Sami Sauri / New adventures

Constantly on the move – camera in hand – from one project to the next, when photographer and filmmaker Sami Sauri decided to commit 100% to her own production company, little did she know what a whirlwind year she would enjoy.

Reflecting on this period of transition in her usual candid manner, Sami considers life’s simple pleasures, why storytelling underpins her way of working and how failure can be a mechanism for growth.


cyclespeak
You’re just back from shooting in Austria. It looked fantastic.

Sami
It was for next year’s Jack Wolfskin spring / summer range.

cyclespeak
But it was snowing.

Sami
I know [laughs]. They chose Austria for the location – which was very nice – but maybe next time we can go to the Canaries? Because the first day it just rained and nobody wanted to wear shorts [laughs].

cyclespeak
Did you expect to be above the snowline?

Sami
No. Not at all. I’d packed a rain jacket but I was wearing normal shoes. And the main story behind the women’s campaign was a hike to a hut at 2100 metres and then down the other side. We were going to spend the night at this altitude – the story was amazing – and the whole crew was female. I turned down two projects just so I could do this shoot.

cyclespeak
But the weather wasn’t helping?

Sami
We had a mountain guide with us and she advised us to postpone for a couple of days. But when we did finally start to climb, on the first ridge we had snow. But I wasn’t going to stop there—this story wouldn’t make sense if we hadn’t got to the hut [laughs].

cyclespeak
So it all worked out in the end?

Sami
For me, I had a wonderful experience—I love those kinds of adventures.

cyclespeak
The last time we caught up, you were listing all your various mishaps. Your foot had been in a plastic boot and you later tore some ligaments when you were out trail running. How’s the summer been in terms of staying in one piece?

Sami
I’ve probably done less this summer than for the last five years. Not because of my foot but I’ve had so much work that I couldn’t find the time for intense bike trips. But I have started running again and trying new sports like motocross.

cyclespeak
Your road to recovery after injuring your foot brought to mind the issues you had with knee pain during the Route 66 and Big Land films.

Sami
The knee pain comes from riding fixed gear. You can’t help falling and it always seems to be on the same side. And I find it interesting that you get used to sleeping in a position that’s comfortable for your hip and your knee—your body quickly adapts to what feels best.

cyclespeak
So it’s something that you can now manage?

Sami
I feel that everything comes for a reason and when I started physio, I discovered that I’d been riding all those years and not using my glutes. There was very little muscle and this was the main reason my knee was hurting. So I now realise that I need to exercise in different ways to help relieve the pain—using bands or a simple 20 minute yoga session every morning to activate my body.

cyclespeak
So that’s your morning routine sorted?

Sami
I’m somebody who finds it very difficult to have constant things in their life [laughs].

cyclespeak
That doesn’t fit well with your personality?

Sami
It’s more my lifestyle right now. So busy and always on the move.

cyclespeak
Is racing the fixed gear scene something you miss?

Sami
I definitely miss that sense of community. And I’ve realised that I’m quite competitive. Which is why I often ride alone because nobody is watching and I can go as fast or as slow as I like and really enjoy it. When I go out with friends, I find myself looking back and wondering where they are [laughs]. 

cyclespeak
I saw a recent post where you were riding near Girona and someone had a bloodied knee?

Sami
The mountain bike ride? When I put my friends through hell [laughs].

cyclespeak
That’s the one.

Sami
I felt so sorry for them. I convinced these two girls – one of them is my physio – that we should take out our mountain bikes and just do some easy, smooth trails. Well, oh my god, we had some proper gnarly downhill stuff [laughs].

cyclespeak
When you aren’t shredding local trails, you spend a fair proportion of your time on the road filming. What do you miss most about home when you’re away?

Sami
I do miss my own cooking. Every time I come back home, the first thing I do is make a plate of my pasta. Maybe this comes from my childhood but I need that plate of pasta.

cyclespeak
Do you have a particular recipe?

Sami
Parmesan, olive oil and salt. That’s it. I don’t need anything else to make me happy. And I might put on some vinyl and turn up the volume [smiles].

cyclespeak
Simple pleasures.

Sami
But after three days, I’m already looking forward to the next adventure [laughs].

cyclespeak
From the moment you receive a phone call or a message, how fast can you be packed and out of the door?

Sami
It doesn’t take me long. 30 minutes?

cyclespeak
Really?

