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BEHIND THE SCENES OF BEYOND THE PELOTON

Between 2008 and 2011 I worked for Cervélo, makers of the fastest bikes in the world at the time – creating their transmedia content strategy and co-writing, producing and directing all Cervélo video content – including their Tour de France commercials and the groundbreaking BEYOND THE PELOTON web series, or BTP as it was known affectionately to fans and riders alike. BTP was a raw, first of its kind look at the inner workings of Cervélo’s Tour de France-winning TestTeam, garnering a fanatical following and foreshadowing TOUR DE FRANCE: UNCHAINED by 15 years. My creative partner Joe Finkleman and I worked directly with Cervélo’s engineer co-founder Gerard Vroomen, helping grow the company exponentially in a few short years. 

My first successful foray into branded content happened quite by accident. After a roller coaster ride of trying to bring hip-hop to Hollywood and street-life-adjacent burnout from working in the New York “thug rap” scene that saw my business partner at the time sentenced to 10 years in the fed system just as we were about to land a Warner Brothers label deal with Jim Jones of the Diplomats, I returned to Canada in 2007 (more on that story in forthcoming blog post). Through Peter Meyboom, a film producer friend of my uncle Rob’s, I was introduced to the nephew of Ken Finkleman, Peter’s former partner on the groundbreaking NEWSROOM series. 

LIke his uncle Ken, Joseph “Joe” Finkleman was fun and funny, a real character, oozing with comic genius. A former alley cat racer and bike courier, he now worked for Cervélo, makers of the fastest, most coveted racing bikes at that time – and a total bike culture fanatic. We clicked instantly, and he invited me to produce the documentary-style commercial he successfully pitched to the company’s maverick co-founder, Dutch engineer Gerard Vroomen. With only a few days prep, we jumped into action, shooting Team CSC, for whom Cervélo was the bike sponsor, at the Tour de Suisse, capturing Fabian Cancellara winning a time trial stage, footage we included in spots featuring him doing all sorts of Joe-scripted gags. We filmed members of the CSC women’s team as well, and the authentic rider-led spots were a huge hit with cycling fans, and Joe and I hit it off creatively. After filming Carlos Sastre of Team CSC win the Tour de France yellow jersey on a Cervélo in 2008, Sastre joined the fledgling Cervélo TestTeam in 2009 – huge news as this was the first time in decades a bike company would sponsor a pro cycling team. 

Malcolm Hearn, my creative partner on my TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF QUEENSBRIDGE hip-hop documentary, had edited several early branded content basketball series for Nike at RadicalMedia in New York. I thought of doing something similar for pro cycling, so worked with Joe to quickly pen and pitch a brand doc series called BEYOND THE PELOTON (BTP) to Gerard Vroomen, part of a bigger transmedia play I hatched that included all Cervélo commercials, product videos, co-sponsor videos, social media content, and even videos for Cervélo’s all-access TestTeam VIP travel packages. 

Vroomen, ahead of his time in prioritizing transparency in a sport plagued by doping and deceit and R&D process over advertising hype, jumped at the opportunity. And so began three years on the road with the Cervélo TestTeam and later team Garmin Cervélo, with BTP building a cult following amongst fans fascinated by the series’ underdog story – with surprising victories like Thor Husholved’s Green Jersey win at the 2009 Tour de France and heartbreaking defeats like Heinrich Haussler’s loss that same year to Mark Cavendish at Milan San Remo by meer centimeters (with Heinrich and Thor none-the-less taking the second and third podium spots respectively). BTP and its associated transmedia content helped Cervélo grow exponentially in a few short years – all the while keeping Cervélo’s cutting-edge product development and inspiring startup story front and center. Best of all, I got to experience the exhilarating “feeling” product-market fit Marc Andreessen describes, and execute a flawless fan-centric transmedia content strategy (even though I didn’t know the term transmedia at the time, I new teach the subject I now teach at Seneca Polytechnic). With my documentary and content strategy chops, and Joe’s authentic connection with the cyclists and entrenchment in cycling fandom culture – and Vroomen’s vision and confidence in us – the three of us made a remarkable, if unconventional – creative team. 

As Joe puts it in an interview in Cyclingnews.com: “I think it was mid-November in 2008 and we got wind that Cervélo was going to create the Cervélo TestTeam. It was a perfect fit. Cervélo owned the team, I knew the cycling world and Booker had produced plenty of documentaries. We approached Gerard Vroomen with the idea and he liked it.  He saw value in producing BTP and really believed in the project and giving something back to the fans. Gerard is every bit as responsible for the success of BTP as anyone, because without him being involved, it never would have come to fruition.”

