The weekly spin: Two new cycling films, with danger as a common theme

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I’ve watched two new cycling films over the past week, one newer than the other, and while they’re quite different in subject matter and presentation, both seem preoccupied with one particular element of bike racing — crashing.

Wonderful Losers: A Different World is a 71-minute film produced and directed by Arunas Matelis, focusing on domestiques at the 2014 and 2015 Giro d’Italia. It was released in late 2017 but is only now making the rounds in English-speaking nations, making its Hollywood premiere in December and its Australian premiere at the Santos Tour Down Under earlier this month. It won Best Documentary awards at various film festivals last year and was submitted as Lithuania’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary for the 2019 Academy Awards, though it was not nominated.

American Crit is a 34-minute film produced and directed by Szymon Raczkowiak, focused on the ButcherBox Cycling amateur team at the 2018 USA Crits series finale in St. Louis. It was posted to YouTube on January 11. It currently has about 30,000 views, with around 700 thumbs up and 80 thumbs down. Relatively obscure as it may be, its production quality is very good.

One film focuses on WorldTour racers competing at a Grand Tour; the other focuses on amateur racers in the United States, competing at 90-minute pro-am criteriums.

Wonderful Losers is a documentary about the race medics and “gregarios” who toil in obscurity at pro bike races — vitally important to the outcome of the race, but under appreciated by fans and the general public. It’s a look at those who race for motivations other than glory.

American Crit is a self-described “loud, visceral look at the sport of criterium racing… a love letter to one of the most dangerous and beautiful forms of bike racing in the world.” And while there’s not much glory in amateur criterium racing, the main figure in American Crit seems intent to extract every last ounce of available glory and bathe in it.

True to the disciplines they cover, American Crit is a quick experience — short, and a bit all over the place — while Wonderful Losers is double the length and at times feels longer, akin to the Grand Tour where it was filmed.

Full disclosure: CyclingTips has partnered with Nominum, the production company of Wonderful Losers, to be the film’s exclusive online distributor in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore; VeloClub members receive exclusive free access. CyclingTips was also the official media partner of the 2018 USA Crits series, where American Crit was filmed. None of that influenced this column in any way — in fact it didn’t even cross my mind.

Cruel and unforgiving

Wonderful Losers focuses, somewhat, on a handful of domestiques that includes Italians Daniele Colli and Paolo Tiralongo, and Canadian Svein Tuft. Danish rider Chris Anker Sorensen, who appears on the film’s promotional images, doesn’t make an appearance until the final seven minutes; the scene that follows his crash and concussion at the 2014 Giro doesn’t put the sport’s concussion protocol in a very positive light.

There’s quite a bit of footage of the Giro d’Italia’s race doctors, who, like the riders, are never identified until the closing credits. There’s virtually no backstory or context surrounding any them. And unless you speak Italian, you’ll want to turn on the English captions; only Tuft’s scenes are in English.

The editorial decision not to identify anyone in the film is an interesting one. Matelis made a film about athletes (and doctors) who largely exist outside of the limelight, yet purposefully chose not to identify them, which would have given them some measure of glory.

Instead, footage takes you inside the medical car, inside the team car, inside the hotel room, inside the hospital room, inside the feed zone, and inside the peloton. From that standpoint alone, there is an education to be had in watching the film. Yet several scenes extend far too long, and there’s a distinct lack of narrative. Instead, like Matelis, you’re simply along for the ride, observing what’s happening.

As much as anything, Wonderful Losers highlights just how cruel and unforgiving professional bike racing can be. There’s a noble beauty in suffering, but beauty is also in the eye of the beholder, and for me, seeing grown men shredded to pieces and in tears — hours of hard work and sacrifice wiped away in an instant — isn’t enjoyable. The camera’s long gaze through these scenes felt excessive.