Sami
I pretty much know what I want and what I need—and I don’t need much. But I do always take a pair of cycling shorts because no matter where you are, you might get a ride [laughs].

cyclespeak
You sound very organised?

Sami
Before, everything was super tight with the packing and arriving at the airport. Massive stress [laughs]. Now, I pack two days before I’m due to leave and arrive at the airport at least two hours before my flight—something I never used to do. And when I get to the airport, I’ve figured out a good spot for breakfast, where I can work. And it means I don’t arrive sweating [laughs].

cyclespeak
What would you tell someone just starting out taking photographs or trying their hand at film making?

Sami
I do get messages about that—people wanting to change their lives. For me, I was just handed a camera and told to shoot. And I said, ‘Shoot what [laughs]?’

cyclespeak
That sounds like good advice.

Sami
The first thing I always say to people is just go and do it. Do it, do it and keep on doing it. And fail and do it right and fail again and then see if you like it. You’ll never know when that will be – or whether you will or won’t – until you give it your all.

cyclespeak
And where do you see yourself on that journey?

Sami
I’ve still not completely figured out what’s my vibe. I didn’t think I’d like commercial photography but these last two shoots for big brands I’ve absolutely loved. They were wonderful clients in giving me free rein – I didn’t have a shot list – so it felt like they’d put their trust in me.

cyclespeak
You enjoy an open brief?

Sami
Yes. It’s like for a recent cycling collection I’ve just shot. Super commercial but I gave them this idea that we could rent a motorhome, go to the desert, camp out and ride bikes. Basically shooting on the go.

cyclespeak
Personally speaking, how much is a sense of storytelling and narrative an important element to these projects?

Sami
For me, it’s super important. For the brands, they don’t always ask for it but they all want it.

cyclespeak
I love that.

Sami
Right now, this storytelling style of shooting is mind blowing. Everybody’s doing it.

cyclespeak
Whenever you’re pictured outside – walking, riding, running – very often you have a brilliant smile that lights up your face. And this made me think about a post from earlier this year when you referenced much darker thoughts and feelings.

Sami
I’ve spent time on both sides. I’ve been the happiest person ever and the saddest. And I can think of certain people that wanted to drag me down the wrong path but I think that happens to a lot of people. And the only thing that got me through, was opening the door and going outside. Not necessarily to do sports but sometimes it was a matter of just being out in the fresh air. To find my true self, it’s never going to happen inside a house. I could stay inside – alone with my thoughts – and look at the same wall for a million hours and not feel any better. But if you go out and talk to somebody – your friend, your dog, your horse, even someone you don’t know – then this can make a real difference. It’s like a door that opens or stays closed.

cyclespeak
I guess an open door lets in light? Which brings me to your recent collaboration with Megamo bikes—a custom Sami Sauri paint job for one of their full-suspension mountain bikes with a theme of ‘sunset’.

Sami
I suddenly got this idea in my head about painting a sunset on a bike. To me, the best time of the day because I just love all that colour—not so much on me but definitely on a bike [laughs]. I’m good friends with Megamo and they’ve been super helpful over the past year. Just before I went to Egypt, one of the guys on the trip broke his frame in Barcelona by crashing when we were eating pizza. We got a bike from Megamo in under 12 hours so the trip could go ahead and all their generous help made me want to return the favour.

cyclespeak
So what is it about sunsets that you love so much?

Sami
I’d much rather ride in the evening. In the morning I’m very active mentally and in a creative mood and want to get things done. But when I finish for the day, I can go out and ride into the sunset – it sounds a little like a movie – and that acts as a reward or a pat on the back.

cyclespeak
You’re always on the go – always busy – so how do you unwind?

Sami
I’m not sure I do switch off [laughs]. Maybe when I sleep? And part of me thinks that if I stop, I might miss something [smiles].

cyclespeak
I think that’s a state of mind a lot of people would recognise.

Sami
But I have started reading again—time with no phone or screens. And that’s why I like going on holiday to somewhere simple that doesn’t take lots of decisions to enjoy. Somewhere I can surf or go hiking.

cyclespeak
So do you prefer a 5 day, 5 week or 5 month plan for living your life?

Sami
Hmmm. Fuck. It has to be 5 day because nothing ever goes to plan [laughs]. I can receive a call today and I’m leaving for somewhere else. It’s crazy!

cyclespeak
There’s a post from earlier in the year where you write, ‘Do what you love and love what you do.’ Is that a fair description of how you’re currently living your life?

