Thursday, December 27, 2012

Making a runaway doc hit, and other things to do after college

Jacob Seigel-Boettner’s first film project out of college, With My Own Two Wheels (WMOTW), took him to four continents in pursuit of a simple story: how the bicycle is used around the world to solve problems. With no formal distribution plan, the 45-minute film has become incredibly successful, screening continuously since its creation in 2010, bringing international attention to the five bike initiatives that it features. Jacob chatted with us about the challenges of international film work, documentary filmmaking in education, and his current projects.

DD: Where did you film and how did those spots come about?

Seigel-Boettner: We filmed one story in Zambia, one in Ghana, one in India, one in Guatemala and one in Southern California. I worked with Project Rwanda and I'd gone to the Interbike trade show a couple of times to represent them. That's where I found out about World Bicycle Relief (WBR), the project that we filmed in Zambia that's now all over sub-Saharan Africa, probably the biggest bike development project out there. I knew that there were probably other projects like them around the world, to find them I literally spent a month during my senior year Googling "bike project —pick a country—." I sent an introductory letter to project directors, the ones that responded narrowed down the spreadsheet a little bit more, and then sat down and looked at themes. We knew we wanted a story related to education, one related to healthcare, hopefully several relating to women's empowerment.

DD: Could you talk about any standout experiences with the different organizations? 

Seigel-Boettner: The two extremes of how we found our characters —and this is not a knock against any of the organizations we filmed with, it was a demonstration of different size NGOs. With WBR, we told them what we wanted and they literally sent us page long biographies of four different characters. They set us up with a driver and a translator and all the logistics were totally in line, and we were able to shoot all of Fred's story in like three and a half days… which was awesome for us and for them because it minimized the cost and confusion and everything just clicked really well. On the other end of the spectrum was the project we worked with in India, Ashta No Kai, another awesome project, but they are much smaller, they haven't worked with film crews before… So we were told we were going to have two to three girls to interview and we could pick which one we wanted to have be in the film. We went into their women's center and 40 girls from the local high school piled in behind us, and sat in rows in their little pink saris and uniforms, and it ended up being a mass interview with 40 giggling high-school age girls who didn't speak our language (laughs). It was one of the weirdest casting calls I've ever done as a director. Bharati, the girl who ended up making the film, she was sitting off to the side in the front row, she was making eye-contact with us the whole time, wasn't giggling or talking to her friends, and when we asked what do you want to be when you grow up, she was like 'I want to be district supervisor' and we were like 'ok I think we're good.' She's probably the most composed and articulate 14 year old I've ever met anywhere, period. 

DD: I was struck by how intimate you were able to get with your subjects, both in shot choices and into their stories. How did you get them at ease, how did you communicate cross-culturally? 

Seigel-Boettner: A lot of it, again, came down to the project. We were very clear that we wanted to have good translators whenever we could, a lot of times the translator would be someone who worked with the project before. Like our translators for Zambia, one was one of WBR’s drivers, he drives the trucks to ship all the bikes around to different distribution points and serves as a driver when they have people come to visit the project, big Zambian guy named Giff, who's hilarious. He and our other translator Preston, a local filmmaker, they both kind of acted as production assistants and were able to communicate the vision of what we wanted to Fred, and that was a really amazing opportunity because we didn't have to script out or explain what type of shots we wanted to get and he understood the story that we wanted to tell because they were able to communicate the film/storytelling medium we were trying to accomplish. We were able to skip that really awkward 'getting to know you' phase because our translators already knew the people who we were talking to pretty intimately, and that definitely allowed us to shortcut things. 

DD: I think that's easier said than done, you bridged the gap from large international institution to local fixer to film-able subject. You're stressing the fixer/local tie-in as the strongest link? 

Seigel-Boettner: Yeah, all the projects we were working with place a very strong emphasis on being run by locals. WBR was the biggest organization that we worked with, right now there's something like 70+ staff all over Africa, I think two or three of them are expats. The rest are all locals. The same thing with the other projects. We never worked with an American or European other than our initial contact and helping us figure out our logistics. Those were the kinds of projects that we wanted to highlight, too. Those are the ones that are the most successful, the ones that aren't run by foreigners. There're plenty of smart people in those countries that need to be given the opportunity. I think that the best way that we can help with our skill sets is by helping them with storytelling. That's something that a lot of non-profits unfortunately lack: a good way to tell their stories. When it comes to reaching out and telling people what you do, there's not a better way to do it then to have a short video piece that has a person talking about how it impacted them.

