Photos by Jaime Nichols, or copyright 2003 Spinning Wheel Productions, where noted
Have you ever wished you could ride along with the best cyclists in the world as they contest a Grand Tour? Have you ever been riveted watching a domestique bury himself in the mountains to put his captain in position, fresh and ready for the challenge; or marvelled as a team leader stood up on his pedals in a do-or-die moment to seize a hard won victory, and wondered how a man finds it in himself to brave the pain, and give every ounce of his strength to the contest?
As every cycling fan knows, professional road racing offers a uniquely compelling combination of sacrifice and glory as riders pit themselves against each other, the terrain, the elements, and their own limits, constantly choosing between personal glory and the good of the team, to create a thrilling athletic and human drama every time the peloton hits the road. When a team pulls together and a man pulls himself above the level of the pack to claim a decisive win, there's a story there of Herculean strength, the brotherhood of a team - not only the riders, but their dedicated support crew: mechanics, soigneurs, director - and of the mental and physical toughness it takes to face three weeks in the saddle and prevail. There's an emotional story of what's in a man's heart as he suffers on the road, and what he carries with him as he takes up a challenge that will test him absolutely, body and soul. Traditional bike race coverage shows us the action, but all too often, the human story of who and what is behind the results remains untold, elusive and tantalizing.
Simoni faces the press and Greg gets it all down - that's him with the camera
Last month at Interbike, Spinning Wheel Productions, with the support of Cannondale, unveiled a preview of their new documentary film, The Quest. Shot over the three weeks of the first Grand Tour of the 2003 season, and narrated by the English language voice of cycling, Phil Liggett, the film offers a rare look behind the curtain as it takes us along for the ride, and into the world of Gilberto Simoni and the Saeco team as they battle for and take a redemptive overall win at the Giro d'Italia.
Spinning Wheel Productions was founded in Venice, California by Greg St. Johns to showcase the professional peloton from a new perspective. Having made cycling films since the mid 90’s and bringing nearly 20 years of experience in film and television behind the camera, Greg, together with his partner Jonathan West, has combined his two passions into a unique production company that seeks to provide films of the highest production value, delivering an intimate portrait of the world’s most thrilling sport.
The Long Road to Italy
Greg St. Johns is an avid cycling fan. An active cyclist since 1985, St. Johns started out on fat tires and raced mountain bikes for 12 years, until a trip to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta introduced him to the thrills of road racing. He was hooked. Talking to him now, he lights like a kid in a candy store when he talks about bike racing. He's also an accomplished cinematographer, and has worked in the film industry for just shy of 20 years as a cameraman on feature films and for television. Combining his professional skills with his passion for the bike, he made his first mountain biking promotional video for Cannondale in 1995, but ever since seeing his first road race in Atlanta, he'd been dreaming of making a film about road racing.
Cycling fans, especially in America, are always starving for more coverage of a sport that is woefully under-covered, and Greg was no exception. "I am an enthusiast," he says, "I'm a cyclist. I decided to do this because I waited patiently, first in the mountain bike industry and then in road racing for someone to deliver this kind of insight to me, and no one has done it. I got tired of waiting to be told this story, so I decided to go out and tell it myself."
Two years ago, Greg approached Cannondale VP of Marketing, Scott Montgomery, with an idea: what if a small camera crew followed the Cannondale sponsored Saeco team for three weeks to tell the story of the team and the race from a new and more intimate perspective? Montgomery was intrigued. "We'd worked together on projects in the past, and I knew he had faith in what I could do," says St. Johns, "and it sounded like a good idea, but he wanted to do some research to find out if there really was a market for something like that."
Scandal & Bankruptcy Threaten to Derail The Quest
The prospect of so close a look was thrilling, but the project would hit two major speed bumps before being given the final green light: Simoni's drug scandal in the 2002 Giro d'Italia, and Cannondale's voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the end of that same year.
St. Johns was in the early stages of putting together and selling his ideas for the Saeco/Cannondale film project when Gilberto Simoni, wearing the maglia rosa, would become the center of a doping scandal, testing positive on two occasions in 2002 for traces of cocaine. The first positive result would come on April 24th, but only be revealed during the Giro, and the second would come days after the first was revealed on May 21st, in the thick of the battle. As a result of the second test, Simoni was suspended by his Saeco team without pay and forced to withdraw from the Giro. That month, the organizers of the Tour de France would withdraw the team's invitation to the 2002 Tour.