Sami
It’s not like I’ve always known what path in life I will take. But then somebody handed me a camera to film, photograph and ride at the same time. So I’m grateful for those special people that I’ve known—the ones who after years still see you as you are.

[pause]

It’s not been easy – there were times when I was working three jobs just to eat and put a roof over my head – but I’ve made it this far and I want to live every moment as if it was the last one.


Sami

Photographs of Sami in Egypt with kind permission of Sonam Gotthilf

Thereabouts / Crust Bikes

Part community, part production company, part creative partner. Ask Gus Morton and Isaac Karsen to define Thereabouts and you’re offered a number of varied responses. What is abundantly clear, however, is a passion for storytelling and the narrative of their collaboration with Crust Bikes is an exemplar of the Thereabouts vision. Rooted in the Australian Outback and culminating in a Utah desert testbed; a tale that encompasses talk of farm tractors, friendships forged on the trail and a belief in the bike as a tool for journeying.

cyclespeak
Looking back on the genesis of this bike build, where were you in terms of the riding you were doing? What was your mindset at that time?

Gus
I guess the idea has always been there ever since that very first Thereabouts ride to Uluru in 2013. Back then, your only option for endurance or rough-road riding was a cross bike. But they’re very upright and the bottom bracket’s quite high. They suit cross, they suit jumping over things, they suit those twitchy kinds of conditions. But there wasn’t really a bike with geometry that matched riding on gravel roads in the strictest sense.

cyclespeak
And this got you thinking along those lines?

Gus
On that trip we wanted to ride on different types of terrain. I just had a basic cross bike but Lachy* knew that his team issue Cervélo S5 wasn’t exactly capable of doing that [laughs]. So all credit to his foresight, he called up Mosaic and got them to build him a road geometry bike that could also handle gravel with an Enve fork that could fit a bigger tyre. He kind of created a road bike for dirt.

[*Gus’ brother, Lachlan Morton]

cyclespeak
And that got you both thinking?

Gus
After that first experience riding through the Outback, a whole bunch of product ideas came into our heads. And we’d already been playing around with the ways of riding a bike that weren’t being serviced. So after Uluru we were thinking how we’d go about making a bike and that it would look like this or this or this. And we’d talk about it and draw up designs. Eventually this led to a bike frame under the name Outlands. I think there’s ten of them floating around and I’ve still got a couple in my garage at home.

cyclespeak
But the process never went any further?

Gus
It takes a lot of time and experience to do original stuff – whether that’s a bike from scratch or even a piece of clothing. We’d been talking to some people in Hong Kong but it was like, fuck, we don’t know what we’re doing here. And this was back in 2015, 2016 when both Lachy and I were professional athletes and didn’t have a huge amount of time to dedicate to going over and spending a couple of months in Hong Kong.

cyclespeak
So what’s changed since then?

Gus
Those ideas were floating around from the very beginning of Thereabouts and people have always asked when we were going to make stuff. And then when Isaac and I got together, I guess the act of bringing in an outside perspective with all this other world experience kind of opened up our thoughts. That maybe we could do this in collaboration with smaller brands. And it was Isaac who created that impetus and had the technical know-how.

cyclespeak
You each come at things from your own perspective?

Gus
I’ve said this to you before, I’m very utility focused. I’ll just do whatever I can to make something work. I enjoy that but I’m really only using the tools that I have. Isaac is much more about the right tools for the job and acknowledging that there are people with the expertise to make this stuff. And so, with Isaac on board, we decided to make a bike. Yes, I had connections with people, but it was his knowledge of equipment and his perspective on riding that created the impetus for us to be like, well, who would we want to partner with? What do we want to make?

Ready for anything

cyclespeak
Thinking along those lines, Isaac, when you see a bike leaning against a wall or outside a coffee shop, what do you see as the potential in that collection of tubes and components?

Isaac
I’m not sure whether this will answer your question but in advertising, which is what my full-time job was before coming onboard with Thereabouts, you’re basically a commissioner. You make decisions on the director and the film editor, the visual FX and the music. You lead with your team – this collection of collaborators – and I guess my brain just works that way. So when Gus and I first got together and discussed all the possibilities for projects, we began by figuring out all the people Gus knew and had worked with.

cyclespeak
To build your team.