Laying in a hospital bed with a compound fracture to his left arm after colliding with a fan’s telephoto lens in a sprint at the 2015 Giro, Colli says, “It all happened so fast. It took me ages to get there, and only three or four seconds to lose it.” The point — it can all go horribly wrong in a heartbeat — is made in the first 10 minutes, yet Colli is just one of many casualties the film, and each victim is shown in varying states of pain and despair.

Wonderful Losers is not all crash porn, however.

The images of Tuft, the Canadian hard man of Norwegian descent, rock climbing barefoot and sitting alone in a snowmelt stream is the stuff of legend. There’s a cool sequence that begins with Filippo Pozzato at his team car, stuffing his jersey with bottles, and follows him as he rides through the peloton, handing them off to teammates as he makes his way to the front. The scene where Tiralongo reminisces on his former teammate Alberto Contador gifting him a Giro stage win, while wearing the maglia rosa, is heartwarming.

And the surprise moment where Van Emden climbs off his bike, in the middle of a time trial, to bend a knee and propose to his girlfriend is a true gem — one of the film’s few feel-good moments.

There are also some touching scenes that recall Colli’s 2010-11 battle with cancer, which nearly saw him lose a leg to amputation, but it’s so purposefully left out of context that it’s hard to piece together precisely what happened, and when.

Wonderful Losers delivers flashes of excellent behind-the-scenes footage, but in terms of telling a coherent story, it comes up short. The potential was there to create something that might stand the test of time, akin to A Sunday in Hell, the documentary of the 1976 Paris–Roubaix by Danish director Jørgen Leth. But while that film delivers a narrative from the perspective of riders, organizers, and spectators, Wonderful Losers feels singularly focused on carnage and its aftermath across several editions of a three-week race.

In the opening moments of the film, Colli speaks of the surreal experience that followed his high-speed crash and subsequent gruesome injury.

“I still remember one great moment,” he says, “when they pulled me onto the stretcher, there was applause that lasted until I got into the ambulance. I really felt that the public was shocked by what had happened. It was so emotional. I felt the presence of all those people.”

In watching Wonderful Losers, the viewer becomes one of those people. It’s uncomfortable. It’s emotional. It’s shocking.

Big and ridiculous and overbearing

American Crits begins with its main character, ButcherBox Cycling team founder Steve Cullen, explaining the team’s ethos. “Our team is founded to champion and explore and celebrate the most epic bike-racing events America has to offer, and we want to help our athletes lead a more epic life,” he says. “It’s that big and that ridiculous and that overbearing.”

Though I’ve never met Cullen, a 42-year-old masters racer with salt-and-pepper hair and perpetual five-o’clock shadow, in a sense we’ve all met him — he’s the intensely passionate, type-A masters racer with a foul mouth and some tattoos who takes his amateur bike racing very, very seriously. Cullen drops the F-bomb so freely, in fact, that the film opens with a language warning in the first frame. One might say that his constant swearing is big and ridiculous and overbearing.

A few minutes into American Crit, Cullen shares his worldview on bike racing. It’s the most revealing scene of the short film, and how one responds to it will reflect as much about them and their background as it does about him.

“Crits are to bike racing what hip-hop is to the symphony,” he says. “It’s just the newest, loudest, dopest part of music. Crits get to the part where you start hooting and hollering and jumping around and smashing shit. It’s punk rock. In European racing, it’s a symphony, you play the strings with a violin bow, but in America, we made that into a guitar and then we smash it with our hands and then kick in a speaker. We just get to the part where everybody jumps up and screams. That’s how Americans do stuff. And that’s what we did with bike racing. And it took us, for some fucking whacko reason, 20 years to get over our embarrassment and realize that Jay Z is just as important as Beethoven, and so American crits are now setting the standard in bike racing. Fuck yes.”

It’s easy to lampoon the self-importance behind American Crits, and several viewers, and racers, have piled on criticism in the YouTube comments section and across social media. It’s fair to say the film is not so much about the discipline of American criterium racing as it as about a team of college kids and day-jobbers fighting for top-10 finishes at events that receive marginal media attention, at best.