Scott Montgomery and Cannondale were hit hard by the news, and Scott called Greg in disgust. Sick of the doping, sick of the drama, and discouraged by the many scandals in the sport, which were now hitting far too close to home, not only Greg's project, but Cannondale's very involvement in the sport of professional road racing was called into question.
Simoni would not dispute the results of the test, but he did deny, in the strongest possible terms, that he had ever knowingly used cocaine. Facing summary dismissal from his team, the destruction of his hard won career in cycling, and investigation the civil crime for illegal drug use by the Italian police, Simoni set out to prove how, without his knowledge, traces of cocaine entered his body, while Cannondale, in an open letter to the cycling community, declared that it would not hesitate to remove itself from the sponsorship should it become impossible to operate without the constant threat of foul play.
Fortunately, Simoni would find the evidence he needed to clear his name, and the charges against him would be dismissed by both the public prosecutor's office in Trento, and the Italian Cycling Federation, when homeopathic throat lozenges from Peru that Simoni had been taking conclusively proved to be the source of his positive test results. The investigation also included an analysis of hair samples, which would have immediately revealed any history of cocaine abuse by Simoni, and those tests proved to be entirely negative.
As much as Simoni's apparent guilt had crushed spirits at Cannondale and Greg's proposed film, his absolute vindication galvanized it. The news that Simoni was innocent of the charges came just before the Interbike Expo in 2002. "Scott [Montgomery] called me at home on a Saturday," remembers Greg, "and he was really excited. He just said 'Simoni is innocent. Let's do it!'"
The two planned to meet at Interbike to iron out the details and finalize plans, and Greg, together with Rusty Elder, a friend of Greg's who was in computer hardware and software sales, went in for a marathon 5 hour meeting in Montgomery's Las Vegas hotel room. Montgomery still had questions about the market for the project, but with Greg making his case for the production value and nuts and bolts aspect of the filmmaking process, Rusty stepped up and drove home the viability of the project as a promotional vehicle for Cannondale. They negotiated a shoestring budget that would allow Greg's small crew to go to Europe to shoot the film. Spinning Wheel Productions would supply Cannondale with promotional film footage, for use in commercials, and Spinning Wheel Productions would maintain rights to the footage that would allow them to cut together a longer film that they could market independent of Cannondale. On the way out of that meeting, Greg asked Rusty to act as his producer on the project.
Greg and Rusty smile after the debut of The Quest trailer at Interbike 2003
Everything was gearing up to go, but then, shortly after Interbike, Cannondale announced that the company was filing a voluntary Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.
"Every friend I know called me," says Greg. "They knew my association with Cannondale, and everyone came out of the woodwork wondering what I knew about it, what was going on, but I had no idea. Suddenly, there was just this wall in front of us, and we didn't know what it meant. I kept in contact with Scott, but he was guarded, and unsure about what would happen and who would take over the company." The project was back in limbo.
Cannondale would eventually reorganize, jettisoning their motorsports division and renewing the focus on their core bicycle business. When the company got back on the rails, the check to Spinning Wheel Productions that would fund The Quest was one of the first checks Cannondale cut. "Scott took a lot of crap about his decision to go ahead with our project," says Greg, "he had sales reps in the company threatening to jump ship, and it's a real tribute to him that he kept his reps on, and still funded the project. Scott Montgomery had a hugely pivotal role in getting this film made just by having faith in me, and in this project. I want to give so much credit to him. Guys like him keep this industry moving forward, and I can't say enough about him. He's not just a corporate guy, he's the founder of a company that had his whole heart and soul in it. He's a believer, and he was willing to take the chance."
The Production Team
Asked what the most difficult aspect of gearing up and convincing Cannondale to go for the project was, producer Rusty Elder immediately replies, "assembling the right team. No one doubted that Greg had the vision and the talent, and no one doubted his love of the bike; but the hardest part was surrounding him with people who could support that effort, and bring it to fruition."
Once they had sold Cannondale on the idea, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Greg teamed up with cinematographer and editor Jonathan West. Greg and Jonathan had worked together on the television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and the lights went on when they combined their talents on a promotional film for Southern California bicycle retailer Helen's Cycles, which sponsors the club team Greg races with.
Jonathan is an established cinematographer and director, whose credits include episodes of Star Trek, CSI and Charmed, which he still works on as both a director and a cinematographer, but when Greg first met Jonathan, they got right down to the subject of cycling. Says Greg: "I had heard that Jonathan was a bike rider, so I sat down with him at lunch and said 'So, I hear you're a cyclist?' and he goes 'Yeah.' And I found out that it really stems from his mother, and growing up in France. His mother's love for cycling was instilled in him from a young age, so he'd been a cyclist in one way or another all his life."