Inspired by our fans’ love of cycling and bike culture’s positive effects on the environment, health and wellness, Joe and I to spend years researching and crafting another BTP series, BIKE THE PLANET, for which we had a flashing green light with a major streaming platform, for a deal with Bunim Murray Productions (of KUWTK and PROJECT RUNWAY fame) centered around the redemption story of a disgraced pro cyclist from Texas – .just as the pandemic hit. Prior to that in 2010, when BEYOND THE PELOTON was in its final year, I was approached by a BTP fan at Tesla to create a similar style series about Elon Musk’s mission to revolutionize the auto industry, but had already committed to co-founding a startup Legitmix with a childhood friend – for which we raised $3 million and gained lots of press and celebrity for addressing a pressing problem, our solution failed to find product-market fit.

Despite both the BIKE THE PLANET and Tesla disappointments, I’m now relieved not to have my inspiring bike activist content tied to toxic Joe Rogan Experience guests – and am proud of what BEYOND THE PELOTON means to cycling fans to this day, and am still hopefully Joe and I will find a celebrity bike activist host for BIKE THE PLANET passionate as we are about changing the world, two wheels at a time.. 

I learned of similar ups and downs Gerard Vroomen faced on his Cervélo startup journey (as documented by Anna Dopico in her book “To Make Riders Faster.” His obsessed with process and transparency meant not only sharing R&D highlights behind his highly coveted carbon fiber bikes and running a Tour de France-winning team, but Cervélo’s own inspiring startup story as well, which saw him and his partner Phil White eating ramen noodles and living off dollars a day while getting the company off the ground as McGill engineering students (coincidentally, the same time I was studying philosophy at McGill), a fan favorite from the BTP fan favorite BEGINNINGS pilot episode. 

And later, I was to learn privately about the Cervélo TestTeams rocky financial road, despite the brand and teams incredible growth and success, during the cash-crunch of the post 2008 recession years. As the cliche goes, there is no overnight success – and I think Gerard, Joe and I all feel, even though maybe failed to at the time, that era was a highlight of our careers, but hopefully not the only one, but certainly had the time of our lives. 

And the memories alone made the whole adventure worth while, some of which Joe shared in the Cyclingnews BTP recap article: 

“Heinrich’s loss to Cavendish in the 2009 edition of Milan San Remo was special, because it sparked a storyline that we followed up until this year – you can watch those three episodes back-to-back and it’s a great little story. So it doesn’t have a happy ending, but it didn’t need to…it shows what these guys go through in a way fans don’t usually get to experience.

My favorite memory…hard to choose just one, but I think Thor’s win in Barcelona in 2009 at the TDF was just electric, followed by Heinrich’s emotional win on stage 13 from Vittel to Colmar. We were all so happy for him after his string of second places.  I’ll never forget being there when he crossed the line…it was something special. Cervélo had something really unique with Cervélo TestTeam. 2009 was just a magical season from beginning to end.  It was a classic David vs Goliath story – we couldn’t have written it any better.”

Here, Gerard shares his thoughts on our BTP adventure: 

“In 2009, Booker (together with Joe Finkleman) pitched us the idea for a documentary series about our newly-founded Cervélo TestTeam. As we wanted to create the most transparent cycling team possible (something lacking in this sport in general) and were looking for original ways to tell our story, it was the perfect idea.

In all modesty, I think it’s safe to say that Booker with the rest of the crew of “Beyond The Peloton”, as it was to be called, made a small piece of history together with the Cervélo TestTeam. The documentary series was the first of its kind in the sport, showed the raw beauty of the sport (and its ugliness), was honest & unpolished and most importantly, fans and riders loved it.

Nowadays, many teams have documentary series, but the brilliance of the original has never been matched. The main reason is that Booker and Joe always maintained creative independence, resulting in truly interesting stories rather than slick (and often-boring) marketing mush. Of course they understood the needs of the team too, but the integrity of the story was paramount for them and frankly, also for us. I’ve continued to work with Booker (and Joe) since I left to found OPEN, and look forward to doing so again in the future.”

We did end up working together on Gerard’s OPEN launch, and I hope one day that he, Joe and I team up again to tell exciting, authentic stories that bring joy to cycling riders and fans alike.

Booker Sim
Booker Sim

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