PBS North Carolina docuseries recounts teens’ coast-to-coast bike trip

HOME STRETCH: The documentary "Shadow of a Wheel" shares the story of 31 teenagers and five adults who cycled from California to North Carolina in 1982 to raise money for multiple sclerosis research. Image courtesy of Bonesteel Films

Over 40 years have passed since the summer of 1982, when Paul Bonesteel asked his mother if he could join a bike ride from Long Beach, Calif., to Cape Hatteras, N.C. He’d seen an ad in the local newspaper from 28-year-old Chuck Williford, an experienced cyclist who had previously biked from coast to coast raising money and advocating for multiple sclerosis patients. After listening to his pitch for “riding for a cause,” the then-16-year-old Bonesteel remembers hearing his mom say, “Go for it.”

Williford envisioned annual fundraising cycling tours to drive awareness to certain illnesses; the 1982 cycling tour resulted in 31 teenagers ages 13-18 joining the coast-to-coast journey. Most riders were strangers to each other, and some had little to no cycling experience or proper equipment. One rider confesses on film that she didn’t know how to shift gears.

The trip and what it meant to the young cyclists are memorialized in the docuseries “Shadow of a Wheel,” produced by Bonesteel’s production company based in Asheville and premiering on PBS North Carolina at 9:30 p.m., Thursday, July 6. Three additional episodes will air on Thursdays July 13, 20 and 27. The docuseries explores how one adventure can have a lasting impact and weaves deeply personal interviews, found footage, period photography and iconic music.

Producer Amy Chase of Hendersonville thought about her own kids when reading the script. “Would I let my kids do that?” She recalls thinking. “I think there is a real value and importance in getting out of your comfort zone and doing something that is scary,” she tells Xpress. “You absolutely grow in some shape and form from going off the beaten path.”

Taking off

The teenagers were responsible for raising $5,370 to secure a spot on the trip. Half of the money funded their journey, and the other half was donated to the MS Society. Five adults, including Williford as the leader, accompanied the teens on their journey.

John Patterson, age 19 during the ride, heard of the trip when his mom mailed him a news clipping at his boarding school. As an athlete, he recalls the physical demands weren’t an issue. Patterson says he would “be completely different if I hadn’t done something like that” as a youth and hopes to take a similarly large trip with his son.

Williford’s intention had been for the group of 36 to ride together at all times for 3,600 miles. However, Bonesteel says, “It became very clear that there were too many of us and we were all at different levels that it was never going to work.” Most of the time, the teens rode in small pods or independently, and they gathered at night. “We became very independent,” he says. “We knew where we needed to go.”

Making the series

Can one bike ride really change your life? Bonesteel began pondering this question after he completed the ride. Decades passed. For the 30th anniversary of the trip, he reunited with several of his fellow riders. Conversing about how the ride molded their lives, they concluded that, yes, one epic bike ride can change your life.

Bonesteel has directed more than a dozen documentaries, including “Muni” (2020), “The Mystery of George Masa” (2002), and “The Day Carl Sandburg Died” (2011). He decided during the COVID-19 pandemic it was the ideal time to make a story come alive from the footage he collected of the ride. “There comes a time in life when you look back and try to make sense of what has gotten you where you are and what has provided you the things to sustain and survive in this world,” he says.

Although “Shadow of Wheel” is partly autobiographical, Bonesteel sought to make the story larger than his own. He tracked down as many riders as he could and interviewed 31 out of the 33 who are living. He also reached out and connected with the families of Williford, Mike Simone and Tracie Marshall, riders who have since died.

Bonesteel shares that telling the stories of the three deceased riders brought joy to the families. “That’s been really meaningful as a filmmaker to see their reaction to us telling the story — their loved one who is gone did this thing back in 1982 and [the family] has this new story that people can hear about that person,” he says.


The title of the docuseries, “Shadow of a Wheel,” was inspired by Bonesteel’s shadow moving across the asphalt while cycling one day. “[In] ’82, I stared at that so often,” he says. “I saw the world from the seat of a bike.” The imagery seems to have changed only slightly over the past 40 years, becoming a symbol with a more significant meaning: the idea that certain life events have a shadow one can’t escape. Bonesteel says, “It’s who you are after it happens. No matter where you go, it’s a part of you — your shadow.”

Episode one opens with an introduction of the cast of riders, diving into their motivations for taking on the ambitious journey. Early footage captured on a dozen VHS that Bonesteel tracked down made it into the docuseries. As a result, viewers can be immersed in the 1980s culture of retro sportswear, equipment and hair as the riders pedal through a chaotic first week and adjust to the stark reality that the road ahead is long. “There will be laughter, and there will be tears,” says Chase.

The story continues throughout episodes two and three as the teens cruise through America, forging bonds through intense challenges, learning lessons and acquiring skills they can lean on for the rest of their lives. Next, the docuseries jumps to the 1990s to tell of a rider who dies of AIDS, and others reflect on how the “shadow” of the ride has impacted them and the course of their lives. In the last episode, titled “Life Goes On,” the group celebrates the completion of a journey and comes to terms with the ending of a transformative summer. Finally, the docuseries concludes with an unexpected death, reflections on the tragedy and key legacies of the trip.

“If someone comes to see it thinking, ‘Oh, this will be a cute story,’ I hope it becomes more than that because it is,” says Bonesteel.

“It’s a deeper story than a bunch of kids riding bikes and drinking beer … which we did a little of that,” he jokingly adds.


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