In that sense, American Crit shares a central theme with Wonderful Losers — these athletes aren’t doing it for the glory — though that argument wears thin when you consider that the ButcherBox team commissioned a film crew to document their season finale.

It’s worth pointing out that the ButcherBox team’s youngest rider, 20-year-old Spencer Moavenzadeh, finished as the best young rider across the 2018 USA Crits series, and that ButcherBox finished third overall in the team standings; they’re not simply pack-fill.

I reached out to two veterans of North American bike racing, masters criterium national champion Adam Myerson and Aevolo director Mike Creed, for their take on American Crit.

“I enjoyed the movie, though I can see how its intensity can seem overwrought or hard to relate to,” Myerson said. “I think Steve’s passion and intensity are sincere, and he does a good job of capturing what it can feel like out there when you’re dedicating your whole life to what seems like the Globe of Death at your county fair sometimes. I also found the language to be accurate and realistic. That’s how we talk, even if that’s offensive to some people or not suitable for the family. It’s not meant to be suitable for everyone, it’s meant to reflect the team’s honest experience. We talk like that to each other, not to sponsors, fans, or race announcers.

Creed had a similar viewpoint. “I’d like to keep the ‘you gotta be ready to crash’ bro dynamics out of the sport, because nobody who regularly wins expects to crash,” he said. “Hyperbole is fine and all except when it glorifies things that can ruin people. I love that [Cullen] is passionate and created his own content. It’s where American cycling is at, we need to help ourselves. So I’m really pumped he did that, but, you know… let’s not promote crashing.”

Myerson echoed Creed’s sentiments — there’s glory in competition, but comparing it to battle is taking it too far. This is amateur sport, after all.

“My main criticism is that in capturing that feeling, where I think it goes too far is actually putting bike racing and racers in hero or warrior terms,” Myerson said. “It can definitely feel like that in a race, but upon reflection, it’s important not to compare sports to war, and instead, to keep what we do in perspective. It’s not war, it’s not close to war, and it’s unintentionally disrespectful to actual soldiers, warriors, and anti-war activists to compare sports to the toll war takes on people. We have to find better ways to express that feeling than war analogies. More than the strong language, that made me uncomfortable.”

Though it’s not for everyone, a subset of bike-racing fans will find American Crit entertaining, and perhaps even inspiring.

I do agree with one of the YouTube comments I saw, however, that the film would have benefitted from fewer contemplative slow-motion shots and more discussion of criterium-specific race tactics. Considering the niche audience it will attract, Raczkowiak would have been well served to explore the finer details of American criterium racing. Either that, or perhaps the film should have been titled “American Crit Team.”

Dictated by the dangers of the sport

In watching these two films in the same week, what struck me is just how different they are, in terms of their approach, but how much they both revolve around the inherent dangers of bike racing.

Danger is an ever-present reality of the sport, without question. In this very column, just last week, I wrote, “In what other sport are broken collarbones, broken scaphoids, and broken ribs as commonplace as in professional cycling, where an obvious fractured bone barely merits a reaction from commentators?”

But the threat of danger loses meaning without human stories attached to it, particularly in documentary format, and this is where both films fall short.

Wonderful Losers positions itself as an artistic film about unsung heroes, but spends most of its time documenting injuries, which are in no way unique to domestiques; team leaders also hit the deck. At times, it feels like loosely stitched together crash footage. American Crit positions itself as loud and brash, but it’s the underlying risk of crashing that is the elephant in the room, and what makes criterium racing such a thrilling proposition for the ButcherBox riders.

Truthfully, I hoped for more from both. But as someone who studies the sport, I don’t regret the time spent watching either. Both films are dictated by the risks of bike racing, and perhaps because of this, both fail to deliver a meaningful narrative. At the same time, both films bring the viewer inside our chaotic and complicated sport, albeit from very different perspectives.

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