DD: I wanted to talk with you about the deployment of the film: Could you talk about the length and your intended distribution of it? 

Seigel-Boettner: There’re a lot of really good stories being told out there through documentary film that are about 45 minutes too long. I've seen a lot of 90-minute social justice documentaries that I thought were spot-on, there's one about skateboarding in Afghanistan called Skateistan that's amazing. But a lot of times you can condense your story and make it consumable by a wider audience, and if you're trying to tell a story that needs to get out there and be told, I think you need to consider what's going to get the most people to see it. We knew that we really wanted kids to be able to see our film, for teachers to be able to use it in the classroom. When I was growing up, the way that movies were used was as a rainy-day thing or a substitute teacher thing, they'd put in the movie and leave the classroom, then the bell rings halfway through the movie and everybody leaves. As a filmmaker that's really frustrating, because we put all this time and effort into it, and especially with documentaries it's something that can be an incredible educational tool. When it's all said and done and we're no longer traveling with the film I want it to be something where a teacher can send me an email, get a copy of the film, get a copy of the classroom companion, put it in their school library, and hopefully continue to use it over the years as part of their curriculum. 

DD: It looks like you're thinking about how to get around the issue of a film getting a lot of effort put into it and it sort of has its initial run and then disappears. In that vein, are you satisfied with how the film rolled out? 

Seigel-Boettner: Yeah! I mean (laughs) we thought we were going to do about ten screenings, it was going to be kind of cute, and then we'd all go to grad school and that would be it. Instead I spent pretty much all of last year except for two months on the road with the film. I stopped counting at like 75 screenings. It was insane. I think we're still going to be doing screenings two or three years down the road. Maybe that's just because it's a story that was at the right time and people wanted to hear it, I don't know. So we're blown away. It's really awesome but at the same time it's kind of frustrating, because I go to all these film festivals and I see all these other amazing films that for whatever reason the spark never takes off. 

DD: I hear that. I think deployment especially for docs is a huge conundrum. A segue from that question: you can answer this in a film industry context or academic context or international humanitarian perspective: What are you up to, right now? 

Seigel-Boettner: Our big project right now is our second film, which we're getting really close to finishing our rough-cut on. It's called Singletrack High, it follows six student athletes through the 2012 season in the Nor-Cal High School Mountain Bike League, looking at kids who are life-long cyclists, kids who have never ridden a mountain bike before, and looking at the benefits of keeping kids on bikes through an institutionalized program at an age when most kids get car keys and stop riding bikes. WMOTW was great in that it encouraged people to look at other uses of the bike around the world, but at a certain point a lot of the countries that we filmed in have a potential to go the way of China, where they look at us as what "developed" means, and that means switching to a car culture/car economy, and the bike gets left behind. We wanted our next movie to be something that encouraged people to practice what WMOTW was preaching. The first race of the Nor-Cal season this year had I think 550 kids racing and over 2000 people at the venue, and their pit zone was the size of a football field, it's almost becoming an institutionalized high school sport in Northern California. So that's our next project, hoping to be released in January, we're working with Specialized and the National Interscholastic Bicycling Association, we're going to do a similar but slightly more established screening tour in the spring. 

Jacob has a knack for telling stories about projects that are simple, effective, and that encourage diverse action. Expect his work in his home territory to be equally motivating. With My Own Two Wheels is available to stream for free at Keep up with Jacob and his brother Isaac’s newest project at


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Friday, December 21, 2012

Remembering David Fetzer

photo credit Lillie Wolff

David Fetzer passed away this week at age 30. David was one of those fellows that made formative years in Salt Lake City so lovely and inspiring for people like me. He was luminous. He was lovable and deep, funny and appreciative, supportive and kind. I worked with David on many projects, both mine and his. He was so similar to me, and many of the people that I appreciate and identify with, that I took his soul for granted. I realize this now, with a tired heart, and I miss him dearly.