Isaac
And in a similar way to a collection of ideas and a collaboration of minds, bikes are so exciting because you personally get to choose all the parts. What wheels you want and what tyres will work with the riding you’ll be doing. And I guess I really enjoy figuring out how all these separate elements can come together. In a sense, working out the tone and the character. Which is just as true for a film as it is for a bike build. 

Gus
And that’s what’s interesting because we were only talking yesterday about what’s changed with Thereabouts since Isaac and I got together. I’m someone that if I see something, I’ll ask myself whether I can do that too. And if I can’t, I won’t do it. Or maybe I can see a way I can learn that skill and take on that task. But I’m not someone who reaches out for help.

cyclespeak
And Isaac?

Gus
He’s very much no, no, no. We’ve got to do this properly. Isaac’s more for finding the right person, reaching out to them, engaging with them and bringing them in. And the balance of those two outlooks has really launched Thereabouts massively forward. Whereas before, if it couldn’t just be done in-house then it wasn’t going to happen. And that’s where I was blocked.

cyclespeak
This sounds like quite a profound change in your way of thinking?

Gus
I wanted to do all these things but didn’t really know where to start. The bike, the film projects, the podcast. All these new facets of Thereabouts have come about because of Isaac’s whole other approach to thinking that balanced out my own in a really powerful way.

cyclespeak
So the idea for the bike has been there from the early days of Thereabouts and you’ve referenced before, Gus, that you see a bike as a tool for moving and for journeying. And Isaac, I know you share that viewpoint, but you also come at it from a form and function perspective. Do you both feel the project benefited from these different approaches in bringing the process to fruition?

Gus
To be honest, I was always onboard with making a bike but it was Isaac’s desire to see it done properly that proved the deciding factor. Left to my own devices, I would just ride what I had and stick a rack on it or tie a bag on. Often things that weren’t really meant to be used in that way but I would modify them to just make it work with the shit that I had. And from that regard, the equipment was always an afterthought. But having done that for a long time, all of a sudden someone comes in and tells you, no, there’s a product for that. Or the potential to create something to do that particular job. And the Crust bike is a perfect example. When I rode it for the first time I was like, oh shit, that’s what it feels like to ride something that’s meant to be ridden in those conditions. It’s so much easier and so much more enjoyable [laughs].

Utah testbed

cyclespeak
I love the idea that you don’t see the bike purely as a possession. It’s all about what you can do with it. Where it can take you.

Gus
Exactly. All of a sudden you’re like, holy shit, if we really wanted to, we could hang three gallons of water on this bike and survive in the desert for multiple days without re-supplying. And that’s straight where my mind goes. Riding the Crust, all of a sudden this whole new world opens up.

cyclespeak
Isaac, you mentioned the process and I was wondering whether there were other framebuilders in the mix or was it always going to be Crust?

Isaac
I was still living in Downtown LA at the time and I only had a road bike. Just riding in Griffith Park and wasn’t really able to get out any further from a time perspective. But I’d lusted after a Crust bike for ages. And especially the Bombora which was the frame we’ve used on our build. And we have to give massive credit to Cheech and Matt for what they’re doing with Crust because they’re building just the coolest bikes. Really owning that category of frames and doing it their own way.

cyclespeak
I like the idea that you’re a fan. How there’s an emotional element to your choice of collaborator. 

Isaac
So I mentioned to Gus that it would be cool to do a Crust and we should get in touch somehow. And he was like, oh, I know Matt. And I’m like, we should hit them up now. And Gus just sent him a message.

cyclespeak 
With all these different strands coming together, would you say there’s an element of Matt and Cheech in the Thereabouts build?

Gus
Absolutely and it’s funny you should say that as I was thinking about my relationship with Matt. Because when you’re riding a bike professionally, you get introduced to all the big names on the race circuit. Just by virtue of you simply being part of that world. But to be honest, for me, I’ve always been most at home with the dude at the bar that you meet when you’re out riding. That’s where my engagement lies and where my love of this sport is based. Whether that’s down to my inability to make it as a bike rider, I’m not exactly sure. But I’m definitely more comfortable with the more anonymous side of things.

cyclespeak
And you feel this relates to your friendship with Matt?

