A bicycle is an amazing tool: it can provide freedom, improve physical and mental health, and be used as a catalyst for social and environmental change.
Narrated by Phil Liggett, The Engine Inside (2023) presents the complex and intimate stories of six bicyclists who consider the bicycle as a two-wheeled vehicle of empowerment in their corner of the globe.
“There are over 2 billion bikes on the planet, and each has a story to tell. They shape our streets, our communities, even ourselves,” narrates Liggett in the opening sequence.
How do bicycles inform others of our values? How critical are bicycles to our identities? WHY do I ride a bike? Are some of the questions I found myself asking as I watched the film.
Honestly, the trailer does not do the actual film justice. The Engine Inside aims to strike a deep chord of introspection with audiences by presenting raw and unfiltered stories. In fact, a warning appears before the opening credits informing viewers that the stories they are about to watch are complex and deeply personal.
For me, watching The Engine Inside sometimes felt like I was privy to someone’s private therapy session as they grappled with existential questions.
Audiences will witness the highs and lows of the six individuals, who fearlessly share intimate details about their personal lives as they explain the importance of bikes to themselves and how they interpret the world on two wheels.
Kudos to director Darcy Wittenburg for threading six different stories of people with vastly different backgrounds into one cohesive narrative and homage to the humble bicycle.
“We were looking for really well rounded people that had an amazing story to tell that each had a connection to the bicycle from a different perspective,” he said.
“Although there is some overlap with some of them, they each represent some of the major ways bicycles help humanity from mental health to transportation and everything in between,” he explained.
Outwardly, the bicyclists themselves cannot be more different from one another.
In Harlem, we meet Darnell Myers (aka Rrdblocks) and his Ruff Ryders-inspired bike gang, who call themselves “The Cycle Squad” and demonstrate the power of critical mass when the wheelie-popping, rail-hopping BMX squad takes over New York streets.
“I don’t care what bike I’m on as long as I’m on a bike. That’s bike life. Forget the brains, forget everything. Just ride your bike!” Myers proclaims.
Myers rose to fame via social media, where he diligently recorded and shared his urban stunts on IG and Tik Tok, amassing legions of like-minded individuals along the way who thrill in his interpretation of bike life and the simplistic freedom it offers.
The critical mass Cycle Club rides evoke Colorado’s Tour de Fat, Wednesday Wheelies and the Denver Cruiser Ride: groups of people from all walks of life taking over the city streets, whizzing by astonished onlookers, and gathering en masse for the sheer joy of riding bicycles.
In Canada, Jay Bearhead Roque shares how his bike is a tool not only for recreation, but for therapy in overcoming drug abuse, homelessness, shame, trauma, racism, and reclaiming his indigenous heritage.
Kwabena Danso provides people in the far reaches of Ghana with much-needed vehicles of transportation in the creation of his bamboo bikes (it takes 40 hours of handwork to build a single frame).
In Egypt, Cairo Cycling Geckos founder Nouran Salah rides a bike to change the perception of women on bicycles.
Meanwhile, middle-aged Janice Tower rides the punishing Iditarod Trail Invitational- a 306 mile grueling winter race from Knik to McGrath, Alaska.
Finally, in Colorado, The-Cyclist-Lawyer Megan Hottman who “…eats, sleeps and breathes bikes in all aspects of my life,” talks about bicycle advocacy, challenges, and the gains that can be made in changing the perception of cyclists.
Eagle-eyed viewers will recognize Scottish mountain biker Danny MacAskill in a cameo during a Liggett voiceover.
“Each story has something powerful to take away,” said Wittenburg.
“Personally I probably learned the most from Jay’s story and getting a better understanding of just how deep the trauma runs in the Indigenous community from colonialism and the residential school system,” he continued.
“I was also very moved by Nouran’s story and the women’s cycling groups in Cairo. Getting the opportunity to cycle around the city in a group of women who were challenging social taboos is one of the most profound things I have experienced – to witness both the positive and negative reactions from people as we rode through the city really made it clear that a movement was unfolding in right in front of us.”
