The Hard Road is the documentary from which this blog takes its name. It's a cult classic amongst cyclists, and though it is rough around the edges, it is one of the most endearing and honest portrayals of the struggle to make it in the pro peloton.
Released in 2003, but filmed during 2001, the doc isn't just from another time, in cycling terms it's from a whole different world. This is the world in which Lance Armstrong is still a hero. Ok so he's still a hero to many Americans in the pro ranks, particularly young riders like Taylor Phinney, Ian Boswell and Joe Dombrowski, but at this time he's a hero without any of the later day baggage. Not that Lance even features in the film, maybe there's a couple of shots of him, but this film mostly takes place at a level way below Lance's, following a newly formed team racing on the US criterium circuit. Despite his lack of presence, Lance's shadow still hangs over the film. We see his US Postal Team competing in a couple of races with the likes of George Hincapie, a name now synonymous with 'USADA' and 'reasoned decision'.
What is most startling for me is that Frankie Andreu is interviewed for the film. At the time Andreu has just hung up his wheels and is now working in some capacity for the US Postal Team. Andreu talks about his love of cycling, how tough it is to get noticed, and how much tougher it is to make the journey to Europe to compete in the Tour. At the time we didn't know the personal torment Andreu was going through. If Andreu is to be believed, he raced clean until the age of 29, and then only took EPO a handful of times, before retiring at 33. He eventually spoke out in 2006 because of the damage that was being done to the sport.
"“You got the guys that cheat and guys that are just trying to survive.”
Watching this film with the benefit of what we know now, there is a degree of the thousand yard stare when watching Andreu. When he talks his emphasis is always on how hard the sport is, even at the level of just surviving in the bunch. The rest of the time he talks about the more wholesome side of the sport, of joining a club; racing in local races; moving on to regional races; and beyond that to national calendar events, before the call of Europe becomes too alluring to resist.
These are just side notes in the story that The Hard Road tells, but as the story of wide-eyed, innocent young racers, their presence in the movie adds a darker tone for those of us who know what awaits these young men if they are to realise their dreams.
The Hard Road follows the first season in the life of a new pro-cycling team, Team Netzero, as they compete in domestic US events, travelling the country to compete in criteriums and road races, most of which are insignificant to those of us raised on a diet of Grand Tours and Spring Classics. This documentary reveals what anyone who has ever raced a bike will know, this sport is brutal at all levels, and the suffering of a Cat 4 rider struggling to hold the wheel in a regional road race is the same as that of the elite pro in the same situation in a World Tour event.
Netzero is a team of journeymen and rookies. The journeymen being Graeme Miller, a three times Olympian (8th in the 1988 Road Race), and a double gold medallist at the 1990 Commonwealth Games; and Jamie Paolinetti a veteran, and frequent winner on the US domestic scene. Paolinetti is also the director of the film.
The rest of the Netzero team are naive young riders on their first pro contract, all except for Michael 'MJ' Johnson, who is a latecomer to the sport after previously being a bodybuilder.
The documentary follows the team as they initially struggle in their first season with the rookie riders beating themselves up for the mistakes they make and the chances they missed. Something that anyone who has ever raced can relate to. What is so compelling about the film, though, is the neo-pro's desire to keep living their dream. They know it's a struggle, they know there's little money in it for all but the top 10%, but their dream is to ride their bikes for a living, and the adrenalin they get from racing can't be replicated by anything else.
As the season goes by the team becomes more attuned to life in the bunch. The rookies start taking their chances, and optimism rises. The team takes a couple of really significant results and earns its place in races alongside US Postal, Banesto, and Domo. But the team is reliant on its sponsors and no one is sure if they will still exist for the next season. The riders can go from professional and back to amateur on the decision of a marketing manager.
There will be no more spoilers here, just go and watch the film. The editing is rough and any space in the narration has been sliced out so that the tone is ever so slightly insane. The music is mostly late 90s, early 2000s punk which gives the film a similar vibe to the golden era of VHS skate vids. Something that made it even more appealing. If they'd filmed it on a fish eye lense then it might have become my favourite film of all time. Checking the credits it turns out that Warped Tour veterans, Pennywise were responsible for the soundtrack. Rad.
For me the film just made me want to race harder, and give cycling my all. 2nd Cat might be the best I can hope for, but along the way I'll be remembered by teammates for the sacrifices I made, and those top 10 placings will always be recorded somewhere. Most of all there are the stories that only I'll remember. Every racer has them, much like fishermen, stories of the one that got away, the do or die move that was suicide or glory, shit or bust. The Hard Road shows that anyone who has raced a bike is part of an exclusive club and it's hard to explain what that club means to anyone who hasn't been in the bunch.
The Hard Road is available through Amazon, though it's pretty rare. Snap up a copy wherever you can.
After watching the film I thought I'd check what happened to some of the riders. In the future I'm going to try and track them all down to interview, but for now here's what I know.
Jamie Paolinetti retired at the end of 2002. He finished his 17 year career riding for Schroeder Iron Pro Cycling.
Graeme Miller retired at the end of 2003. He finished his career at the age of 42 with the Mercury team. He came out of retirement in 2008 after being asked to coach a start up team of amateur cyclists in Bermuda.
Michael 'MJ' Johnson. Raced one more season with the Schroeder Iron Pro Cycling Team.
Hilton Clarke. Raced for several pro and amateur teams including Barloworld, Fuji-Servetto, and five years with United Healthcare from 2010. For 2016 he is riding for CylanceInCycle. His palmares is very impressive.
Greg Medinilla. Raced in 2004 for the Monex team.
Some details of the rest of the team can be found here.