Our Lunchtime Cinema pick for October is ‘Riding the Rails’, a short film starring professional mountain biker Alex McAndrew, directed by Evan Kay, and presented by Smartwool. The 10-minute short follows Alex as he combines his passions for engineering and bike-riding to create a whole new way to explore the great outdoors. With a couple of mountain bikes, some old skateboard and rollerblade wheels, and a new-found passion for welding, Alex sets about building his very own custom rail-bike. It allows him, his wife Ella and their dog Hazel to travel smoothly and silently along old American railroads which have been abandoned for years.
Shot in the Adirondacks during peak foliage, the film is a beautiful showcase of human creativity and the power and peace of being connected to nature. Watch ‘Riding the Rails’ below, then scroll on to read our interview with Evan Kay.
Given Alex’s intertwined interests in mountain bikes and engineering, it almost seems like the pro cyclist was destined to one day design a rail-bike. Evan and Alex had actually talked about the idea for years before the film was shot. “We were looking for new ways to show people getting outside, on human-powered adventures,” Evan says. “It was actually one of my co-workers who showed me a rail bike. I shared it with Alex and his dad had actually wanted to do this years ago. So he was keen, but it just never happened. Then COVID hit, and we had all this time on our hands, so we decided we should shoot it. We ran with the idea.”
After months of planning, Evan headed to Alex’s house in East Burke, Vermont for the build.
“He had never welded anything before,” Evan says. “The whole thing was like watching a mad scientist at work. But he can visualise whatever he wants to build, and he has the ability to just make it happen. He’s worked on some amazing projects. He’s got a little rope tow in his backyard too, and he built his own groomer to groom the ski run. He’s one of a kind for sure.”
When the adapted rail-bike was ready and welded, Evan, Alex and Ella decided to test it right away. Despite the fact that it was already dark - and the railway they tested it on was live.
“We were too excited to wait,” laughs Evan. “We had been working for the whole week on it. We strapped bike lights onto the trolley with a ski strap, started pushing it like a skateboard and holy shit - it worked! We were super excited. With one or two pushes, the thing just went.”
In the end, we opened this whole other world of adventure up to us. And now the possibilities are endless...
The old railroads had a profound impact on America, bringing social, economic and political change to the country when it was still in its formative years. These days, many of the tracks are abandoned - but sourcing the right location to film ‘Riding the Rails’ was still a tricky process.
“It took a lot of time, effort and research,” says Evan. “Even though the trains aren’t in commission anymore, someone owns the land, so it’s still technically private property. We eventually found an area that had a long section of tracks, and reached out to the owner.
“Trains, here [in USA], used to be the way everyone travelled. But now, as the Amtrak business is going down, rails are being obstructed or just taken out. A lot of them are being completely removed. But some communities are working to turn these old corridors into rail trails, which is really cool. It means the rails are eventually gone, but in that in-between moment, the rails are still intact, and on the East Coast, it’s a lot more concentrated. There are tracks everywhere. They can still be used to access adventure. We drove from Vermont over to the Adirondacks, and found an awesome section that offered remote fishing and camping.”
Despite Alex’s lack of welding experience, the trolley rode the rails without a hitch. “There were a couple of trees blocking the rails which we had to cut out,” says Evan. “But nothing broke.”
Alex’s dog Hazel sat between him and Ella as they rode, and let their surroundings sink in.
Evan recalls: “It’s so quiet on the rail itself, because you’re just running on a smooth track. It’s like being on a bike trainer. It’s a little weird at first looking down, on this skinny little rail, but as you ride there’s zero resistance, even with 100lbs of gear. You’re able to really take in all the nature around you, because you don’t have to focus like you do when you’re mountain biking on a trail. You can just mindlessly pedal. So you do feel more at one with nature, in a sense.
“You forget about what you’re doing and you’re just in this environment. And peak foliage in the Adirondacks is mind blowing. The best way to describe it is like being in a colouring book. You look around and all these oranges and yellows and reds are flying by you. It’s a cool feeling.”
The whole creation process reflects one of the overarching themes of ‘Riding the Rails’ - that life is too short to put your adventures on hold, no matter how hectic everyday life might seem.
“My biggest takeaway was just to follow through on these ideas that may be lingering in the back of your head,” says Evan. “Because this was something that we came up with six or seven years ago. We never lost sight of it, and eventually we made it happen, and just from start to finish, it was such an awesome adventure. It wasn’t easy by any means. It tested us mentally and physically and financially - we didn’t have a lot of money, so we had to make it all up ourselves and use what we had available to us. But in the end, we opened this whole other world of adventure up to us. And now the possibilities are endless. It’s opened so many doors.”