The bike is suddenly MTV-cool: urban, adult, beautiful and sublime. In the taxonomy of bicycle films, Freewheelin’ was something entirely new.
 Vernor sparked the viral appreciation and re-distribution of the film, but Ruck seems to have uploaded it to Youtube himself two years before that, on March 1, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SzE1qjxWzw
 I originally had my reservations about Vernor’s claim that the film contained the first POV shot; really what Vernor was referencing is the fact that Freewheelin’ predates the much-more recent success of terrifying Lucas Brunelle films like Line of Sight. http://vimeo.com/43954522 lucasbrunelle.com I thought that there must be some bicycle-mounted POV camerawork in the British Pathe films, or perhaps in documentary films of European road competition. But I haven’t yet found a good example from the century before Freewheelin’ – perhaps it really is a first?
 Geoff Alexander, Academic Films for the Classroom: A History (McFarland, 2010), 5. While it doesn’t seem like it would fit under Alexander’s definition of guidance film, Freewheelin might fit under the much broader (and more complicated and contested) definition of educational film as used by Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible, eds., Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (Oxford University Press 2012), 8-11. But Freewheelin’ is still an important historical break – even if it can still be considered an educational film, it’s so different in tone and intended audience than the bike safety films that came before that it’s clearly of a different era.
 http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/GreyWolf accessed January 2015; see also interview with Vernor at http://www.thebicyclestory.com/2011/07/brian-vernor-santa-cruzs-adventurous-filmmaking-photo-taking-native-son/
 Andrew G. Kirk, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (Kansas, 2007).