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The Hard Road Review by Jamie Nichols
 
By Janna Trevisanut
Date: 3/14/2003
The Hard Road Review by Jamie Nichols
 

The Hard Road - Feature Length Cycling Documentary

Review by Jaime Nichols

The quick synopsis of Jamie Paolinetti's feature length documentary, The Hard Road, is that it follows the fortunes of a first year professional cycling team as two veterans lead a squad of neo-pros through a year on the American racing circuit. Taking us behind the scenes and into the lives of the eight riders on the team, it allows us to ride along with them on a rollercoaster of experiences and emotions, as they face tough odds, win and lose, travel, and deal with the effect of it all on their home lives. It gives us blow-by-blow accounts of some of the biggest races on the US circuit, commentary from the protagonists of the film, and insights from longtime racers like Frankie Andreu. The Hard Road is a unique window into the sub-culture of American bike racing; but it's more than that, too.

When I saw The Hard Road for the first time, months ago on a small monitor in Paolinetti's home office, (the scene of many a painstaking all-nighter for him, as he has handled nearly every aspect of the post-production on the film himself, and handled it many, many times over) my first thought was that like the sport of cycling itself, the film was an incredibly compelling work of passion and commitment. Through its story of the daily lives and experiences of the NetZero professional cycling team as they struggle to make a mark on the tightly competitive American racing circuit, the film communicates not only the vagaries of that strange, traveling lycra circus that is pro bike racing, but something that transcends the world of it, and tells an essentially human story as well.

Sitting down to write this review is a difficult task, as there are so many different angles of approach to the film, but one of the most important questions in it is that of motivation: what is it about the life that seizes these guys and won't let them go? As pro bike racers, they face hours of grueling and painful training, difficult relationships with their families and friends, financial hardship, and an uncertain future, in a sport in which 200 guys line up, and only one man can win. What are the satisfactions the life affords that keeps these athletes turning the pedals over? The answer is deeper and more complex than winning or losing, and it's in the surprising way that Paolinetti manages to show rather than tell us those answers that the film really shines.

It has long been my feeling that sport is to the arts as mathematics is to the humanities: a subset that favors precision and gives the athlete, as well as the spectator, a satisfying result at the end of the day. Sport allows us to experience the rare and ephemeral thrill and beauty of human performance, but contains within itself its own justice and system of measurement. It asks very little of us as spectators because it has an essential self-sufficiency that is inherent in its ethos. In return, it gives us a true sense of the poetry of human striving, and a rich collection of metaphors and distillations of human experience that have correlations in every person's life.

 The Hard Road delivers that more universal content through its intimate portrait of this small team, as they live a dream that thousands cherish: that of being professional bike racers. It brings us into their homes and hotel rooms, along in the team van and behind the scenes of the races to show us their camaraderie and triumphs, as well as their disappointments, hardships and sacrifices. In the background, or as Paolinetti would say, in the pauses and moments of silence, what arises are issues of justice and fairness, loyalty and honor, integrity, truth, self-knowledge and commitment. Financial reward, a certain future, social normalcy, and personal comforts are some of the things that they must give up in exchange for a soul deep engagement with something essential in themselves.

The measure of a man, the notion of justice and fairness, and the idea of a level playing field are central themes in the film, as well. Paolinetti presents us with a vision of the world of pro bike racing as singularly self-sufficient: a world in which justice is meted out by the sport itself. Riders are chosen or not chosen for races, and do well or don't, according to their abilities and commitments. Workers and leaders take their rightful places and riders face the contest week after week, as through the crucible of the season both on and off the bike, careers are made and unmade by every aspect of the life itself.

Over the past year, I have been lucky enough to travel to some of the best events on the American circuit and talk to many of these riders; but more than that, I've been allowed to observe the American bike racer up close and in his "natural habitat." U.S. bike racing is peopled by an incredibly colorful cast of characters, and they are all here: Jonas Carney, Gord Fraser, Trent Klasna in his year of domination, even visiting heroes George Hincapie, Freddy Rodriguez, and Frankie Andreu all have their rightful places in the constellation of the film as judges, mentors, and executors of the clarity and truth of the sport itself. One of the most compelling things about the film for me is how well it represents that world and its denizens. One of the lines in the narrative is that among those who are strong enough to make a living in the sport there is "an almost universal, shared respect." The fact that these same characters meet week after week during the season to play out their relative places in that scheme, and that it's stories like these that comprise the American peloton, is one of the strongest elements in the film.

Finally, Jamie and his teammates' willingness to reveal themselves as they do in the film is a true act of courage. If you love bike racing, you'll love "The Hard Road," for its faithful portrait of a great sport; but the best thing about the film is the fact that there is much more in it than bike racing.


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