Agents of change, each of these individuals are connected by bicycles. As Liggett points out throughout the film, bicycles play a central role in their unique, transformative visions.
Lawyers are people too
Admittedly, my interest in the documentary was largely because I heard a year ago that Hottman was going to be in a bicycle film. What the film was actually about was a tightly kept secret- right up until the trailer was released this spring.
For those unfamiliar with her, Hottman is well known (not only locally, but nationally) for her bicycle advocacy and work as a bicycle lawyer.
Although I had only met her once in person during Lookout Mountain Week, I was eager to see what her role in the (at the time) unnamed mystery project would be and presumed it would largely have something to do with bicycle rights.
Without revealing too much, Hottman’s story in the film was nothing like I expected.
Not only did it reveal an unfiltered look at her personal struggles, but it addresses a couple of devastating events that occurred during the filming of The Engine Inside.
Wow. I felt uninvited, almost embarrassed that I was seeing this side of such an established and much loved figure in our local cycling community; her vulnerabilities exposed for the world to see. In one particular poignant scene I thought to myself, They showed that? Jesus. Christ.
Her story playing out on the big screen impacted me greatly. Remove the power suit, the lycra, the bikes, and there is Hottman. Surprise! Lawyers are people too. My already high regard for this individual increased tenfold after seeing the film.
Stories that resonate
I did not expect for other stories to resonate as much as they did. Many of the struggles that were played out could well have been from my own therapy sessions and lived experiences.
While I enjoyed Hottman’s story (we have several professional and personal mutual acquaintances, and I enjoyed seeing her ride around downtown Golden and Lookout Mountain- places I rode frequently during the years I lived in Golden), Danso’s and Roque’s stories were especially meaningful to me.
Danso’s mission to improve mobility for others struck a familiar chord. He understood the limitations of living somewhere without access to transportation and how critical a bicycle is for mobility.
Allow me to elaborate.
A decade has passed since I moved to Denver after earning my Ph.D. at Purdue University. I was excited to return to my home state with a reputation for being a great place for bicyclists- a stark contrast to the unwelcoming bicycling environment in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Living in the city, I loved riding my bike to and from work, to meet up with friends, to run errands, etc. The fact that Denver’s infrastructure included 196 miles of on-street bike lanes and several bike parks was incredibly appealing. In bike-centric Denver, I could go anywhere in the city riding my bike! It was liberating.
Without a bicycle (I sold my rundown Volkswagen Jetta shortly after I moved), my mobility would have been severely limited and I would have been unable to go to the places I frequented. I could live in a city and get around without the use of a car. Bicycles offer game-changing mobility and accessibility.
Secondly, Roque’s story about using a bicycle for mental and physical health also resonated. There were several years where I struggled with depression (some years were extremely difficult). My saving grace was my bicycle. Often spending the entire day riding, I rode everywhere to sort through my thoughts, unpack my burdens, and get away from everything.
As an Asian intercountry adoptee, the part where Roque discussed exploring his cultural identity while being raised by white parents and seemingly belonging nowhere resonated deeply as well. Bicycles offer freedom and can improve mental health.
The audience may identify with only one or all six of the individuals presented in The Engine Inside.
The commonalities shared by the film’s subjects go beyond their love of bikes. Rather, they all have a sense of altruism and wanting to improve the lives of others through bicycles.
The film presents a multifaceted view of bicycling and concludes with a note of optimism and the potential that bicycles have to solve (or at least alleviate) many of the world’s problems.
Liggett closes on a hopeful note: “When we get on a bicycle, not only do we better ourselves, we better our world.”
Truer words could not have been spoken.
See the film
Additional Front Range premieres and screenings are scheduled in Fort Collins (June 29 at The Lyric and hosted by the Bicycle Film Festival), Evergreen (August 4 at Center Stage Theater and hosted by the Evergreen Bike Club), and in Longmont (September 10, hosted by the City of Longmont).
Interested in hosting a premiere or screening in your city? Visit Engineinsidefilm.com and select the TOUR page to complete the hosting form. All tour dates and ticket information can be found at Engineinsidefilm.com as well.
Photo credits: Natalie Starr, Anthill Films
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