Gus
A while back, I was invited on a ride in California and Matt was also on it. He’s this little Aussie bloke – I immediately clocked the accent – but I didn’t know who the fuck he was. And he didn’t know me either. But we’re riding along and chatting and just through talking, all of a sudden, I realised that this is the guy that makes Crust bikes.

cyclespeak
And a connection was made.

Gus
Here’s this bloke who was a plumber, a surfer, a BMXer. And with Crust he just created his own niche within the cycling world. Really doing it his own way. And there’s no pretence with Matt; he’s super sarcastic and his sense of humour is really similar to mine. So just over the course of this five day ride, I got to know Matt after gravitating to him. The kind of person that doesn’t give a shit about the way that things are or the way things have been.

Desert campout

cyclespeak
That sounds a very grounded, down-to-earth approach to business?

Gus
Way back, Lachy and I had talked to 3T about the Exploro bike. That was originally going to be called the Thereabouts bike.

cyclespeak
No way.

Gus
Yeah, we worked with Gérard Vroomen. Discussions going to and fro about the design and the whole, fucking gigantic legal process of royalties. We both thought it would be sick to have our name on a bike but the project kind of stalled. And we then went through a similar process with a number of other companies. Sitting around the table with all these heads of brand and they’d be talking about incorporating what we were doing with Thereabouts into their shit.

cyclespeak
But nothing came of it?

Gus
I kinda thought that having a bike was impossible. You’ve got to jump through so many hoops and then at the eleventh hour the process reaches a point where it stalls. But with Matt, there was none of that [laughs]. We called him and asked about making a bike and he said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And it was really that easy. One person, their own brand, doing their own thing and just interested in making stuff that excites them. And that’s like, very rare, I think. Just wanting to get it done.

cyclespeak
In the Thereabouts podcast episode that features Crust, Matt says he doesn’t care what the cycling industry thinks.

Gus
That’s right. He doesn’t [laughs].

cyclespeak
So I wondered where you sit? And whether your self-perception is one of outsiders?

Isaac
That’s an interesting topic [Gus laughing in background]. I think to a degree we’re outsiders but, in the same breath, we’re still kind of part of it all. And going back to my earlier point about collaboration, we still need wheels and a group set to complete the build. So, no matter what, you look to different people to help bring your vision to life. And we value and really care about our relationships with those individuals or brands that build bikes and I think it’s really inspiring what people like Matt and Cheech are doing at Crust.

cyclespeak
So, after deciding on Crust for the frames, I guess you had a free rein for the componentry?

Gus
Exactly. Isaac was like, let’s do this or use this. And that’s sort of how this all works. One of us will come in with an idea – for a film, podcast, whatever – and the other one will either be, that’s great, or no mate. There’s a sense of checks and balances but when it came to the  equipment it was very much what’s the sickest thing we could put on the bike. I suppose the best way I can frame it is to ask if you know that much about tractors?

cyclespeak
Tractors?

Gus
Well, Lamborghini started out making tractors. My Dad used to have a Lamborghini tractor on the farm. And I kind of picture the Crust in the same way. It’s got really fucking fast shit on it but it’s still a tractor [laughs]. You’re not going to race this in the World Tour but it’s specced out like it expects to be. So the thinking went, what’s the most do-anything robust frame? And that’s how we arrived at the Crust Bombora. And then we asked ourselves, what’s the most badass shit we can put on it so we can make this tractor go as fast as possible over any terrain.

Isaac riding the Thereabouts Crust

cyclespeak
It sounds like a fun process?

Gus
Just completely unorthodox. And going back to that question of whether we see ourselves as outsiders. From an ideological standpoint, then absolutely, we’re outsiders. We’re talking about using the bike in very different ways but, at the same time, we have to co-exist inside this industry and we’ve got really great relationships with brands like SRAM, Rapha and Specialized. It’s just that we tend to look at ways of using a bike that lie outside the regular realm of riding.

cyclespeak
In the film Sometime Thereafter, you explore the idea of a shared journey experienced through individual perspectives. So when the finished Crust was standing in front of you, how did you both feel seeing your name on the bike?

Gus
I guess I look at it this way. A bike is greater than the sum of its parts and we were lucky enough to know these people who make derailleurs, wheels, tyres. Who make bar tape and saddles. They’re all creating these elements and there’s all these personalities and characters behind those components. And Isaac was able to pull them all together into an epitome of what we are and what our view of the sport is. And as a result, we put our name on it because it’s a physical representation of where we currently see Thereabouts and what we want to use a bike for. That unquantifiable essence of a bike and how it moves you through space. That’s us, putting our name on it. Like putting an intention to your day [laughs].

