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by Gregg Bleakney
January 12, 2017
Photography by Gregg Bleakney
I arrived in Bogota, Colombia, for the first time in January 2007. Two years before, I’d left a job as a software salesman in Seattle, Washington, to ride my bike from Alaska to Argentina with a loose plan to study photojournalism along the way. In 2006, I decided to nix cycling through Colombia because of security concerns emailed from a cyclist traveling just ahead of me. In the southern part of the country, he’d been pulled off the road, robbed, and assaulted by a criminal band.
Skipping Colombia ate away at my conscience as I continued spinning south through the Americas. My gut told me that I’d made my route decision based on fear, without careful evaluation, and that it was wrong decision. In Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, I met a Colombian mountaineer and cyclist who assured me that it would be safe to travel through her country. She offered to help me organize a two-month car and cycling trip departing from Bogota after I completed my Alaska to Argentina ride. I took her up on the offer and pitched the idea to a handful of magazines. An editor at National Geographic told me they’d look at my pictures from Colombia. That was enough for me to pull the trigger and book my flight.
On my third day in Bogota, I was robbed and lost all of my professional camera equipment. I bought a cheap point and shoot, kept my head down, and over the next two months, fell completely in love with photographing Colombia. Nearly 10 years later, that love affair has led to a life as an expat based in Bogota where I’ve founded a video-production company and represent the government as their part time adventure travel ambassador.
When CyclingTips reached out via email, first to ask about a Roadtripping Colombia piece, and ultimately to help them create Thereabouts 3 in Colombia, and if I’d be interested in being the director, it was like a dream come true.
In 2008, I wrote an article about La Vuelta Colombia, the national stage race. During that time I met many of the Colombian cyclists who are now performing well in Europe. I remember Nairo Quintana hunkering on the side of the velodrome in Medellin. He was 18 years old and wasn’t allowed to train with the older riders yet. His coach at the time, Luis Saldarriaga (who we meet in Thereabouts 3), told me that this shy kid with worn jeans was going to be a huge champion in Europe some day.
Journalists who have never been to the country have written much on Nairo and other Colombian cyclists, but without witnessing the country firsthand, I feel it’s impossible to fully grasp how Colombia’s Andean landscape is hitched to a family-value system that seems to be the right mix for creating world class cyclists. Thereabouts 3 was the perfect opportunity for me to visually show the real Colombia to people who have never been, while also folding in cultural interpretations of two Australian brothers who have street cred within the cycling community.
I’d only spoken with Gus Morton twice on the telephone before he arrived in Bogota to start the shooting the film; I’d never spoken with Lachlan before he landed. During my brief conversations with Gus, he made it clear that making Thereabouts 2 in Colorado had presented him with some challenges. He’d effectively stripped away the mystery of the journey because he always knew, as the producer and director, what to expect. For Colombia, Gus and Lachlan didn’t want to know what was going to happen next, they wanted an adventure. They wanted to be pushed to their physical and mental limits in completely foreign terrain while exploring how Colombian cyclists have become such a force in the pro peloton. They were open to things going wrong. They didn’t want to ride picture-perfect training routes. The gravel bikes they brought gave me the freedom to design routes that would link asphalt routes together via dirt back roads.
Gus and I created a basic set of rules for the trip. First, to stay in the moment as much as possible, smartphone use during the day was to be limited to the production team only — and for production-related purposes only. Second, the guys would not bring any supplements, sports drinks or food from home. All meals were to be Colombian, and mostly purchased through roadside food slingers. Third, the guys wanted challenging routes and didn’t want me to reveal the day’s itinerary until the morning of the ride. And finally, we wanted to behave like a family and we wanted viewers to feel like they were traveling along with us as part of our family. Including the production team, we were a band of seven people coming together for a legitimate road trip through an exotic place. Anyone and everyone was fair game to be part of the documentary.
In the month before the trip, I began to design the Thereabouts route and production team. I picked two videographers who had never shot pro cycling before, but are travelers with curious souls and incredible eyes, for composition and moment. Julian Manrique was the extrovert of the duo and trained his eye on adventure cycling. I’ve worked with him on assignments around the world for the past three years and he anticipated and nailed so many landscape and action shots during the trip — all in real time. I took a risk on our second videographer, Astrid Betancourt. Her spoken English is broken and she’d never shot anything in the field for me before. My gamble paid off — her footage capturing intimate moments of the Morton brothers and the subjects they met along the way are some of my favorite visuals of the film.
The itinerary was organized by our producer Lies Wijnterp to be as raw as possible, and to give the guys a deep look into the departments of Boyaca and Antioquia, which produce the majority of Colombia’s professional road cyclists. I wanted to stay off the main roads as much as possible, but wasn’t confident that Gus and Lachlan’s request for a truly adventurous route was simply talk, or if they were capable of hacking Colombian gravel roads.
On day one, I observed them carefully as they dodged heavy traffic leaving Bogota. I’d designed two options for that day. Plan A was a fairly flat and commonly used 100-kilometer route out of the city to our hotel. Plan B was brutal. If I thought they were game, at 60 kilometers into the day, I’d direct them into a gravel route through coal country. The road had several 20% grade climbs and passed open pit coal mines where the Mortons would have direct contact with miners, their machinery, and the polluted air they breathe every day. I decided on Plan B.
The guys devoured the route and at the end of the day I found them covered in soot, with huge smiles, tipping back beers with miners at a local bar that had pictures of Nairo Quintana on the wall. They’d passed my test. I knew we had two serendipitous spirits on board for this adventure and that it was going to be one hell of a good time. They were open to anything. Sleeping in pay-by-the-hour love hotels when there were no other options: Check. Pushing over a 4,000-meter continuous climb on gravel: Check. Eating sketchy meat from random roadside vendors and then riding 200 kilometers with 2,500 meters of elevation gain: No problem.
After Gus and Lachlan flew home and our team sorted the footage we realized that we had a serious issue. For sponsorship reasons, I committed to delivering the film in just over one month after we finished shooting it and organizing the footage. It turned out that we’d shot 100 hours of raw material. If you do the math on that amount of tape, it would take an editor nearly half of our post-production time just to watch it, much less edit it.
It also didn’t help that as soon as we started post-production, my long-term relationship with my girlfriend failed. For one month during the edit, I was effectively homeless and slept on the couch in our office, occasionally paying for a hot shower at a hotel down the street. Our lead editor on the project went through a divorce just a few weeks prior and had been sleeping on the same sofa before passing it off to me. We dubbed it “the couch of tears.” I remember thinking during my first night on that sofa that we would need a miracle to pull this film off.
I decided on an edit plan that would require us to divide and conquer. It was based off my cycling trip from Alaska to Argentina where, to manage the psychology of a two years on the road, I’d broken the journey into four stages: North America, Mexico, Central America, and South America.
We assembled four independent production groups, three in Bogota and one in France. Each team worked on approximately 25% of the documentary. One week before the deadline we assembled all of the pieces and started to smooth over the narrative connections between each production group’s sequences. Our colorist and audio engineer spent several sleepless nights cleaning up the film. At 3am on the night the film was due, our producer, Lies Wijnterp, our post-production manager, Efrain Tarriba, and I tipped back a few whiskeys as we uploaded the film to CyclingTips in Australia. Thereabouts 3 was born — but not before the Internet in our office crashed, forcing us to finish the upload at Lies’ house at 6am.