By AMBER LESTER
When Ken Bell produced his first movie, “Off Road to Athens,” he financed it with credit cards, slept in cars and carried camera equipment in a backpack.
But his experience producing his second release, “24 Solo” was decidedly sweeter.
“This time we upped the bar,” says Bell, who also owns Tradeshow Direct in Harrisonburg. “We had bigger tripods! And steadycams!”
Gripped Films’ “24 Solo” will be screened at Court Square Theater on Saturday at 7 p.m. The film, directed by Jason Berry with music by JMU grad Haik Naltchayan, follows professional cyclist Chris Eatough as he tries to capture his seventh world championship in 24-hour mountain bike racing.
The sport takes mountain bike racing to the next level of difficulty. Competitors race for 24 hours around rough laps from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday. The average lap takes 40 minutes, Bell says. Racers only take breaks between laps to gulp Gatorade and change clothes if necessary.
“It’s kind of like the Iron Man — a lot of people are doing it to say they did it,” Bell says. “At the upper level of the sport, these are world-class athletes that really do race.”
Bell met Eatough 10 years ago when both men were competing in local races. They reconnected at the Baltimore screening of “Off Road to Athens,” a documentary that followed eight mountain bikers as they fought for spots on the 2004 Olympic team. At the time, Eatough, an U.Va grad and Baltimore resident, was preparing for another season of 24-hour races.
“He was a logical subject to talk to and shoot a movie about,” Bell says. “He had won six world championships in a row, and was going for a seventh. It seemed like a pretty logical storyline.”
Trek Bicycle Corporation picked up the tab and will be distributing the film on DVD wherever Trek products are sold. Bell says having a sponsor made filmmaking a little easier this time around.
“We weren’t sleeping in cars,” he says. “It’s getting into the screenings and DVD sales and yet, we’re not in debt.”
When they began shooting, the crew had no idea what to expect. The season could be anticlimactic, or worse, Eatough could suffer injury.
“One of our fears was, ‘What if he got hurt?’ ” Bell says. “It is a relatively dangerous sport, racing a bike as fast as you can go on rocky mountain trails.”
He didn’t get hurt, but that doesn’t mean the shoot was predictable. The national race was canceled after 19 hours of heavy rain. “But within an hour of starting, he had the lead of the race, and after 12 hours, he’d already lapped everybody,” Bell says.
The real drama started at the world’s race in Conyers, Ga., where Australian rider, Craig Gordon, pushed Eatough “to the limit and beyond,” Bell says.
“I don’t want to give away the ending, but the world championship race surprised us by its intensity level,” he says. “It exceeded our expectations for drama.”
With two documentaries about cycling completed, Bell expects his next project to be something entirely different.
“Jason’s a real outdoorsy guy, so maybe something about windsurfing,” Bell says. “He’s also very into environmental issues and so maybe we’ll step away from sports-related documentaries. Maybe a travel log?”
Whatever they decide, fans of “Off Road to Athens” shouldn’t expect a sequel for the upcoming Olympic games.
“People want to know whether there will be an ‘Off Road to Beijing,’ ” Bell says, laughing. “The answer is definitely ‘no.’ Too much work!”