Isaac
The parts arrived as Covid was happening so the bikes were built up during lockdown in Portland. I drove everything over and then, a few days later, you’ve got a fully-built bike. Which was crazy because they looked way different than I was expecting.

cyclespeak
And then you got to ride them.

Isaac
It was mine and Gus’ first escape from lockdown restrictions on a trip to Southern Utah. I loaded the bikes into my car and we drove all the way south.

cyclespeak
Was this Utah trip a case of ticking boxes – a testbed for the bikes – or more about asking questions?

Isaac
It was heavenly.

Gus
It was.

Isaac
The riding was pretty out there and our bikes were completely fucked up but they survived.

cyclespeak
Once again, returning to the theme of a tool for a purpose?

Gus
Exactly. In terms of putting your name on something, we’re storytellers and this build fits in a kind of abstract way to that end. A tool that will help us to tell a story and hopefully empower people to make their own journeys.

Gus and Isaac

cyclespeak
You mentioned how your Crust bikes were built up during the Covid lockdown. Has the pandemic influenced the direction you’re going with Thereabouts?

Gus
Looking back on the past year, having everything scratched gave us time to rethink our approach and strategise a bit.  Along the lines of what we want to do and how we’re going to do it. So we spent a lot of time reformatting the business plan. How we can make and tell these stories and get them to the widest audience in the most beautiful way. So we’ve got a lot of exciting things in development and a shitload of work to be done over the next six months. But we’re getting there [smiles].

cyclespeak
For many people, the pandemic has been life changing and not always in a positive way. But maybe adversity can sometimes push you to question and reassess how you’re living? To explore new directions and appreciate what we might have taken for granted?

Gus
At least from my personal point of view, I’ve always felt the urgency to do things and get them out. The last two years have really changed that for a number of reasons but as a result I feel we now have a more sound perspective which will hopefully help us make a bigger difference in the work that we do. At the heart of Thereabouts, it’s about telling stories that inspire people. We want to show the positive impact sport can have on society at whatever level you choose to engage. Sometimes it feels the way we go about this might not be the easiest way to do it. But, for us, it’s certainly the most rewarding.

Gus Morton / Isaac Karsen / hereorthereabouts

All images with kind permission of Thereabouts

Thereabouts Outspoken Ep011 – Crust Bikes

Crust Bikes

Gus Morton / Here Or Thereabouts Part 2

In this, the second part of our conversation, Angus ‘Gus’ Morton muses on the future of professional cycling, his striving for a life of simple pleasures and whether love is, indeed, all you need.

Looking back at the films you’ve been associated with, one of my personal favourites is Rapha’s short feature ‘Riding is the answer’. Did you direct that?

 I didn’t but that’s actually a funny story because I had no idea I was going to be in that. Or even the level it was on. I’d just shot the first Outskirts and was living out in LA and this guy from Rapha was explaining that they were in town on these dates and would I be available to be part of the shoot for a day. So I was like, sure, and didn’t think anything of it. A month goes by and I get this call from the executive producer at a creative agency and so I’m wondering what they’re doing getting involved because I’m only going to feature in this film for a second or two. Then I get a lady wanting to take some photographs and I have to go to wardrobe but I was super late because I rode there and when I finally arrive there’s 30 people waiting.

 I imagine not particularly happy?

 Oh, man. They were pissed [laughs]. And then they start talking about the days we’ll be shooting and I’m telling them that I won’t be in town that long. Apparently the shit hit the fan and there was this huge meltdown. I woke up in the morning and there’s 30 emails and millions of missed calls. Turns out I was the main character [laughs].

 That tiny detail kind of passed you by somehow?

 Man, it was a bit of a stitch up. And I honestly had no idea. I just thought it would be a van with a camera in the back but it was this huge production. They’d closed parts of Downtown LA and I was riding around on empty streets. No cars.

 Just the amount of work to get those permits.

 Yeah. It was insane. Comical. A proper LA shoot.

feel_whats_real_yellow

But, for me, the film was perfectly pitched. And thinking on from the tagline – about riding answering questions – looking back at your professional racing career I was wondering what kind of rider you were?

