Greg St. Johns, Jonathan West and Rusty Elder spent three weeks following the Saeco team as the team contested the victory in the Giro d'Italia earlier this year, making their feature-length documentary film The Quest. While they were there, they had an experience that every cycling enthusiast dreams of: that of being a fly on the wall with the contenders while the events of a thrilling grand tour unfolded. They got it all on film, and you can go and view the trailer for The Quest on the Spinning Wheel Productions website.
They also brought back literally hours of stories of their adventures with the Saeco team and Gilberto Simoni. In part two of this feature on this exciting new film, Greg, Jon and Rusty share some of their experiences on the road of the Giro d'Italia.
Read Part One
All photos © 2003 Spinning Wheels Productions, all rights reserved; except where otherwise noted. Click images for larger versions
So what was it like when you first arrived?
Greg: Well, when we arrived, thanks to Rusty's hard work, and Beppo [Hilfiker] who was our liaison, everything was smooth as silk, and the team was ready for us. They were very open to us to being with, but after a couple of days, they just threw open the doors full strength, and it was much more than we had anticipated. We realized, after a few days that these guys were much more comfortable as soon as they realized that we weren't a bunch of really pushy media people, there to annoy them.
For me, the biggest highlight from the early days was probably the second night we were there. It was the only night where we weren't sure where we were staying, or had specific lodging support from the team, where they had figured out hotels for us to stay in. SO, we were in this old, old beat up ski resort…
Jon: Basically, it was deserted. There were some transients living there, like 4 people...
Greg: ...And we were down all these really crappy hallways – a left, a right, and it just went on forever on the side of a mountain. It felt like we were in the inner belly of this disgusting place. It was cold, there was no hot water… it was a mountaintop finish – it was the day when Simoni and Garzelli had gone away together, and had their battle, and Garzelli outsprinted him. The top of Terminillo, and it was this nasty place, and I think we were all starting to get a little bit nervous about what lay ahead.
Fans cheer as Cipo breaks Alfredo Binda's record
The peloton all together
Rusty: Greg was as sick as a dog, too.
Greg: Yeah – I was so sick. I came down with a massive cold, and stuff was running out of my nose for the next 10 days, and I couldn't find things like medicine and Kleenex because the pharmacies were scattered, and it's not like here where you can get that stuff anyplace. So, we all start to just have a meltdown. On our second day!
Jon and I started to second-guess ourselves, and really question our direction. Conceptually, we were really starting to talk about what we were doing. I knew what to expect a little more than Jon did, and he was a bit of a fish out of water, and the nerves just started to come out. We didn't have an interpreter yet – Beppo hadn't arrived, and anyway, he wouldn't have the time to be with us all the time.
Jon: But the turning point was really that day – at the top of Terminillo. After this entire race, Claudio Corti stops and says to us – "you stay here," and he doesn't speak English – but we had a little bit of broken French communication, and Rusty was picking up the phrase book, but Corti actually got in the car, and led us to where we were staying, personally. He really didn't have to do that, but...
Rusty: He made sure we were ok, that we had sheets, that we were all set.
Jon: The next day, he announces that from then on, we were going to be staying with the team.
Greg: The beauty of it was that it was great in that it really forced us to go in a direction – I mean, Jon was really hitting me hard with the question of where this was going, and we really had to ask ourselves what we were trying to portray.
Jon: We decided that we couldn't cover the race itself on a moment-to-moment basis. RAI was doing that, and we had access to that footage, so we opted to go with an insider's view of the team.
Simoni escorted to a helicopter that will take him
off the mountaintop
Simoni faces the media, as Greg films
They took you in pretty openly?
Rusty: Well, openly, but with a raised eyebrow. They weren't quite sure what to make of us, or what we were doing there at first. Really, everyone's first and foremost question to us was "why?" They just didn't understand that there was an interest in this or in them from America. But, the same enthusiasm that Greg relayed to Scott and Cannondale was the same passion he relayed to the team and the staff, and even without a common language, they could see the spark – the brightness. They see that little 5'10" guy carrying the reflector and holding it up to direct more light into the bus, and they're thinking, "Damn, that's a really crappy job! Either these guys must really like this, or there's a market for it."