Says Jonathan: "My mom is 83 years old, and has been in this country since 1948, but she still talks about growing up in France, and being in a bicycle club with 300 other riders riding near Nice on the weekends. She still talks about the Tour de France coming through her town like it was yesterday."
Jonathan and Greg hit it off immediately becoming fast friends, while working together in their day jobs, and sharing a passion for bicycling on the side. When Greg shot a promotional video for the local Helen's team, to show in their bike shops, he showed it to Jonathan, who offered to edit it. "I had ideas, and knew what I wanted to do with it, but Jon just made it shine. I had a concept, but he just brought it to life; and I thought, 'hey, what just happened here?' Jon's a very humble guy, always wanting to share credit where credit is due, but he's a guy that is so well-established and multi-talented, that we were just really lucky to get him. He directs, shoots and edits in legitimate, big money forums as a professional, and to me, if he was showing even an ounce of interest in my project, then I just felt like I was sitting on a pot of gold."
"I've had dreams and plans and visions of doing something like this for years," says Greg, smiling broadly, "but there's a time and a place when it's really allowed to happen. The right paths cross, the obstacles are overcome, and everything comes together, and that's exactly what happened."
The team was in place. Greg would take on the mantle of director and cinematographer, Jonathan, now Greg's partner in Spinning Wheel Productions, would be a second cinematographer and editor, and Rusty would handle logistics and public relations as the producer. Meanwhile, Gilberto Simoni and his Saeco teammates would take the start in the 2003 Giro d'Italia as red hot favorites for the victory.
All the stars had aligned. They were ready to be thrown into the man-eating beast called the peloton.
Off to Italy!
Everything was in place, but uncertainty dogged the film crew until two weeks before the start of the Giro. Once all systems were go, the first order of business was making sure they had the access to the Saeco team that would be necessary to really tell their story. Scott Montgomery wanted certain guarantees that the film would meet expectations.
"We had to be certain we could actually do what we were setting out to do," says Greg, "so we had these conference calls. I remember being in my car on the way to work when Scott called. I had this list of things we'd need - assurances that the team would know we were there, start to finish, and that there would be no surprises for them, and no issues with us being there. I didn't want to be the bad guy, and I also didn't want to have to come back to Scott and say 'I couldn't get the access I needed. Sorry.' That just wasn't going to be acceptable. So that's when we conferenced in Beppo."
Beppo Hilfiker was the International Marketing Director for Cannondale, who now works as a freelance consultant to teams and bicycle industry interests. "He speaks seven languages, and just has an enormous base of knowledge of riders and teams. He's the man who brought Cipollini to Saeco, and when Cipollini left Saeco, he brought them Simoni and DiLuca. He's a very quiet guy, and he doesn't advertise it, but he holds a very important place in that world," says Greg. "We knew we would be up against a lot in terms of the language barrier, so Beppo was our man. He was our liaison. I gave him a list of things to check on for us, and he took it to Claudio Corti, and Corti told him that everything was a go. We were in."
Beppo, Jonathan, Gibo, Rusty and Greg at Interbike 2003
"The only thing we couldn't do is get press credentials through those guys," adds Greg, "they don't deal with that kind of thing at all, so I immediately called Rusty, and said 'this is our dilemma.' Rusty dug deep, and found the ability to set up our credentials, in Italian, and when we arrived, everything was smooth as silk.
To be continued...
Stayed tuned as our three intrepid filmmakers face a rough moment or two in the first couple of days in Italy, until, within days of their arrival, the Saeco team throws the door wide open to them, and takes the crew completely into their confidence. In part two of this two part story on the making of The Quest, we'll hear about their experiences with the Saeco team, traveling around Italy as Gilberto Simoni claimed a second, redemptive Giro d'Italia victory.
Simoni is escorted to a helicopter which will take him off the mountaintop in the Giro d'Italia
In the meantime, you can visit the film's website at www.thequestfilm.com to see the three and a half minute trailer, narrated by Phil Liggett, and debuted at Interbike. For Southern California readers, the opportunity to see the film is coming! On Sunday, December 7th, at 10am, the film will be shown at:
The Laemmle Monica
1332 2nd Street
Santa Monica, CA 90291
Tickets will be available on a first come, first served basis.