Motherload, a movie about people and cargo bikes

I saw the documentary “Motherload” in September and meant to write a review.  I wish I had done it fresh, but I keep thinking about it, so better late than never.

Motherload connected with me on an emotional level.  I teared up as it captured on film and described feelings and moments I’ve had biking with my kids that I’ve never heard anyone articulate.  People know I’m the crazy guy on the bike with his kids; this film told my story, our story.  In this post I’ll remark on a few parts that stuck with me.  Here’s the trailer:

The film was back on my mind today for a scene in which someone rides their bike around Vermont (?) in the snow, paying house calls to help people. I think the bike was a Yuba Mundo with a BionX e-assist motor? I know I elbowed my friend Erich and whispered “listen, you can hear the studded tires crackling.”

(An aside: the magic of cargo bikes is the people and bike tech is only a means to an end. That said, I love the ever-evolving variety of cargo bikes and that was one more treat in the movie: not just the history of bike models, notably featuring the Xtracycle, but how many different makes and models I could spot throughout the movie).

The winter rider talks about the experience of being out in the elements, how it connects him to nature and to his neighbors. A car deadens sound, inhibits communication with other humans, nullifies weather, and generally makes us antisocial. A huge part of the climate crisis is our disconnection from nature as a species. We’re a part of the world, not its owners. Motherload notes that we spend so much of our time in climate-controlled spaces: homes, offices, businesses, schools, cars. We lose our connection to the planet. On a bike, you engage with the weather: the cold, the heat, the sun, the trees, the hills, the ground. Seeing a hawk in a tree can stop you in your tracks.

Today I biked my kids to school, it was 12 degrees F with -2 F windchill. They bundled up right and neither said a thing about the cold. The morning was clear and crisp and I enjoyed a sunrise over Ann Arbor as I rode back into downtown. Being out in the cold grounded me spiritually, making me grateful for this world and my place in it. I would have missed that in a car.

The segment on harassment from (men in) cars was powerful. I don’t experience that, in part because Ann Arbor drivers are pretty decent but also because I’m a man. I know female cyclists face catcalls and harassment in a way I don’t and that it’s an additional weight on their mind as they dress and ride. The segment made it clear that women of color are particularly prone to harassment (a mom records a man screaming “n****r” at her while she bikes with her child).

This harassment was placed within the broader narrative of bikes empowering women. From the invention of the safety bicycle in the 1880s, bikes have been a tool of freedom. I know how empowering bikes are for kids, but hadn’t been aware of how they granted mobility to women (the societal condemnation spoke to how real the empowerment was). Now cargo bikes are liberating moms, bringing them happiness and health and balance and spiritual fulfillment as they break free from their minivans. The personal narrative arc woven into the documentary is the director’s (Liz Canning’s) journey into family biking. Ultimately, the cargo bike changes her life, even more dramatically than it changed mine.

What had me most tearful was the pure joy of biking with kids. The moments of kids being silly on the bike, of successfully rolling up to a destination, of just chatting with kids on a beautiful day. Liz Canning bottled that magic up for everyone to see! I dream of soaring like a bird and I think most humans do. Biking is the closest feeling to that and with a cargo bike I can glide with my kids on my back.

All in all, it was excellent. I left the theater high on hope, believing in the cargo bike revolution. We’re gonna do it, folks, one person at a time. And now we have propaganda. I hopped on my cargo bike parked outside the theater (obviously) and zoomed home, in an echo of being 16 and flooring it out of the parking lot after watching The Fast and the Furious.

Want to watch it? I bet someday you’ll be able to rent this film on streaming and you should do it.  But before then, it’s playing solely at select community events around the world.  Here’s a list of upcoming showings, currently with Jan & Feb dates. Tell your friends in those cities and make propaganda for a better world.

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