I do think fondly of the time he spent on this planet; I value the imprint he left on me, and will use his constellation to aspire to do my best. I hope those he loved feel the same. Read More......

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Alex Gazerro- The Strongest Santa of Santacon

This is Alex Garzerro on his rolly-scooter, decked out for Santacon and barreling home to Brooklyn over the Williamsburg bridge. He shattered his ankle a few years back and checked in for some reconstructive surgery on the pins a week ago.

Not to be deterred, he strapped his leg to his rolly scooter and headed out to Santacon, where he reports being a hit. More impressive was his trek home. "I feel pretty awesome right now," he said, "it doesn't really hurt at all." At this point he's been pushing since Union Square. "I didn't want to hail a taxi or take the G train. Hopping down the stairs seemed like a drag. Also I haven't  ridden my bike for a week... This is my favorite bridge, I kinda wanted to get back rolling."

Alex then took off up the pedestrian path at a good clip.
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Friday, December 14, 2012

Following a shooting, Radio Silence — Newtown, Connecticut

Dozens of children were killed in a safe corner of average America today. We were fortunate to be listening to NPR. The station soothed us and left us with our thoughts as the newscasters groped for information, our arteries spared the shrill menace of broadcasters tones or their AM mirrors.

The president's speech concerning the shooting was short and apolitical —a strong man filled with sorrow at the thought of murdered daughters. He stopped a little too long between lines, and the dead air was filled by a flurry of shutters: perhaps cameras catching a tear, or a choked expression of grief. It could have been nothing, for all we knew; we radio listeners could only imagine. The emotional moment was laden with mystery, but if Obama felt how we felt, then he was very close to crying.

We were proud of our leader for showing this weakness, and felt we should carry the burden of resolving this horror. The resolution that we reach, as a nation, will certainly be a challenging one, but however we reach it we must remember these moments, moments of responsibility and sorrow, moments of empathy for unknown parents. We choke back our own tears, harmonious with the radio, and move forward.

We remind ourselves: try to remember this specter of death when it is visited in staggering quantities upon unknown places. Remember all life ended unjustly is tragic. Remember all life is sacred. Read More......

Friday, November 30, 2012

A short clear video explaining the Israel-Palestine Struggle

Palestine has just received an upgrade in its international status at the UN, which could allow the disenfranchised state to bring legal grievances against Israel in an unprecedented way.

Like the majority of people, you probably have a hard time getting your head around the ongoing struggle between Israel and Palestine. I've spent 7 months there, have studied mid-east politics, and dialog with Palestinians, Israelis, Muslims, Jews, and internationals about it often, and I still find it very unclear at times. I find this video both instructive and clear-minded. It is fair, without compromising any core truths by equating the two peoples' situations. I'd suggest it to anyone interested in a clearer understanding of the struggle.

I should say, as well, that I appreciate any feedback on this perspective, including disagreements, especially feedback that isn't inflammatory, dogmatic, intentionally misleading, or reductive. Read More......

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bicycle Times Review: With My Own Two Wheels

As I'm putting together an interview with Jacob Seigel-Boettner, the main man behind last year's excellent film With My Own Two Wheels, I thought I should resurrect an old review I published in Bicycle Times last year. Be sure to watch Jacob's film, and stay posted for the full interview.

We know bikes. We are with them every day, know their weight after long hours around town or races in the mud, and can take them apart blindfolded. Some of us can even weld them together from quiet tubes, or have ridden them across continents and countries. But once in a while, something comes along that causes us to simultaneously re-evaluate the basics of the bicycle and fall in love with it all over again. Filmmakers Jacob and Isaac Seigel-Boettner and Ian Wexler have done exactly that in their film With My Own Two Wheels, an easy yet ambitious documentary that spans four continents and five stories about the empowering nature of the humble bicycle.

A feeling of hope pervades the film, though it showcases very serious problems. The filmmakers introduce such diverse issues as physical disability, women’s empowerment, and the AIDS epidemic, and in each case highlight a person who is enabled through their bicycle to do more in the world.

