Those who’ve been in the sport long enough to remember bike DVDs or even VHS tapes will remember that ‘kid at Christmas’ feeling when the latest Sprung or Earthed film arrived. We’d spend the following week glued to the TV screen, sitting with wide eyes, absorbing every pixel. Every turn slap or tailwhip would be etched on our retinas, and every song ingrained in our memories. These days, things are a bit different. We’re so bombarded by media that it’s easy to glaze over, as the art of mixing riding and storytelling is lost amid a sea of promotional videos and banal vlogs. Now doesn’t seem like the time to buck that trend and release a full-length bike film, save for one reason – passion. That’s what’s inspired videographers Joe Bowman and Aaron Bartlett to collaborate on a feature-length project in the age of scrolling and swiping.

The men with the plan: Joe Bowman and Aaron Bartlett. Photographed in NZ, whilst filming with Brook Macdonald (aka. the Bulldog)
The men with the plan: Joe Bowman and Aaron Bartlett. Photographed in NZ, while filming with Brook Macdonald (aka the Bulldog)

Their idea was pretty simple – take a bunch of the world’s top downhillers and let them run wild outside the tape, in some of the most incredible locations around the world. A while back, Joe and Aaron showed us a teaser and it really got us psyched. Like them, we grew up watching bike films and were curious to know more about what goes into making one, so when the opportunity came up to join the GAMBLE crew for a week in South Africa, filming with none other than the ‘Greatest Of All Time’ – Greg Minnaar – we jumped at the chance.

The GOAT eyes up his next line. Photo: Duncan Philpott
The GOAT eyes up his next line. Photo: Duncan Philpott

Lock, stock and two smoking rotors

Touching down in the heat of Cape Town, things couldn’t be more of a contrast to the winter rain we’ve left behind. We jump in a taxi and, before long, the jumble of townships is left behind as the city gives way to the lush vineyards of Stellenbosch. Joe’s already been out here for several days scoping locations and we join him and Aaron on a bar terrace downtown to find out more about what’s been a two-year labour of love for them.

“We’ve wanted to make a film for years,” explains Joe over a pint, “and finally, at the end of 2015, we committed to doing it. We’ve both been filming on the World Cup circuit for years, but documenting racing puts a limit on your creativity. At a race you’re confined to getting ‘safe’ footage, because you might only see the top guys ride past five times a day. Occasionally you’ll see something amazing, but you know that the riders are holding back in practice because they can’t nail themselves. They aren’t looking for the coolest gap or the biggest roost cloud, they’re looking for the fastest line. With GAMBLE, we want to take the racers away from the races, giving them creative licence to get as wild as possible and capture it on film... with lots of fast riding and minimal slo-mo!” he adds with a grin.

With his mechanic Marshy absent, Greg was forced to puzzle through the build of his own bike. Photo: Duncan Philpott
With his mechanic Marshy absent, Greg was forced to puzzle through building his own bike. Photo: Duncan Philpott

Racing is so professional these days that a big objective for the duo has been to put a bit of fun back into things. “It’s your classic skate film format,” explains Aaron. “Each rider has their own segment, with a sick soundtrack and an overall theme that ties things together.” Joe admits to being a huge Guy Ritchie fan and says his gangster films have been a huge influence. “The vibe is amazing,” he says. “His editing is incredibly well done. We came up with the name GAMBLE off the back of that. The idea is that we’ve got all the top dogs of downhill around the table. The riders we’ve got – besides all being pinners – have been chosen because they’ve all got different personalities. We’ve played on that and built up characters around where they’re from.”