 Not a very good one [laughs].

 I’m sure that’s not the case.

 I was a worker. Just a team guy. That was my job riding for Jelly Belly. I was pretty good at cobbled stuff but never that good when it came to individual success. Though I must admit that the first time I was pro I had some decent results but most of the time I was sick with this parasite.

 They didn’t know what the problem was?

 No and my body was doing all this weird stuff like it stopped producing testosterone. It took a while to figure it all out and kind of plagued that first part of my professional career. And then when I’d finished racing for the first time and got into film, this guy asked me what I wanted to do and I told him I wanted to be a director. I was young, probably 22 at the time, and pretty bull-headed. And he looked at me and then told me to go away and do something else for 10 years.

 10 years?

 Just go out into the world and experience. Because what perspective do you have when you haven’t done shit? So I really took that to heart and it played a big part in me getting back into racing for a second time.

 From the outside, professional cycling can seem a very brutal career. All about performance?

 It is. Exactly right. And it’s kind of funny how you’re judged. Some riders do one good thing and somehow hang onto that. Others are consistently up there but without the recognition they actually deserve. And I don’t really think that cycling truly understands that it’s in control of its own destiny. Everyone’s racing to get first but what the fans also buy into are the characters and stories. Yet the professional sport almost wants to eliminate personality. And it blew me away that, year after year, Team Sky riders were literally getting piss thrown over them and yet they continued with the same MO. Was it successful? Yes. But what’s the point of it all?

 So what’s your take on Education First’s Alternative Calendar?

That’s where it’s going. We look back at bike riding and all we talk about are the epic stories. Because that’s what captures our hearts and the general audience doesn’t give two fucks for science and system. It’s all romantic; all emotional. And brands are already beginning to change their focus so ideally we’ll see the sport continue in this direction.

 So you think other professional cycling teams are watching?

 Dude, you look at Education First during the Giro when Dirty Kanza was building up. There was more media focus on a one-day 200 mile gravel race across the backroads of Kansas than a fucking 21 day grand tour.

 I can see your point. I’ve watched the Dirty Kanza film three times. The Giro once. So in terms of a business model?

 How much would it have cost the team to ride the Giro? Two, three hundred grand? By contrast, for EF to ride Dirty Kanza it would have cost them basically nothing. And there’s still this disconnect between directly spending money in sponsoring a team and whether you can accurately measure a return. But you know exactly how many views you’ve had on YouTube. And I’m like, if you create a character you’re guaranteed to get ‘x’ number of views per race on whatever content you build around it. People switch on Neighbours every night and watch it. No one wins. They watch it for the characters and the stories. Why don’t you create something like that in sport?

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I recently saw an Instagram post obilqely referring to a current female professional cyclist. Arguing that she hadn’t placed well in a race or her own national championships for a number of years and the only reason she was still a member of the race squad was down to her being pretty and having a huge following on social media.

 But what’s the problem there? This post is arguing that she doesn’t deserve a spot on the team but is the problem the rider or the entire sport. Doesn’t that just demonstrate that no one gives a fuck about results? That there’s limited value in that for the sponsor and this rider is bringing something extra to the table? I mean, I hate social media. I don’t use Instagram anymore aside from contacting people. I had my own troubles with that but not from any particular high ground. It just took up too much of my time. But this rider is being followed for a reason. Maybe because it offers an insight into her life as a professional cyclist. Or she’s followed because she has something to say that matters to people. Whether she can still ride her bike and place well? Obviously lower down the priority list of her followers but also her sponsors because she’s got a contract. And that’s what I’m trying to say. All these sponsors are investing money into the sport in the hope that they’ll win. Is that a reasonable allocation of funds? One team is putting in ten million, another team their ten million. But the most interesting thing about bike riding is how dedicated these riders are and how far they’re prepared to push themselves. So many characters from so many different backgrounds. It’s a potential gold mine [laughs].

 Again, I’m hearing from you this focus on stories?

 The thing with Dirty Kanza – the way it played out – I still don’t think they fully get it.

 In what sense?

 We can all see the race. We understand what that is. But what would it look like if we threw these guys completely fish out of water? OK, we’ve just finished the Tour of California and we’ve got ten days to Dirty Kanza. Let’s ride there; training on the road as we go. Let’s sleep in a van. Camp. We don’t need all this other shit. We’re approaching it exactly the same way other people racing are doing it.