It just came down to that, and to our sensitivity to them. Whenever they asked us to back off, we backed off, but that was very rare, and it was really usually that something had to be done at a different time.
Greg: We got great stuff, though. On the rest day, we went on a little training ride with Simoni, and we passed a group of like, five older gentlemen, in their 50's and 60's who were out for a ride, and we were shooting Simoni, but these guys went nuts, and just started yelling "Simoni, Simoni!" and they chase him down, and we were stoked, because we were getting it all, with the camera, with audio, and everything, and they surrounded him, and he rode with them, and they were just elated to be with him.
A few locals join in on a ride with their hero
Simoni trains on the 2nd rest day
Rusty: The only thing we orchestrated in the film was the interviews. Everything else in it just happened.
Greg: Yeah, they really accommodated us in every way they could.
Jon: We really tried to wait for them to invite us – I mean, I remember being outside the bus as they were leaving for a stage, and wondering whether or not we were going to be able to come along, because it was a big day, but Corti came out and said to us "Come, you get in!" and we rode along with them. It was a pretty long ride, and we got in there, and were able to see what the mood was like going into a big day.
What was the mood on the bus?
Jon: Much more relaxed than I thought it would be.
Greg: They were focused, but they weren't nervous. They were just true professionals in every sense of the word.
Jon: That's really true. I mean, you get used to the notion of athletes who are really tense and inside themselves, and you expect to see that, but these guys were listening to music, talking…
Rusty: I got the feeling that the veterans really lift the younger riders. Cunego, Tonti, Sabaliauskus, those guys were all relatively young pros, and for some of them it was their first Giro, and you could tell that some of them were a little bit nervous. Even towards the end of the race, when it looked like Simoni would win. I really think those guys brought themselves to a new level, in part just on the comfort that the veterans had.
I mean, Paolo Fornaciari has been a pro for 14 years. He raced with Mapei; he's incredibly relaxed off the bike, and all business on it. Dario Pieri is just the same. These are guys that have been at the sharp end. Meanwhile Damiano [Cunego] is only 23 years old. I think the relaxed attitude of the older guys helps to bolster the younger ones, and then Simoni, in the middle of all that, was almost enigmatic. He had a quiet confidence that just filtered down into the team. Everyone felt like – "Ok. I'm going to just do my job, and Gilberto is going to handle the rest. That's all I have to do." Simoni was amazing – that's just what he did, and he did in a fashion that left no doubt in anyone's mind.
The day Dario Pieri got eliminated from the time cut with like, 30-something riders were eliminated, including Petacchi, he was bummed, and while I know he didn't like getting dropped, he stayed.
Jon: Yeah, he stayed and talked to fans, signed autographs, handed out souvenirs, and also, was there for his teammates.
Greg: He made sure that he was always there for his guys. He stayed and met them everyday on the finish line, cheering them in, hugging them, and being there with them.
Sacchi at the end of a rough day
Rusty: Sacchi was destroyed when he was eliminated. He was emotionally, just wrecked. He was sick, but he gave everything, and really delivered. On the day he missed the time cut, he barely made it to the finish line, and he was almost in tears. Corti ran to him, caught him, and just embraced him.
What is the relationship with the team with Corti?
Greg: I think the one thing that sticks out in my mind most of all is the entire Italian approach – the Italians seem to really come from a place of needing to support and represent their families. It comes from a different place in them. They aren't doing it for fame. I mean, Simoni is a guy that makes good money, and he could be a jet-setter, and live in a big flashy house, but he still lives in his village of 500 people, where his sister had a restaurant called "Simoni" right over the door, and right across the street from this market where Simoni lived until he was 18 year old. Moser lives there, and two other Giro pink jersey wearers.
Jon: 81 days of pink jerseys come from that little village.
Aldo, Diego and Francesco Moser, and Simoni - All pink Jersey wearers
Greg: What truly struck me was that it's really a family thing. I mean, the head of Saeco's pro team is Corti, and he is a guy that is all business, and he looks really stern, but when his guys need support, his arms are around them. He greets them – he's very professional, but he plays both sides of the card, and our first and lasting impression was that this is not your average team – this team is like a family. It's a family that believes whole-heartedly, not just going through the motions, but also wholly supporting each other in any way they need each other. It's a collaboration that it's really hard to describe, and it really moved us.
