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Lights! Camera! Action! The rise of the cycling documentary

In-depth
14 Aug 2020
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It is often said that we are living through a golden age of television. The catalyst was The Sopranos in 1999, apparently, but over the past decade Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple, HBO and others have been releasing ever more expensive, visually stunning multi-episode series, which are still quaintly called box sets.

A small but significant and growing genre is the sports documentary. The Last Dance, following Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, was one of the hits of the early summer.

Amazon’s All Or Nothing has, through securing incredible access, taken audiences inside teams including the Dallas Cowboys, All Blacks and Manchester City. And Netflix’s Drive To Survive has achieved the seemingly impossible: it has humanised Formula 1.

Cycling occupies a small subset within the sports genre. But with exquisite timing, just as Europe locked down and racing ceased, Netflix released a six-part series on the Movistar team.

The Least Expected Day followed the Spanish squad over the 2019 season as they won the Giro d’Italia with Richard Carapaz, flopped at the Tour de France with Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa, then imploded at the Vuelta a España, when Marc Soler, on being ordered to wait for Quintana, threw his toys out of his cochecito.

At around the same time, but with much less fanfare, four Tour of Flanders documentaries landed, free to view and with English subtitles, on YouTube.

These 75-minute behind-the-scenes films, made for Belgian TV, began in 2016 with the 100th edition of the race, won by Peter Sagan. Each of these outstanding films conveys the frenzy, excitement and madness of the race with a 360° view, from bikes to team cars to fans by the road and in bars.

Then in early June came the highest-profile cycling offering: Lance, a two-
part ESPN documentary, spanning almost four hours, as part of the US sports network’s 30 For 30 series.

This latest look at the life and times of the man who won and lost seven Tours de France had a big name director – Marina Zenovich, who has directed acclaimed films about Roman Polanski and Robin Williams – and a lot of access to its subject.

Armstrong sat for eight long interviews with Zenovich. She also spoke to dozens of friends, enemies and, in one of the documentary’s scoops, Armstrong’s estranged stepfather, Terry Armstrong.

Lance, a bit like the man himself, divided people. There were echoes of The Last Dance, at least in having a compelling, magnetic and charismatic central character holding court, though Michael Jordan and basketball won out over Armstrong and cycling in the ratings war. The Last Dance, which played out over five weeks, averaged 5.6 million viewers, while Lance averaged 860,000 over its two weeks.

A night at the Movistar

There are other cycling films in the works (see below) but nothing so far that matches Drive To Survive as a vehicle – no pun intended – for the sport. The two seasons of the F1 series offered fascinating insights into the intrigue and machinations behind the scenes, although series two suffered from the involvement of Ferrari and Mercedes, who proved much less interesting than the smaller teams.

The closest cycling has had to a Drive To Survive is the Movistar series. True, it only focussed on one team, but whereas F1 teams have two drivers, cycling teams have up to 30 riders. And there were enough subplots and internal rivalries to make the six episodes riveting even before we got to Soler’s tantrum.

The series was born in Cholet on 9th July 2018, when José María Álvarez-Pallete, chairman and chief executive of Telefónica, Movistar’s parent company, visited the Tour de France.

‘It was his first time at a race,’ says Sebastián Unzué, part of Movistar’s management and the son of Eusebio, who has been at the helm of the Spanish institution for 40 years.

‘He was so surprised by the things he saw in the team that he hadn’t seen on TV. He said, “Guys, we’ve got to show this to the public.” It started in that moment, with Telefónica and Movistar doing a lot of the negotiations with Netflix.’

The team instigated it, and had some control, but that didn’t make it an easy process. ‘None of us is used to having a camera around and in the toughest, most high-pressure moments of the season it was very hard,’ admits Unzué.

‘We were lucky the main cameraman was respectful, and he understood when people were pissed off and didn’t want the camera in their face.

‘The one thing we were clear about from the start, and something I told my father, was that we had to, as we say in Spain, take our masks off. We wanted to show success, yes, but also failure. Ninety per cent of the time you race, you will fail. You don’t win much, and that’s something we have to live with. Dealing with failure is the first lesson in cycling.

‘We were lucky that we had a great, unexpected experience in winning the Giro with Richard. But then we failed in the objectives we had at the start of the season, to win the Tour de France. But it humanises everyone to see how tough it is to deal with failure and to manage a group of riders not achieving the goals they set themselves. The success of the documentary is to show that part.’

Unzué admits ‘that if I could have chosen, there are things I wouldn’t show to everyone’, but that was the deal they made in agreeing to let the cameras in. If we as viewers hadn’t seen Landa’s serial disappointments, Valverde’s frustration with the team’s tactics or the whole team’s frustration with Quintana over his failure to communicate, The Least Expected Day would not have been as watchable as it was.

Under the hood

A project even more similar to Drive To Survive is an as-yet-untitled series that has expanded from a season behind the scenes at EF Pro Cycling to a look inside at least three teams. The film crew were at the Tour of Colombia with EF in February but hit the pause button when Covid-19 prevented racing – although instead of being put on ice, the project has evolved (see ‘Coming to a screen near you’ boxout, below).

Oscar-winning documentarian Bryan Fogel is executive producer and the director is Ted Youngs, whose virtual reality series, Capturing Everest, won an Emmy in 2018.

They are determined to make something in 2020 not least because, as producer Matt Rogers says, ‘There aren’t many productions going on, so whatever we’re able to produce will be one of the few high-quality documentary series about sport this year. The fact we’re on the ground when this is all happening is going to give it a twist and make it more interesting.’

