‘Free Wheels East’

Celebrating two young adventurers unafraid to keep it wheel


If you were a strapping, handsome, able-bodied youth just out of university, what would be your next step? Back in the late 20th century, young men chose professions such as investment banking or financial consultation, and diligently went about getting their MBAs. Remember those days of multiple degrees and breathtakingly impressive resumes? It all seems rather quaint now that the graduates of today are making other choices — so different from what they used to be that the goings-on of the 1990s may as well be a rather drab little tale from another planet. Today the field has no rules and no limits, or at least that’s certainly what it looks like from the sidelines.

For a taste of what’s happening, look no further than “Free Wheels East” — a 21st-century adventure story that really happened and actually worked, and makes the financial consultants look silly in a way that Occupy Wall Street can’t quite accomplish.

In 2005, Jamie Mackenzie and Ben Wylson graduated from universities in England and decided right away that the suited, briefcase-carrying lifestyle was not for them. Cousins as well as good friends from childhood, the pair put their heads together and came up with Plan A: get on their bicycles, leave the U.K. and embark on a three-year trip around the world. No airplanes, no terminals — just their bikes and hitching rides on boats to take them from continent to continent.

They had never been on such an adventure before, and had no prior training. They just packed their saddle bags and took off. There was no Plan B.

At the same time, Mackenzie and Wylson went into the venture with some amount of calculation; they took their cameras, laptops and recording equipment, fully intending to turn their life-altering journey into a career-launching business package. (Much like Elizabeth Gilbert of “Eat, Pray, Love.”) Wylson and Mackenzie now head a digital-film production company in London and Wylson’s brother Jack — producer of “Free Wheels East” — is also a member.

The film didn’t exactly get a whole lot of distribution upon its original release last year (in the U.S., the Newport Beach Film Festival picked it up and that was it), but a personal documentary such as this one probably works best on the Internet anyway. That we get to see it on the big screen in Japan says a lot about the nature of the local movie industry — it has a nose for little gems.

That said, “Free Wheels East” is so naive and straightforward, audiences used to more traditional big-budget cinema fare may find it strangely staid.

The cousins traverse incredible distances, endure horrible accidents, brush shoulders with death and race with penguins on the ice plains of East Antarctica, but the sheer scale of their undertaking doesn’t translate well in the confines of the digital screen. Imagine what Spielberg would do with such material — he’d rack up the budget to a gazillion dollars, build an ice fort on the South Pole, train an army of penguins to ride bikes maybe, and get Hans Zimmer to compose a soulful/soaring score.

Mackenzie and Wylson, for their part, had nothing but their meager savings at the start of the trip, which dwindled down to near zilch in Australia. In order to keep going, they wrote and constructed books of their adventures and sold them on the streets of Melbourne. On some days they made over 700 Australian dollars and could treat themselves to real food. As soon as there was money in the till, they got on their bikes and rode off again.

The days melted into weeks and beyond. In South America, they spent several months looking for a ship that would agree to take them across the ocean free of charge. Some days they couldn’t eat or sleep. Other days they were ill and scared. And all the while, the cousins worked on the narration (later voiced by Peter Coyote), made the soundtrack on their own guitars and pedaled their way across all terrain that came their way.

Perhaps Mackenzine and Wylson aren’t that much different from other adventurers who go off the cuff and put up artistic, inspiring blogs while updating their daily status on Twitter (“Standing on an iceberg now”). That, however, is beside the point.

Wylson says at one instant: “Anyone can make the choice to change the course of (their) life — forever.” The motive could be as base as a tingling in the stomach. The outcome could be as banal as another Internet startup company. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the cousins show us how the world has changed. And we can too.