What about Martinelli? I remember you telling me that they had a desire to please him, almost as a father.
Absolutely. With Martinelli, they all realize that he is the brains of the operation. When we interviewed Sacchi, one of the questions asked was "how do you feel when your director gives you a mission, or a job, or a duty that you don’t agree with?" Sacchi's reply was that it doesn't matter. Basically, "He's my director and I do what he says." And this from the most flamboyant guy on the team, who from the outside might look like a rebel, or a guy with his own image and agenda on his mind, but we just didn't see that. He was like everyone else on the team, in saying that this was a mission, and they couldn't settle for anything less than victory.
When you see the shots from RAI of the red team on the front everyday, they were just amazing. They were on a mission and I just can’t describe to you their commitment to that. It was very reminiscent of all you hear about Postal's reputation in defending Lance. I think you don't really see that kind of dedication and teamwork on every team.
We were so lucky. My connection to this whole thing was Cannondale, but it just launched us into this situation with the winningest team this year - they just had so much incredible success, and it looks like we just had some incredible insight to choose them, but we were just really fortunate to be in the right place, which comes back to my sense that when it's right, it's right, and things just fall into place.
Martinelli urges Tonti to quickly get back to the peloton
Paolo gets his radio replaced
It's really an unusual angle of coverage of this sport to concentrate on the athletes, but it's so good that they can have a chance to be seen, and that we can get a more unfiltered look at how they work. So often the people in it are not really brought to light, or they're misrepresented...
Greg: Yeah, that's true. I mean, being there, seeing what happened, and also, just the language barrier - just seeing how foreign languages are translated incorrectly, I mean, a lot of times, to get what people are saying is more than just a direct cross-over. I think it's not just the fault of the media, because some times the nuances of what is really being said is not carried through in a straight translation, and what ends up being published offends other riders, or creates a false and unnecessary rivalry, and when that is provoked and pushed by the media, it just creates a too much emphasis on this petty stuff rather than on the racing itself.
What about Simoni's comments about Lance and winning the tour that got everyone so worked up?
Jon: Well, he was asked, at a press conference during the Giro what he thought about the tour, and could he beat Lance Armstrong, and he spoke to what he thought was the way to approach the tour in general, and said that he didn't think Lance had really been challenged, and saying that you couldn't wait, you had to hit him hard, early, and every day if you wanted to beat him. He just said that to challenge Lance, you had to make him work.
Well, before this year, that seems true, that he hadn't been challenged, really. You can't expect a winning athlete to go into a race without a plan to win.
Jon: But, you know, it wasn't done brashly, it was in a soft-spoken kind of way.
Greg: Absolutely. All he said was that he was confident, and that he thought he could drop Lance; but to elaborate on what he said during that press conference, he was asked directly if he thought he could beat Lance, and he said no. So, everyone was asking him "Really, you don't think you can beat him?" and Simoni's answer was basically that the Giro is only half over, and he's in the lead, but anything can happen. He said he wasn't even thinking about the tour because he was in the middle of the Giro. He wasn't even talking about the tour. He was humble then - and he was up by five minutes!
Simoni Interview for The Quest
He could very easily have said something like "well, I've pretty much broken everyone down here..." Which he had! He could have easily bragged - he was killing 'em. He was so strong, too. The day when he and Garzelli had their battle up Terminillo, Martinelli was on the radio with Simoni, and we were in the press area with Felice Gimondi, watching this legendary stuff unfold, and we're listening to the radio, and Simoni was saying to Martinelli, "Please let me go, I want to test my legs, I feel good." And Martinelli was telling him it was too soon. But, Simoni was saying, "No, please, let me go - my legs feel like they're going to explode, I need to go." They controlled him until the last 20km of climbing, and it was a cat 4, gradual climb, and they just flew up it, Simoni just towed Garzelli up it, and his face was all pain. Every time Simoni would look around at him, Garzelli would play poker, but as soon as Simoni wasn't looking at him, you could see that he was really in difficulty.