We meet Carlos of Maya Pedal, in Guatemala, who builds Frankenstein human-powered machines that make agricultural work easier. Soon after, we roll down a dirt road with Bharati and a bunch of other sari-clad Indian girls given a chance at a future in a patriarchal society because someone gave them a bike to get to school. Shot after shot is beautiful, and though the film is short, you get a sense of intimacy with each subject. The camera lingers and treats us to their routines, their ambitions, exploring rich ways of life across the globe. Pedal power links them all, as do cunning little connecting sequences of each person gathering water, early morning tooth brushing, and, luckily for us, exquisitely lit gardens and healthy blue skies.

It is a pleasure to watch, but With My Own Two Wheels is still all about informing the viewer. Now and again statistics are subtly worked into the landscape, following the characters as they ride across it. It advocates in a realistic, healthy way that is not a die-hard guilt trip. Thus a film about hard things in hard parts of the world escapes the death trap of the world-awareness genre: devolving into a condescending sob story that leaves the viewer with little plan of action or recourse.

In fact, most of the characters, far from being objects of pity, are quite enviable. Mirriam is a Ghanaian woman with a paralyzed leg who works as a mechanic. Able-bodied men come into her shop and are blown away by the fact that she’s competent. There is pure joy in the functionality of her story, the shop, the conservation of the bike resources there. It highlights her ability rather than her inability.

Of course we, the enamored wheelmen (and women), already know about the joy of two wheels. But in the context of resource scarcity and inequality, the simple power of a bike is much more evident. Access to a bike can help someone overcome disadvantage, or increase their aspirations in general, along with their quality of life. Further, the bicycle reminds viewers in the developed world that solving problems can happen on a sustainable, human scale. The simplicity, versatility and ubiquity of the machine makes applying oneself in a positive way even easier, because you need just reach out within your community and find the way to do good work that suits you. The possibilities are infinite, and With My Own Two Wheels shows us some excellent places to start. Read More......

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: Interviews and Photos

Flooded cars in a Goldman Sachs garage, Financial District.

The BBC got ahold of me for a total of 4 interviews the day after Hurricane Sandy hit New York. At that point it was mostly remarkable to me how isolated little-affected areas were from the devastation the storm visited upon their neighbors.

More photos after the jump...
The Williamsburg bridge the morning after the storm, empty.
Tossed cars in Chinatown
Mother Nature Occupied Wall Street.
Chemicals and smells rise from underground.

A blacked-out downtown became a playground for some, a quagmire for others.
Empty Union Square, a street vendor working in the dark.

Reflecting now, it is quite frustrating to think of all the able-bodied people who were idle while those in neighboring communities of Breezy Point, the Rockaways, and the Jersey shore were in full emergency response mode. Granted, many people volunteered, and the recovery effort is continuing, but the ongoing examples of selfishness are disappointing. Equally disappointing are your average people who are unable to care for themselves in this trying time, people unwilling to walk or bike across a bridge to get back to their job, unwilling to carpool with strangers. To me it's a disheartening foreshadowing of the way the first world will react when environmental and economic situations become more severe in the future.
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Audio Archives from the Dada years

Unearthed a 2 year old recording of Luke Williams singing 'Bullets', by Tunng, in a room full of a bunch of us making noise at the Dada Factory. good times. 
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Monday, October 8, 2012

New Reckoning With Torture video up by Ayo Walters

This was a fun one to film, Ayo's quite professional as she's a thespian. Read More......

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Pangenic: Adaptive storytelling and the stiff upper lip

Good writing, good storytelling, and infectious characters are excellent vehicles to deliver knowledge. Thus I justify having spent a good half of my youth obsessively playing story-based videogames like Heroes of Might and Magic. How else, I ask you, would I know what a troglodyte looks like? Seriously though, video games are scary immersive and getting better every day, despite the fact that they're bogglingly hard to make. On this note I'm happy to announce that Alex Haworth, the other half of the Dada Factory, is kickstarting Pangenic, an Indy game of his own based in a steampunk world of virulent mayhem.

This is good news. Al has had his hands full since the beginning of time. Before even finishing his master's degree in video game design he was snatched away to be the Program Director of the Leonardo Center. Whatever dynamic thing Al is doing, it always seems to involve taking a cutting-edge technology and bending it to his will in order to make novel and poetic worlds. Backing this game, for me, is to encourage a young artist to spread further into the possibilities of his oeuvre.