Taking the pith

This is why, the next day, we’re out on the trails with Greg Minnaar, not clad in his usual bike kit, but strutting around in full safari attire – pith helmet on head, rifle broken over his arm. “I just go with the flow,” he laughs, as the crew set about filming his intro segment. When that’s over, it’s down to the business of riding. After a dune buggy shuttle to the top of the trail, Joe, Aaron and Robbie (another filmer, who’s helping them on this shoot) position themselves trailside. Joe radios up to Greg, giving him the signal, and with a distant rumble of 29er wheels through loose dirt, the tall South African drops in. He comes into view giving it full gas and flies past the cameras at Mach 10, leaving a cloud of lingering dust. We all gather round the viewfinder to inspect the goods and there’s a collective murmur of appreciation. Nailed it. Now onto the next one.

Uplifting – South African style! Photo: Duncan Philpott
Uplifting – South African style! Photo: Duncan Philpott

Aaron explains that each member of the team has a different role in the filming process. “Joe and I both use camcorders in that Alex Rankin (of Sprung and Earthed fame) style of pans and zooms. Most people only use cinema-style cameras these days and we’re a bit of a dying breed, but I genuinely believe there’s no better way of capturing speed. You can’t track a rider in the same way using a tripod. As rad as it is, though, you’ve got to break up the insanely high-speed stuff, bringing the pace down then back up again, otherwise the audience becomes numb to it.”

Greg pinning through the fading light on the first day of filming. Photo: Duncan Philpott
Greg pinning it through the fading light on the first day of filming. Photo: Duncan Philpott

Aaron and Joe’s experience guides them as to which trail features suit different shots, and they select their cameras accordingly. Today, Aaron is on the camcorder, Robbie is using a stabiliser so he can run alongside Greg, and Joe is behind a tripod. “Sometimes, a long lens shot can show details that you lose in the melee of a pan and zoom,” he explains. “The same goes for slo-mo, but it’s important to use one only where it’s warranted and not just for the sake of it. There’s a bit of a formula, as silly as it sounds.”

Filmer Robbie Meade using a steady cam rig to track the World Cup pace action. Photo: Duncan Philpott
Filmer Robbie Meade using a steady cam rig to track the World Cup-paced action. Photo: Duncan Philpott

Feeling the pressure

Under the relentless sun, the crew make laborious progress down the hill, Greg repeatedly hiking up sections of trail and thundering back down at mind-blowing speeds. “The days are pretty tough,” he confesses, “but when you all work well together it doesn’t feel like a struggle.” The GAMBLE crew say that on every shoot they’ve done, every rider has gone above and beyond. “Even though they’re all top athletes whose job it is to win races, some of the grafting they’ve done is ridiculous!” says Joe. “Phil Atwill went to Greece for two weeks and built an entire trail on his own, and Mark Wallace did the same on Vancouver Island.”

Photo: Duncan Philpott

The key, Joe has come to realise, is to keep the rider motivated. “There’s a fine balance between getting the shot and not overworking them,” he explains. “Feeding back clips and getting them psyched is essential when you’re asking them to repeat the same section 15 times! Sam Blenkinsop stands out, because in Bariloche, Argentina, where we were filming, it was so hot, dusty and steep, but that didn’t stop him going full bore.”

More like this

It’s not just the riders who have to bring their A game, though – both Joe and Aaron admit to feeling the pressure. “That shoot with Blenki was one of the first we did and we went massively in at the deep end,” recalls Joe. “Sam had raced the Argentinian EWS round and loved it so much that he suggested we go back and film there. We just took his word for it and booked flights. They cost us nearly two grand each, and it took 54 hours to get there. I was nervous, but only because I wanted to do Sam justice and get the raddest clips I’ve ever shot!”

Out on the track, you can tell Greg has found his flow. He’s going faster with every clip and is eyeing up a gnarly rock gap between tight trees. “If a rider calls a shot then you should always shoot it,” says Aaron, as he positions himself trackside. “Even if you don’t see how it’ll work, if the rider thinks they can do something cool, then invariably it’s going to look pretty good!” We watch as Greg blasts into view out of a berm, hitting the cranks to propel his Santa Cruz V10 forward. He yanks up on the bar to gap the first set of rocks and his wheels have barely touched down before he’s airborne again, threading it through the sniper tree gap with total composure. Joe looks up from his camera, sees our expressions and grins.