The F1 series comes up a lot in talking to Rogers and Youngs, which is hardly surprising. Drive To Survive appealed to many people who would never watch a Grand Prix partly because it opened up a sport that seems impenetrable. Cycling suffers similar challenges.

‘Once you’re in a helmet and in a car, or in a helmet and on a bike, you become fairly generic,’ says Youngs. ‘We’re trying to peel it back; to pull out the stories behind the number and get to the human element.’

Youngs agrees the landscape is improving for sports films, driven by the clamour from networks and streaming platforms for new content. Yet they won’t buy the content unless there’s an audience for it – and there clearly is.

‘Data is the driver of decisions rather than what people are saying at cocktail parties,’ says Youngs. ‘What Netflix has seen, certainly with Drive To Survive, is that you can take a niche sport that didn’t seem to have a huge following, and if you give it the right treatment and production values, you can attract a large consumer audience.

‘There’s an appetite for sports films that appeal beyond their core tribe. This is said to be a golden age for television and certainly there is a huge demand for content.

‘Most of these platforms are no longer advertising-dependent – they’re dependent on driving new subscriptions every month and to do that they need new offerings every month.’ 

Persons of interest

Returning to Lance, one of the most interesting observations in the two episodes is made by Floyd Landis, who won the 2006 Tour before testing positive for testosterone.

‘Despite the difficulty of it [pro racing] and the amount of time and determination it takes, the personalities are not particularly aggressive,’ says Landis of the world’s best cyclists.

‘They’re often really introverted people who just like to spend time riding their bikes by themselves a lot, or near other people without saying anything. People see George Hincape and think, “Oh, he’s a tough guy.” He’s not. I mean, Lance is. He’s a tough, hard guy. But the rest of them are not.’

To anyone watching, the truth of this remark is there to see: Landis, Hincapie, Jonathan Vaughters, Tyler Hamilton, Bobby Julich and Dave Zabriskie, all former teammates of Armstrong, are all softly spoken, unassuming and introverted.

Armstrong, as Landis says, is the exception. There aren’t many like him in the sport, which might be good for the sport but perhaps creates a problem for filmmakers.

Adam Neuhaus, director of development for ESPN Films, who commissioned Lance, agrees: ‘We look at the story first, but I really do think you need a magnetic, charismatic, compelling person at the heart of it,’ says Neuhaus.

Armstrong, while remaining ‘one of the most divisive figures in all American sports’, fits the bill. ‘He has a very particular Texan, American attitude that you find in other sports: confident, arrogant, with that win-at-all-costs mentality.’

The 30 For 30 series, which began in 2009 to mark ESPN’s 30th anniversary, has been at the vanguard of the rise of high-quality sports films. One of the most celebrated is OJ: Made in America, the 2016 documentary telling the OJ Simpson story (which, at 467 minutes, is the longest film to win an Oscar).

The key to Lance, says Neuhaus, is the same as to all the 30 For 30s: the story is told by the director, in this case Zenovich. ‘When we were presented with the opportunity to think about pursuing the film our response was not, “Let’s go and do this.”

‘For us it came down to finding the right director, and Marina is someone who takes on difficult subjects. The film only came to be when we were able to insert Marina and her perspective into the film.’

Over the top

The idea that drives 30 For 30 is, ‘We don’t care what the score is,’ says Neuhaus. But do they care what the sport is? They have produced more than 140 films in 11 years, but only two about cycling (the other is Slaying The Badger, on which I worked, having written the book of the same name about the 1986 Tour de France).

‘I don’t get a ton of cycling pitches,’ Neuhaus says. ‘But we’re unabashedly a North American network, so if it doesn’t have a North American hook the story has to be so absurd, so over the top…’

A bit like Lance. ‘It is an amazing story,’ agrees Neuhaus. ‘He’s a complicated man. His impact on cancer treatment cannot be denied. I enjoyed seeing the young Lance: the “phenom”. I think we have to remember these are world-class athletes who then take performance-enhancing drugs.

‘But what I thought, watching it, is that in sport, if you cheat, it’s still usually worthwhile even if you’re caught. He was hurt in reputation but still captured most of the gains. And so I still feel that if athletes are deciding whether to cheat by using performance-enhancing drugs, the upside is too great across all sports. I think that’s out of whack.’

Coming to a screen near you

What cycling-related TV should you be looking out for?

With so much of the 2020 season lost to Covid-19 some film projects that had been in the pipeline will struggle to see the light of day in 2021, as originally planned.

One casualty is a second series of the fly-on-the-wall Movistar documentary. Series one, The Least Expected Day, was released by Netflix in late March and covered the 2019 season. The filmmakers are keen to make a second season, says Sebastián Unzué, a manager on the Movistar team, and could make it next year.

There is also a rumoured project with Bradley Wiggins, a follow-up to 2012’s A Year In Yellow. And Finlay Pretsell, the Scottish director whose previous work includes Standing Start, an impressive short film about track sprinter Craig MacLean, and Time Trial, a feature-length film about David Millar, is in the early stages of a new cycling documentary, inspired by and rooted in Colombia.

Then there is a work in progress, directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Ted Youngs, that started out as a behind-the-scenes series on the EF Pro Cycling team, but has now expanded to include at least two other teams.

‘Covid threw a monkey wrench in our plans,’ says producer Matt Rogers. ‘But it also gave us an opportunity to widen our vision and create a bigger series.’

Bryan Fogel, who won an Oscar for Icarus, his exposé of the Russian doping scandal, is now involved as executive producer. The plan is for the series to take in the truncated 2020 season for release in 2021.

Illustration: 2BROS Creative