The game looks to be intimately rendered in an artist's hand, which is fun to see, and the makers strive to craft that authored whimsy into the dialogue and story as well. It's victorian conceit and ominous otherworldly threat should lead to plenty of opportunities for that kind of creation, in the vien of highly authored games like BioShock.

Video games are immersive worlds, and there are plenty of great ones out there, but they often lack the storytelling and depth that an interactive medium can accomodate. They need writing to follow the players through the various wends of the plot and reward them when they change a course of events with dynamic stories to reflect the alterations.

This is a daunting task, of course, because the team needs to essentially write exponential numbers of stories, but the reward is a living experience. I doubt this early indy game, being created on a shoestring budget without the thousands of programmers and designers that larger games have, will be so broad in scope as to be comprehensively intuitive and responsive to the player's inputs. But it's a very exciting step, and I relish seeing what they come up with. Throw a buck or two their way, or spread their proposal around to help make it happen.
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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Recently gathered thoughts with potential

Listen to the mechanical hum as it synchs, harmonious, with some internal register. 
Things can be complex and murky and inconclusive. Characters can embody different assurednesses and butt heads on them. Writing is something to fight for every day, it is unclear and right, like falling in love.
She is tired and alcoholic, beautiful and unbroken, though many poor men in gangs leer at her from booming trucks, doorways, and convenience stores. (Vultures of feminine vitality, there are many versions of that.)
Sometimes the blades of inequality swing too fast and deep for any of us close in contact to survive them. Some of us cope with familial structures and rules of the neighborhood, eyes and ears on our young vulnerable loved ones. Some of us still encounter that poverty for whatever reason, and it is through our own wits and luck that we survive.
The weight of unfed bodies unlinked from the systems they depend on will not be pretty, and cities will be awful places to be as the resources dwindle. Read More......

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Oh Upton!

"If I fail tonight, I can only try tomorrow; knowing that the fault must be mine – that if once the vision of my soul were spoken upon earth, if once the anguish of its defeat were uttered in human speech, it would break stoutest barriers of prejudice, it would shake the most sluggish soul to action! It would abash the most cynical, it would terrify the most selfish; and the voice of mockery would be silenced, and fraud and falsehood would sink back into their dens, and the truth would stand forth alone!" Read More......

Monday, June 4, 2012

Surviving Progress explains why we can't sleep at night.

Surviving Progress is a big-picture film that holds us to task for our excessive consumption.

If that charge comes across damning and pedantic it's a fair reaction, and at times the film's urgency and self-righteousness is hard to swallow. It is ultimately honest, though, and ultimately right.

It compares our current moment as a global society to the isolated empires of the past, the Mayans and the Romans, who grew too big and lost control of their relationship to resources, debt, and production. Like the life-cycle of an organism, the film warns of catestrophic die-back once resources are consumed unless some behavioral modification takes place.

After technosalvation is waved away as a possible solution, the featured voices cohere around the idea of curbed consumption.

The film is simple in its message, complex in its scope, and beautiful in its imagery. It is urgent and overbearing, propagandistic at times, but ultimately a very necessary bid at re-programming human nature to something more equitable and survivable.

Its main failing, in my mind, is that it edges too far toward notions of austerity, making a revolution of the way things work seem difficult and unpleasant for those living in the top echelons of world comfort. I look at the unhealthy, antisocial behavior that our current society encourages and I see very little loss in restructuring things to be less excessive and more human.

Radicals will find nothing new in this film, though it is nice to see it packaged quite well and endorsed by recognizable names. Try and see it, if only to reassure yourself that you're not going crazy, and to arm yourself with a pretty, engaging film with which to start conversation and advocate for progress. Read More......

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Road to New Orleans: Riding, Hitching, Loving, Wheeling

I biked 94 miles from Asheville to highway 85, awaking at 4 am and leaving in the still dawn, cresting two little mountains and enjoying the roller-coaster descents off the back side. I hitchhiked for 4 hours the next day, and stretched to the tether of my sunburnt morale, cursing every single-occupancy truck and SUV with their slouching owners barreling up the onramp without me. Finally I got a Hail-Mary ride with one guy all the way to New Orleans, and jumped out early, now landed in the bird-and-bullfrog-cackling everglade forest outside of the city.