Photo: Duncan Philpott

Standout sections

“There’s been a ‘holy shit!’ moment like that on every shoot so far,” he says. “We had a pretty terrifying moment with Brook Macdonald when, in the first five minutes of filming, he hucked into a berm and landed so hard he nutted his stem. Brook said the impact was like a car crash and he could feel his organs moving inside him! Connor Fearon is another guy that stands out. His section was filmed in Canada, at Retallack Lodge, where the trails are full of sick turns, and he put on a tutorial in cornering. He turned up with a broken finger and, on the first run of the first day, punched out three of the fastest clips you’ll see in the film – it was ridiculous!”

Getting the money shot first go isn’t the norm, though, and the boys will end up with over an hour’s worth of raw footage from each shoot. Considering that, on screen, a clip might only be seen for seconds, that’s a lot of shots. Compressing them all down into a killer five-minute segment takes some brutal editing. “You can have the best clips on earth, but they’re no use if you can’t put them together,” says Joe. “Like filming, there’s a formula to it, and again, it comes from skate films.

"You need impact at the start to capture people’s attention and the final clip is usually the ‘banger’, which is the rider’s biggest move. In between, you go with the pace of the music. For mellow bits, you might use a landscape shot or a slo-mo, whereas if it’s fast, you need quick cuts and rowdy clips. We’ll listen to the tempo and structure of a song and think how that would suit a rider’s style, which in turn influences the way we’ll edit. For example, Connor is an absolute corner destroyer and that suits fast-paced metal, whereas Peaty’s section is more about storyline. He’s in Sheffield and it might be his last big film appearance, so we chose an Arctic Monkeys track.”

Steel City Media's Joe Bowman with his best blue steel. Photo: Duncan Philpott
Steel City Media's Joe Bowman with his best blue steel. Photo: Duncan Philpott

With GAMBLE being a joint project, Joe and Aaron have split the editing, each taking a segment and working on it independently, before swapping ideas. “It’s interesting to work in this way,” says Aaron. “Even though I might be stoked on how the edit’s looking, Joe will always have ideas to make it better and vice versa.” The work doesn’t stop once the footage is on the timeline, though. There then starts a painstaking process of colour grading, sound design and recording voice-overs, not to mention the minefield that is music licensing. “It’s been a massive learning curve, making this film,” admits Joe. “Even though there are two of us, I don’t think we’ll be sleeping much in the month before the release!”

Avoiding work and sheltering from the midday heat. Photo: Duncan Philpott
MBUK's Ed and the GAMBLE crew, avoiding work and sheltering from the midday heat.
Photo: Duncan Philpott

The grand reveal

At the end of five days in the bush, we’re all looking pretty tired and dusty, but there’s a palpable sense of satisfaction. Everyone has dug deep and the footage looks insane. The segment definitely has a bit of an old-school ‘Big Air’ Minnaar feel to it, with Greg busting out tricks from his dirt jumping days amid a display of World Cup-winning downhill riding. We’re not going to give away too much, though – you’ll have to watch the film if you want to find out more!

Photo: Duncan Philpott

GAMBLE can be purchased via: Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, YouTube, Google Play and all the usual suspects. If you like what you see, then buy a copy and the boys might make another one!

This article was originally published in May 2018 (MBUK 355).

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Ed ThomsettContributor

Former Mountain Biking UK features editor Ed Thomsett is a downhiller at heart but has been riding bikes of all types since a young age. He's raced both nationally and internationally in downhill and enduro, and has spent several summers living in the Alps and Canada, riding, roadtripping and living the dirtbag lifestyle. Now Ed calls upon his years of experience riding bikes to the limit as a writer and reviewer for MBUK and BikeRadar. He's also an avid trail builder and has scraped out numerous steep and technical lines in the woodlands of his native North Yorkshire. These days Ed will happily turn his hand to any discipline and believes the sign of a good week is when every bike in his shed ends up muddy by the end of it.