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Off Road to Athens
By Marianne Werz O'Brien
Date: 3/22/2005
Off Road to Athens

In 2004 the American mountain bike team was allocated three spots for the Olympic Games in Athens. Two men and one woman would be given the honor of representing their country. This documentary, Off Road to Athens covers the points chase of the top eight American cyclists (four men and four women) vying for those coveted spots.

On the road there are some things a racer can control, but many more they cannot. Flights can get delayed, luggage lost. Relationships strain under the distances and pressures. A flat can snatch victory from their grasp. Loved one’s tempers fray over the telephone lines. Unexpected illness or exhaustion can spell disaster. And yet the riders persevere, eyes on the prize, in search of the prestigious palmare: “Olympic athlete”.

Bad Goisern, photo courtesy GrippedFilms

In order to secure a place on the team the cyclists needed to amass the most UCI points. This film covers Alison Dunlap, Susan Haywood, Mary McConneloug, Shonny Vanlandingham, Jeremiah Bishop, Adam Craig, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Todd Wells as they travel around the world chasing a chance to “go for the gold”.

In the opening moments of the film, in the first meeting of the eight, there is a telling moment where the women ask about the points policy. The heartbreaking story of Mary McConneloug and Sue Haywood’s points debacle is covered in all its anguish, replete with explanations from the officials and yet, to the producers credit they manage to do so without demonizing either woman. As Mary McConneloug says at the end of the film, “It’s too bad it all came down to this fight for points, because that’s not what this sport is all about.”

USA Women in Banos, photo courtesy GrippedFilms

The director’s flair is evident throughout the documentary, with humorous interludes interspersed between the grueling race sequences. A touch of travelogue here, a pinch of reality tv there, and always the palpable desire of the riders to make the team. It is the human side of this film that soars – even if you know nothing of the eight riders before entering the theater, you will find yourself cheering them on as the film progresses.

The movie is incredibly fast paced, covering ten races in seven countries. Yet time is taken to “set” each race in its respective country and culture, and after each race we catch up with the riders, hear their take on the race, and get the latest point spread - always following the points.

Adam Craig, photo courtesy GrippedFilms

But mountain biking itself is at the heart of this film and the frenetic race sequences will not disappoint. Seemingly impassable technical descents, ripping muddy single track, pack starts, dramatic crashes, and the occasional dog running across the course! This is filmed by aficionados with a true love of mountain bike racing, and it shows.

Another interesting facet of the film is found in hindsight. Former World Champion Filip Meirhaeghe is interviewed early in the film. All odds were on him to take the Olympic gold medal, which he stated was the only goal left for his career. While filming was still underway the cycling community was stunned to learn Meirhaeghe failed an anti-doping control, and subsequently retired from the sport. This knowledge adds a twist of bitter irony to his interview.

Scotland, photo courtesy GrippedFilms

The musical score is what really sets this movie apart from all others. It includes well-known classics as well as original pieces composed exclusively for this movie by Haik Naltchayan. The score sets the tone and matches the moment perfectly throughout. From the syncopated beat pounding to the rhythm of the racers pedal strokes to the mournful dirge as Mary struggles through the muck and mud the soundtrack is flawless, never faltering.

The brilliant use of a single violinist alone in a town square playing Vivaldi’s Spring, merging into images of the Madrid World Cup race with the music carrying on as the backdrop is just one example of the exquisite symbiosis between sight and sound!

The subtle and deft use of music to express the mood of the moment transports the viewer, as the score encompasses the soul of the visual in a way heretofore unseen in cycling movies. In this way the producers of “Off Road to Athens” have raised the bar for all future cycling documentaries.

Off Road to Athens is pure entertainment - visually, aurally, and emotionally satisfying. Well balanced between human drama, travelogue, and heart-pounding race scenes, this is one documentary that cyclists and non-cyclists alike will enjoy equally.

View the Off Road to Athens trailer and check it out for yourselves.

Initial Film Schedule:
April 15, 2005 Monterey, CA State Theater
May 28 & 29, 2005 Durango, CO The Abbey Theatre

If it’s not showing at a town near you, and you have a few pesos to spare consider ordering a copy from the website. You won’t be disappointed!

Please visit the Off Road to Athens website.

Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, photo courtesy GrippedFilms

Additional images from the making of Off Road to Athens courtesy GrippedFilms:
Continental Championships: Baños, Ecuador .
World Cup #1: Madrid, Spain .
World Cup #2: Houffalize, Belgium .
World Cup #3: Fort William, Scotland .
World Cup #5: Mount Saint Anne, Quebéc .
World Cup #6: Calgary, Alberta .
Marathon Worlds: Bad Goisern, Austria .

Filmmakers Bios:
Ken Bell and Jason Berry have produced multiple features for ESPN as well as 2 Sports Documentaries. Off Road To Athens brings together their talent for orchestrating a world-wide adventure. Having met through competitive mountain biking Ken and Jason have devoted much of the last 10 years to digital media. They bring to the screen the eye of a photographer, the emotion of a writer and the agility of athletes. Ken worked mostly on production, Jason on writing and editing. Both helped shoot the film.

Off Road To Athens has a soundtrack made by D.C. composer, Haik Naltchyan. The music reflects the cultural diversity and excitement of each location visited and is unlike the soundtrack of any other high-energy sports documentary.

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