I'm feeling pretty invincible. Which means I'm past due for a mugging, a collision, breakdown of communication, the extinguishing of inspiration, heartbreak, or possibly all of the above. My forearms and biceps look lobster red through the caking sunscreen, an irony, my body rippled and lean. My bike is heavy-slung, war-proven, dotted with talismans from the road, including a new leather and copper saddle obtained through the guile of a good deal; and dirt, scratches, and stickers from a 900 mile ride.

Along the way I discovered the American south, the multitude of worlds, confirmation of stereotypes, and stereotype-defying surprises.

New Orleans has been an indulgent revival, clothing-optional swim parties and 3 dozen oyster meals. A place to see old friends and make new ones, to be cosy, to love. Sometimes eaten by flies in the heat, sometimes stupefied by air conditioning. The city is decrepit and opulent, decadent and hungry. The scabby roads and Spanish Moss remind everyone that the swamp wants the city back, but the humans are giving entropy a run for her money in a rude industrious way.
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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Something Real Outside of Asheville

People of every stripe gushed about Asheville on our bike trip and before it, as far back as New York folks would wax nostalgic for this hip little southern town. Excepting Dave, a tattoo artist in weird Floyd. "Asheville? It's played out, man. It's all hype."

Dave turned out to be right. Asheville itself is a fairly safe and cooky facsimile of a radical town, one part washed up hippy and one part oblivious granola yuppy enclave, all coffee shop and food co-op. It's nobody's fault, really, and the quality of life appears to be good (though, like Portland, being young and over-educated is a common problem). It is a damn shame, though, because the whispers underneath this marketable main street version of an alternative, art and community oriented way of living are based on something real. It's the Asheville of the past, maybe, and certainly the Asheville of the periphery.

We were lucky, through some good friends, to stay somewhere that lives up to the hype, so to speak. A place pieced together up a steep hill from downtown, buried by trees and secluded by a series of unmarked dirt roads. 5-6 houses, each built over time by their inhabitants, made up of salvaged lumber and scavenged brick. Tin roofs redirect water to giant containment tanks, from which it is filtered with slow drip double pots for drinking. Heat is passive, or from efficient wood stoves. Electricity is forgone, or comes from solar panels. Toilets compost human waste in a simple way, and the results are fed to the garden.

The garden produces herbs, berries, onions, chard, kale, leeks, potatoes, carrots, beets, garlic, and even artichokes, along with a host of things I didn't even know to ask about. Chickens lay eggs in an elevated coop house and whine pitifully when you take them out from under them. One house centers around a piano, another is filled with bicycle powered lathes and grinders a-la Maya Pedal. There's a kiln in the works, and a venue for shows.

Most of this little world was constructed by bike trailer trips, and it's still close enough to the city to go in every day. After 6 months in New York, it's quite inspiring to see people my age living on their own terms and gathering tons of skills that they can use to create food and shelter for themselves. I had an oddly deep pride for my co-generationals after seeing what they'd done with their time, it's the kind of place I always knew existed but had never seen first hand

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Alleyquest tomfoolery in Asheville

Joergen and I happened to be in town for the Asheville Pedal Punks Alleyquest, which was a medieval extravaganza. Highlights included storming castles, hassling strangers, hidden messages in obscure spots of town, and slaying the dragon! Everyone was very appreciative of our out-of-town spirit.
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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Civilization in North Carolina

The road to Asheville, mountain biking in Greensboro, long hot stretches of fast tarmac, America's addiction to cars writ large.
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First Flight Bike Shop is a secret shrine to 80's Moutainbikes!

What was supposed to be a browse-and-bounce head pop-in to a small town bike shop turned into a 2 hour wander through the history of the bicycle, with a happy emphasis on the greatest hits of the utilitarian, innovative, wacky, and pretty advancements in Mountain bikes through the late 70's to early 90's.

This fully functional shop has a hanging museum above the sales floor, a cabinet of curiosities in the repair area, and an upstairs vault of treasures. The best thing about the collection is the invisible transition between what's for sale and what's a priceless mainstay of the collection. You get the feeling that you could buy an early Ibis or Breezer if you were persuasive enough and had deep pockets, or even walk away with a bright pink lugged Stumpjumper if the collection was a little overweight. Quite the gem in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina.
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