Simoni was so smooth and so strong. Simoni wasn't supposed to go for the jersey as early in the tour as he did. The day he took the jersey, the day Bertagnolli was up the road from him, and he bridged up, was the day Martinelli finally let him test his legs, and when he went, Martinelli told Bertagnolli to drop the hammer and attack hard - he knew that Simoni would be strong, and he wanted them both at the top of the mountain at the same time - so he told Bertagnolli to go hard. The plan wasn't for Simoni to take the jersey for another two days!
What surprised you the most while you were there?
Rusty: I'd have to say, it's the teamwork.
Greg: One of the important topics that we really brought forward in the film is the fact that this is an Italian win; in an Italian race it's as big as any Tour de France has ever been for these guys. And not to disrespect the tour, but the Giro is every bit as important to them, and you can't really compare those races side by side. I mean, when Lance made the comments about the Giro not being as tough as the Tour de France, I think it's apples to oranges. When Lance says, in the Tour de France, that they're going 47kms into the first climb, well, the first climb is only 9% grade. Compare that with Simoni going 32kms into the first climb in the Giro, well, their mountain grade is 18 to 22%, and no one does a time trial into a 22% climb. You have to approach each race differently.
Rusty: I don't think that we, as Americans, have anything that can compare with what it means for an Italian team to win the Tour of Italy like this. I mean, Lance wins the Tour de France, and that's great, but it's nothing like what would happen if a French team won the Tour de France. The World Championships work like that, maybe the Olympics, but the thing is that winning there was so important for every single member of the staff. It wasn't just about Simoni - it was about Omar, the soigneur, who did his job so that the team could win the Giro d'Italia, and I think that when Simoni won, Omar felt like he had won. There's a sense of national pride, and significance to it, that just doesn't exist in many sporting events.
Greg: Overall, the experience we had was really amazing. Unfortunately, Rusty had to get back to work, but after the Giro, Jon and I ended up having the most amazing moments after the race. Like, at Simoni's house.
Tell me about that.
Greg: Well, I can honestly tell you, it's not much but what you'd see in any other domestic situation. The impressive part to me is what a normal person he is.
Simoni's village, Palu di Giovo
Simoni and Moser in front of their local watering hole
How did it come about that you went to visit him?
Greg: Well, that was what we needed for the film. We knew that getting some in-depth to the riders, to show the star riders and their respective lifestyles - we went to DiLuca's house, too - was a big part of the story. I mean, we needed to mention why DiLuca wasn't really a part of the Giro story, and there are references to him, and he did well in the Giro last year, and also in the Vuelta, but he was focused more on defending Simoni in the tour, and going for stage wins himself, but in any sort of filmmaker's dream, in this kind of situation, we wanted to cover Simoni very closely - show him in his life. He's got a new baby girl that he's very, very proud of. He's very domestic. He's got a minivan and an Audi station wagon. So, he's got a sportier wagon, but overall, it's very family-oriented. It's a modest house with a little grass area in the front. He's a very modest guy.
Then, we go to DiLuca's house. He lives in a condo, about a mile, two miles from the Mediterranean, below him is vineyards, and the ocean is in the distance, and when you walk into his condo, it's all about the red leather sofas with white cushions, Zebra skin rugs in his bedroom. He's got a master bathroom connected to the master bedroom by these arched doors, because his brother is an architect, and designed these doors... There's a big contrast of lifestyles. One guy lives like a rock star, although he's really a very humble guy - he's the flash end of things, whereas Simoni is very domesticated.
Simoni's wife is wonderful - she's a beautiful woman, very supportive. She's obviously not a woman who's very concerned about him being a player. She seems very comfortable with who he is, and happy with him.
Simoni gets a send-off from his wife and daughter
Jon: His town was great, too. It's really all about him right there right now. If you drive up the road towards his house, they've painted a rose colored stripe all the way up the road.
Greg: Yeah - they painted stripes on the sides of the road, and stenciled bicycles on the road all the way up to his house. All the neighbors have banners in front of their houses that say "Super Gibo!" or whatever.
