After nearly 20 years I recently left Arlington for Frederick, MD and as with any big life change you take time to reflect as you pack up all your belongings and then unpack in a strange, new place. Cycling has given me not only good health, an outlet for a lot of energy, and fun times but also some of my most treasured friendships. One in particular helped bring exciting tales of cycling to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
I moved to the Arlington in December of 1997 and after meeting some of his team mates I was fortunate to be introduced to Ken Bell. At the time Ken was a local, elite-level mountain bike racer and all-around cycling nut, who ran a graphics and printing business. I’d work a part time second shift for Ken then we’d ride mountain bikes late at night. Ken was all about racing and I was clueless to it. I was the definition of a “newbie” to the entire world of mountain biking, let alone racing. Ken immediately pushed me to enter the Wakefield race series and then I joined him at the 1998 24 Hours of Canaan just to watch this crazy event. I was equally impressed and intimidated but all the time I had Kenny’s encouragement, so I clipped in and rolled forward.
Soon after we met, Ken moved a couple hours away to the cycling hotbed of Harrisonburg, VA and thankfully we kept in touch. A JMU grad, Ken returned to his little college town and soon learned of a masochistic, almost surreal event called the Shenandoah Mountain 100, a 100-mile mountain bike race which had less than 100 finishers its first year (1999). It boasted over 13,000 feet of climbing and soon gained a fledgling reputation as one of the toughest single-day mtb races in the States. As any good friend does, Kenny talked his wide-eyed, impressionable (gullible?) buddy Jason into doing it in 2000. Of course he abstained from the insanity and waited for a report from me. I had no clue what I was in for, I was nervous, untrained and unfit but in my head I figured, “If Ken thinks I can pull this off then dammit I’ll finish.” After nearly 14 hours of muscle-cramping effort I crossed the line exhausted, cracked, devastated…and hooked. Looking back at the results I see dozens of names of guys I’ve become friends with since. The list is a veritable “who’s-who” of DC mountain biking.
In 2002 I had some health issues and couldn’t participate in the Sm100. Video had recently gone digital, something I dabbled in and it was Kenny who suggested, since I couldn’t participate, I make a short film of the race. So I did. We showed it in January to a sold out crowd at the local theater and then I had a second obsession – making films.
Ken helped me film the same race a year later and again we held a screening to a sold out crowd. My entire life soon became cycling and filming cycling.
In 2004 two professional mtb racers I had met at the SM100, Jeremiah Bishop and Sue Haywood set off on a whirlwind, global tour to accumulate international points from racing at the highest level in mountain biking. The goal was to nab one of 3 open slots for the US Team headed to Athens at the 2004 Olympics. It was Kenny who suggested I make a short film of their trials, he served as an intermediate contact between us all and took on the role of “producer” which meant he handled logistics and footed much of the expense. Not unlike the feeling I got before entering my first mt. bike race, I was intimidated and nervous but Ken again had this belief in me that I could pull it off. I didn’t so much believe in myself as I simply knew I would not let my friend down. I put my head down and put all I had into making it the best movie I could.
Early on I realized what a great story it would be and quit my job in advertising to dedicate the time needed to tell the story properly. Off Road to Athens was an emotional roller coaster for everyone involved but it was Ken who helped me see it through, fronting not only most of the cost but believing in me as a director and budding storyteller. ORTA went on to win Best Documentary at the Vail Film Fest, among others.
Gripped Films took off and soon I was working for ESPN, National Geographic, Versus and eventually NBC Sports. This also launched Gripped Racing as we had such good connections to sponsors in the bike industry. Two years later we scored a deal with Nike and Trek to again travel the world, this time following Chris Eatough, the greatest ultra endurance mtb racer the sport has ever seen. In this production Chris finally met his match in Craig Gordon, an Australian willing to kill himself for the victory. The drama and action helped make 24 Solo a very well received film.
“What’s next?” Kenny asked me one cold winter day in 2009. I told him if we were going to make another cycling film we needed to cover the biggest, most popular race on the planet, the Tour de France. It started off a bit rocky, being led down a dead end path with one team but thankfully Team Columbia High Road gave us new direction and we were off.
The roller coaster left the station and in just over a year’s time we premiered Chasing Legends to a packed crowd at the Tour of California. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen introduced the movie, a highlight of my career.
We had screenings around the world, the best of which was to a sold out audience at the O2 in London with live Q&A after, complete with Phil asking the questions and Mark Cavendish on the stage beside me to answer.
None of these films would have been possible without the help, support and rock-solid friendship of Kenny. I have now traveled the world with this guy, so when I once again pulled into Harrisonburg last week I had to smile. So many great things have launched from our simple conversations it’s hard not to feel an underlying positive energy around him. We caught up and he showed me his continuously growing real estate portfolio and Rocktown Bike Shop . We took a couple bikes from the shop and headed for the hills.
All rides in the Harrisonburg region are what the French would call, “LéGit”. We parked at Braley’s Pond, met Chris from the shop who had pedaled there and we climbed a fire road for over an hour up to the West VA state line – part of the same climb in the SM100 course. We then took a left onto single track and climbed some more. I was reduced to pushing my bike but no matter, some of the most rewarding singletrack lay ahead.
When the path finally went down hill, the bikes began to sing and the sun came out. We were ripping down the mountain, railing corners and I was absolutely giggling like a small child. “Bvvvvvvtttttt!!!!!” It was one of those rare times when, as Alison Dunlap said in “Off Road”, “I was just dancing on the pedals”… until
Sure Kenny had to ruin the vibe, fall off the trail and land on his face but until then the day was perfect. And while my buddy sucked up the blood and kept on pedaling I was still smiling. I totally should have snapped a photo but close your eyes and imagine a solid 8′ drop, face plant and bike on top of Ken – feet still clipped in. It was statuesque.
Like every adventure we’ve shared, like every movie we’ve made and like life its self; there are ups and downs, pain and joy. Best thing to do is keep your friends close and keep moving forward. It’s crazy to think my entire career took a detour from knowing Kenny, and it all started with a bike ride. So a small shout out to my old friend Kenny for so much goodness over the last 20 years. Cheers, brother.
Thanks for reading.