Interview: Em Baker on Cycling Across America in ‘SPOKE’

In 2012, Melbourne native Em Baker, who was then living in San Francisco, accompanied by friends Nick Navarro and Lauren Gardner strapped GoPros to their heads, climbed onto their heavily loaded bikes, and began the slow pedal out of the City by the Bay on a 3,000+ mile journey to Orlando, Florida, which in no way would be challenge free.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2,209 cyclists were killed on U.S. roads between 2012-2014 and another 147,000 were injured. With numbers like those, many would be intimidated to simply commute to work by bike, let alone ride one across the United States.

Throughout their trip, they stopped to interview the families and friends of those killed in cycling-automobile collisions, law enforcement officials, activists, and urban planners to try to better understand the reasons why the fatality statistics are so high and to share the human stories behind the shocking numbers.

The result of their trip would be hundreds of hours of footage, which Baker would later turn into the hour long documentary “SPOKE,” screening opening night at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.

Documentary Drive caught up with Baker recently and asked her about the film’s development, the hazards of her trip, and the types of conversations she hopes “SPOKE” begins.

Documentary Drive: What initially motivated you to want to cycle from San Francisco to Orlando? Had you done much cycling in the past?

Baker: I used my bike for transport, but beyond that I hadn’t ever ridden very far. We were commuters rather than proper cyclists. Before we set out on the journey we had to learn how to fix a flat, that sort of thing. I had always been interested in traveling around, but usually I’d hitchhiked. I wanted to test myself and see if I could ride across a continent on my own steam.

Documentary Drive: As far as filming went, did you usually have the cameras rolling from sunup to sundown? How much footage did you end up with and what was your biggest challenge while editing?

Baker: No, that would have been insane. We still wound up with about 500 hours of footage though. We were faced with a constant balancing act between producing the film and just getting from A to B. Sometimes we had to forsake a bit of footage, put the cameras away, and just ride for a few hours. Otherwise we would never have gotten anywhere.

That said, we did still end up with a huge amount of footage, which was a big challenge in editing. But the bigger challenge was that we had so many different little stories to tell, and I wasn’t sure how to piece them together to create a broader narrative. It was a process of elimination, gradually narrowing down all the little stories into a bigger, more coherent piece. It’s very tough to squeeze 100 days into an hour.

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Nick Navarro in “SPOKE” (Credit: Mariposa Street Films)

Documentary Drive: Which leg of the journey did you find most difficult and why?

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Tribulus terrestris | Goat-heads of doom

Baker: Texas. It was big, flat and boring a lot of the time. Also, there are these thorns on the roads called goat-heads, and they get stuck in your tires, so you’re constantly fixing flats.

By the time we got to Texas it was also very cold, and we were getting sick. The people in Texas were very kind though, and we stayed in some amazing places.

In the film you see us climbing mountains in West Texas, but what didn’t make the cut was that we stayed at the top of those mountains with a family who lived in an observatory that night. The next day we got to go look inside the enormous NASA telescopes and things, which was pretty cool.

Documentary Drive: As you traveled through different states, what was the most common hazard you encountered? And what was the most surprising?

Baker: The most common hazard were cars, which was to be expected. There were a number of times we had close calls with cars or trucks. The most surprising hazard were dogs. In the South, a lot of states don’t have leash laws, so dogs roam free on the streets outside people’s properties.

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We were chased almost daily by dogs in Texas and Louisiana, and they were often big guard dogs, like Pit Bulls or German Shepherds. At one point we were carrying a heavy chair leg to defend ourselves.

There aren’t really cyclists or pedestrians in these areas so the dogs just went mad when they saw us.

Documentary Drive: The film features emotional interviews with loved ones who have lost family and friends in bicycle/motor vehicle accidents, how did you connect with these individuals and what impact did their stories have on you as you traveled?

Baker: I researched different cycling incidents in cities we were looking to pass through, and contacted the families involved. Fortunately, everyone was really forthcoming and wanted to speak about their experiences.

The stories affected us in different ways. Josh’s story felt really eerie because he’d followed the same route as us, and there was a sense of ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ Nate’s story was really recent and the legal proceedings were ongoing, so I really felt for his family and what they were going through.

We arrived in Orlando on the 5th anniversary of Luis’ death, and you see the memorial in the film. As you can imagine, being around a family grieving the loss of their child was really emotional, especially after riding so far to meet them. But I was really inspired by how each family had worked to turn a tragedy into some sort of a positive. Luis’ family had successfully campaigned for street racing laws to be changed, and Nate’s family were fighting so hard for justice. Josh’s mother was even creating a memorial dog park, named after Ozzy who you meet in the film.

It was a really emotional journey, but overwhelmingly one that impressed upon me how resilient people are. We tried to embody some of this resilience in our ride.

SPOKE Em Baker

Alexandro Aguilar in “SPOKE” (Credit: Mariposa Street Films)

Documentary Drive: As “SPOKE” screens in Australia and throughout North America, what sort of dialogue do you hope the film creates between cyclists and their communities?

Baker: I would love to see the conversation turn to ‘How can we stop cyclists getting hit by cars?’ It seems like such an obvious question, but often I think the conversation degenerates into ‘Us vs Them.’ At the moment we have infrastructure and policy that sets drivers up to fail, to hit someone. No one wants to be hit by a car and no one wants to hit a cyclist. How can we create safe, well designed infrastructure for cyclists to get safely to their destinations? How can we alert drivers to the presence of cyclists in the area, and train them to spot them?

Documentary Drive: Lastly, have your views on cycling evolved any since your trip across the United States?

Baker: Not really. I loved getting on my bike then and I love it now. I think my perception of bike-1042462_640distance has changed though. I used to think bikes were just for short journeys, but now I don’t think there’s anywhere I couldn’t get to on my bike, eventually.


“SPOKE” screens July 9th at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Tickets are currently available through MoshtixTo learn more about “SPOKE” visit: spokethemovie.com.

Additional festival information online at: mdff.org.au / @mdffest / MDFF Facebook Group

Posted by Documentary Drive