Interview: Singletrack High

Two brothers on a mission to get kids--and the world--back on bikes

Brothers Jacob and Isaac Seigel-Boettner at work on a film of a very different flavor. Photo by Anand Varma

A new movie, Singletrack High, is earning kudos everywhere it plays. The movie follows the lives of six very different high school students from Northern California's high school mountain bike league. It's an eye-opener of a movie that makes a stunning case for the growing high-school racing movement and, more directly, for the power bikes have to change lives for the better.

Singletrack High is making the rounds across the country and will be playing on Saturday April 20th (7:30-9;30 p.m.) in Monterey, California during the Sea Otter Classic (get tickets here).

Here’s a quick teaser….
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After interviewing the film-makers behind Singletrack High, brothers Jacob and Isaac Seigel-Boettner, it's hard to imagine two people better suited to telling this story.

Bike: What role did cycling play in your own lives growing up?

Jacob: Our parents actually brought us home from the hospital in bike trailers after we were born. They were elementary school teachers, so the only way our family could afford to travel when we were growing up was by having our parents lead tours during their summer breaks. Isaac and I started out in bike trailers, being towed behind our parents, then graduated to a tandem and eventually began riding ourselves.

Bike: What places did you visit?
Isaac: We saw southern France, Austria, Japan, both the east and west coasts of Canada and Rwanda.

Jacob: And in the summer of 8th grade, we rode across America, following the Lewis and Clark Trail. It was a pretty cool way to see the country. It definitely brought America to life for us in a way that the history books didn't.

Bike: Did you always hope to make cycling, in some way, a part of your careers?

Jacob: I think we always kind of hoped it would work out that way. The bike film thing kind of came about in college. I did an internship in 2008 with Tom Ritchey's effort to help coffee farmers in Rwanda and wanted to share the stories I was seeing with my friends back home, but I didn't think they'd want to sit down and read a thesis, so I made a movie of their stories. I entered that movie at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and people really liked it. It made me realize that there are all these human stories out there in the world that have bikes in them--and that it was all about communicating stories in a way that our generation relates to stories.

Bike: Most films these days are basically huck and jump fests--beautiful, to be sure--but definitely not in-depth personality studies. In other words, your film is decidedly different from the style of movie that has been dominant since the late 90s. Did that difference make it easier or harder for you to get backing for the film?

Isaac: A little bit of both. We grew up on films like Life Cycles and The Collective and we like them. What we're doing is not as glitzy and there no obvious logo placement, but actually Specialized Bicycles stepped up and funded the entire Singletrack High film. They've been a longtime supporter of the high school mountain biking movement and wanted to get the story told. High school racing is a great way to grow the sport and for companies to reach the next generation of riders. So, yeah, it might have been a little tricky trying to tap into sponsorships, but we were really lucky that Specialized sees value in this.

Photo by Pedal Born Pictures

Bike: How did the movie come about?

Jacob: We started a high school mountain bike club when we were in high school in Santa Barbara and we came up to Sea Otter one year and got our butts kicked by the kids from the Marin NorCal teams. When we graduated and went to UC Berkeley, we raced on Cal's team and kept an eye on the NorCal league, wanting to get involved at some point in the future. After making "With My Own Two Wheels" and looking at the bike as a tool for development, we realized that it's great to get people to support getting folks on bikes in developing countries, but at a certain point, the people in those countries look at us as what it means to be "developed", whether that's PC or not, and they see us driving cars.

We wanted our next movie to draw more people in the States back on bikes. And we also wanted to do something to keep kids from giving up on bikes in the first place, and that got us looking back again at NorCal and NICA and how they are keeping kids on bikes at an age when a lot of kids abandon them. So, we saw the movie as a way to help get people back on bikes.

Bike: How long have you been working on the film?

Jacob: It's been about a year and a half in the making.

Bike: How did you pick the students you followed?

Jacob: We did about a hundred interviews and narrowed it down to a small cast of characters. We wanted to make a mix of Breaking Away and The Breakfast Club--two movies that everyone connects with. So we aimed to get a wide cast of characters. We wanted to show this film in any high school and have every kid in class relate to at least one of the characters. We were trying to balance out the personalities and show a good cross section of what the bike can do for kids from all kinds of backgrounds.

Bike: Was there anything that surprised you--any revelations that you had while working on the film?

Isaac: Yeah, well, we hadn't seen an actual high school race in a while and someone told us there'd be 400 to 500 kids at a race and we were like, "Wow, that's a lot of people.", but when we showed up to our first race, we were floored.

There was a parking lot the size of a football stadium, full of kids and tents and everything was matching kits and trainers. There were team mechanics, people try to help… I was astounded. It was hard to even keep track of our six kids in this group of five hundred.

I've been to Worlds at Mont Sainte Anne-and nowhere else had we seen this kind of turnout. There was close to a 1,000 spectators. All the teams had professional mechanics--one of them had Joe Breeze and Otis Guy wrenching on the bikes. I don't know if the kids realized who was helping them and how lucky they were having those two guys work on their bikes, but it was pretty spectacular. I think the NorCal league had to split itself into two conferences because they had 700 kids in their league. And that's just the NorCal league. SoCal is getting pretty big. Colorado and Texas both have pretty big leagues, They are adding more states. So, it's growing pretty fast.

Photo by Pedal Born Pictures.

Bike: The kids you follow all come from different backgrounds and have very different personalities. That said, is there any common ground between the students?

Isaac: I think the one thing that all the kids talked about was that sort of Zen clearing your head, getting away from school, getting away from all the crazy stuff that's going through your head in high school. Everyone talked about how the bike was sort of their release and way to calm down during the day. And I think for a lot of the kids, being on a team breeds self reliance and control, They all talked about how they are more focused in class now that they are on the team. Most of them are actually doing better in school now because of it.

Jacob: At the end of the season, we asked all of them to describe what that moment is like when everything clicks and every kid described the same exact experience on the bike; I think it's the same thing every mountain biker knows, but it was great to see very different students describing almost the exact same experience even though they are coming from different backgrounds.

Bike: What, at the end of the day, do you hope that people take away from this film?

Jacob: First and foremost we hope it gets more kids excited about getting on bikes. But I think one of the largest reasons that we made the film is that when you talk to adults, to principals and superintendents about high school mountain bike racing, they don't really know what that looks like. We're hoping by showing this movie to parents and teachers and administrators across the company it gets them to buy into why this is such a good thing for their kids.

I think the kids will get it right away, they still remember how much fun it was to ride a bike, but I think a lot of adults, unfortunately, have forgotten what that feels like. We hope this film reminds them of how much fun riding a bike can be and, hopefully, why it never has to stop.