How does he respond to that? Does he like it?
Greg: Well, let's put it this way: when he talks about his village, he talks about "his people." I really think that whenever he does anything in his life, he feels like it reflects on his village. The doping allegations, whatever - I think he feel like that reflects on where he came from, and he really has the sense that he represents more than just himself.
Jon: At the end of the Giro, there was a little gathering of people from his village, at this little pub - everyone opened some bottles of champagne, his dad was there, the whole thing. We got it all on film in for the movie.
Simoni monitors his recovery at home
Simoni catches up on some of the race highlights
If there's anything this sport needs, it's the opportunity to get to know these athletes a little bit. I mean, everyone follows Lance, and that's because he has the mother of all human-interest stories working for him...
Greg: Yeah, but the only reason he's considered such a great cyclist is because he is beating OTHER great cyclists, and they all have stories. If he were up against a bunch of mediocre guys, it wouldn't be as big an achievement.
Greg: Jon and I were at the criterium that Simoni won after the Giro, and we were going to be heading south to go down to DiLuca's house and then going home, and we went to this criterium, and Simoni was being driven in a car to different points on the course, and he looked out and acknowledged us in the crowd, like we were friends. I think over the course of our time there, we really saw him, and he really told us his story, and came to trust us, and know that we were there to really do something great with him.
So, we were there, with Beppo, and we asked him to translate for us and told Simoni just, 'Thank you so much for everything,' and asked Beppo to let him know that he had really touched us, in a way that, from an American viewpoint, really just makes us love where he's from, and love this beautiful sport more than ever.
Greg St. Johns and Gilberto Simoni at Interbike,
celebrating the debut of The Quest trailer.
Photo by Jaime Nichols
How close do you feel you came to achieving the things you had in mind when you set out to make this film?
Jon: What we've tried to do, is be the eyes of the audience.
Greg: My true, ultimate goal was that I am first and foremost a cycling enthusiast. I live vicariously through these guys and follow it all on the Internet, because at this point, that's the only option that's available to me. I got tired of waiting for someone to finally see the light, and bring me this story, when there are millions of amateur cyclists out there who have the same interest I do, and the same desire to see it. There are a lot of people out there, who love this sport and want to know what Simoni, or Bettini, or Cipollini are doing in Europe, and it simply isn't being delivered. My ultimate thing was to really give people the fly on the wall perspective of what's really happening. I mean, when the RAI cameras turn off, ours turn on.
We were behind closed doors with these guys, we saw their emotion, and everything that transpired at that race, without being everywhere, every second. We have 50 hours of footage, and it really is magical stuff. With the combination of Phil Liggett's narration, I mean, this guy could read the phone book and make it sound thrilling, Jonathan's incredible editing, and our script, written by screenwriter Matt Johnson, and the composer of our music, Todd Liggitt, who is no relation to Phil, is fantastic, too. It's really exciting. Cycling is a beautiful sport - but I know from personal experience how big a difference it makes to KNOW these guys a little bit - you just understand what's happening better when you do. Not knowing is like hearing a joke without the punch line.
The day Simoni took the jersey; we were sitting with Beppo, watching it on TV. Initially there was a three man break up the road - it was Bertagnolli, the Norwegian Champion, and finally, Simoni made his bridge, and I think he expected someone else to go with him, but no one did, and that's when Martinelli told Bertagnolli to drop the hammer and get going up the road, saying to him - Simoni's not going to have any help making it up to you, so you make sure you're there to help him when he gets to the top of that hill... well, when it's all said and done, and he comes across third, but with a very small lead to take the pink jersey, and I looked behind me to see Beppo's reaction, and I look back, and Beppo has two tears running down his face.
That moved me - because he's a guy that's there with this all the time, and he's seen their success before, but he still has so much passion, and love for it, that he feels it that strongly.
Simoni warms up for the ITT
Simoni approaching Milano
It's hard not to feel it when you see someone give everything they have in any endeavor.
Greg: It's a beautiful, beautiful thing. That's what's in our film.
If you live in Southern California, and you'd like to see The Quest, your opportunity 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.