 Thinking about Lachlan [Morton], Taylor [Phinney] and Alex [Howes] riding Dirty Kanza; all of them professional cyclists for EF Education First and I did wonder how their entry in the race would be viewed by the amateur racers. But, as it turned out, they didn’t win.

 Taylor said it was absolute hell. And it shows they’re human and that’s all we want. To see these guys be genuine; that they’re not robots or beyond our realm of thought.

 That they suffer; that they have their highs and lows?

 And then when an amateur cyclist beats them? Well, that opens up a whole other level of narrative.

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This grassroots approach to riding your bike; is a life of simple pleasures important to you?

 I think that’s what I’m pursuing. What I’m exploring through these films. Spending all my time boiling things down to their absolute essence. What is satisfaction at its most basic, molecular level?

 Have you found the answer?

 No [laughs]. But the act of trying allows me the realisation that I don’t need much to be happy.

 And the understanding that enough is enough?

 Yeah. I’ve had problems with that [smiles]. Constantly asking myself what can we do next, how can we make it better? I’ve been staying with Taylor and we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about that.

 With this mental and emotional exploration, I’m thinking of the Beatles’ song ‘All you need is love.’ Would you agree?

 I think love is an interesting one. It can be all consuming; whether you have it or are pursuing it. When you’re falling into it, then it is all you need. And then if it’s lost, it’s all you want. So maybe it’s about being comfortable with yourself first. For a number of years I’ve chased all these different things and in some ways they’ve offered a form of distraction. So what I’m trying to do now is to take stock and confront all these things that I’ve ignored.

 I found it interesting how you allowed references to your relationship with Sami [Sauri] to be included in the final edit of Big Land.

 I left them in there for a reason. Which is funny because we got a lot of backlash; people just didn’t get it. But my thinking was that something really interesting happens on these journeys. You go through all of these emotional states when you’re physically tired. So me including those scenes was all about highlighting how the dumbest, smallest, pettiest things can result in these ridiculous arguments. Which, from a distance, looks like a real hipster break-up but that’s the point of it.

 That it’s real?

 Absolutely. And it’s like in life, we sometimes need to take a step back and realise how the tiny, insignificant things that we’re focusing so intently on are, in fact, tiny and insignificant. But I’m not sure that this approach was totally understood when it came to the film. Which kind of backfired because Sami copped a lot of flak.

 Did people think it was contrived?

 I think they thought it was trivial. Which it was but that was the point [laughs]. And that highlights the fact that maybe a lot of our audience don’t watch the films in the way I thought they might. So that’s a learning curve that I also need to take on board. You put stuff out there but then you need to emotionally let go because you can’t dictate how people will choose to interpret your work.

 In the film you looked really pissed off. Are you the sort of person to make the first move?

 I’m quite fiery [smiles]. Very emotional in that regard and I can be a real prick sometimes. But I’m getting much better at being able to apologise. Because it’s not always about accepting blame. It can be saying sorry for how you’ve behaved and then moving forward. Not an easy lesson to learn and I’ve done a lot of dumb stuff in the past. But I’m trying to get better and that’s why it’s good to take a step back.

With Gus

There’s that lovely black & white picture of you and Sami on Route 66. What were you laughing at?

 That was literally as we were crossing from Oklahoma into Texas. We’d all had a really dark time for a number of reasons and it was just a very cathartic moment as we stood – howling and yelling – sipping a beer. The sort of moment that I’m still trying to articulate to an audience. Because, for me, those are the fundamental elements of a trip like that.

 The sense that emotions should be expressed. That it’s good to let things out?

 And riding helps. Because you can ruminate on things before deciding to talk them through. Lachy and mine’s relationship is built on those moments. We won’t see each other for months and then we’ll ride and talk about whatever’s nagging at us. And these journeys that we’ve filmed are all about those shared moments on the road.

 From the outside looking in, it looks quite fun to be Gus Morton?

 It has its moments [laughs]. But, yeah, I have a great life. I’m very privileged to do what I love and to have the freedom to do that. It’s not easy in the sense that things don’t just fall on your lap. To have the life that I lead you have to chase it hard. And with the films; you want them to be aspirational. For people to engage and feel the need to go on their own journeys. In a sense, that’s the whole idea.

Photography: Thereabouts

Riding is the answer

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