TGR's new mountain bike film, Esperanto, is one to watch just for the riding, but setting aside the bikes, it's a story about people. And it doesn't waste time getting there.
It starts with a brief intro that explains the name of the film, giving context so that viewers aren't left wondering: in the 1870s, a Polish doctor created what was intended as a universal language, spurred by rising ethnic tension. The goal was to build bridges across cultures and disparate languages, connecting people in an attempt to unify instead of divide. The language became known as Esperanto, which translates to English as one who hopes.
Today, the title feels all too appropriate.
Then, it's straight to the bangers.
The film follows several groups as they build, shred, and reflect on their long term connections built over the years around mountain biking. Beginning on Andreu Lacondeguy's property, it shows rider after rider sending big tricks and slashing berms, intermittently describing how they've gotten to know those around them - generally from other countries with other native languages.
The lineup of riders is probably the most stacked of any riding film, ever:
With that crew, how could it not be good?
Just before the 15-minute mark, I started to write in my notes something along the lines of, "there isn't much of a plot, but the epic scenery, great riding, and relatable camaraderie are making this a good watch." Then, just as I was processing that I was mainly watching a shreddit, the film proved me wrong with the introduction of Gift Puteho.
For me, Gift's story was the best part of the film. It brought a bit of gravity, an example of what mountain biking can look like for someone without the access we take for granted in the western world, and introduced a story beyond the standard "riding with the bros because bikes are fun" type of thing. Not that riding with the bros is a bad thing by any means, but I wanted a little more.
Gift is a 16-year-old rider in Zambia (where, by the way, the film shows some stunning scenery) who started riding bikes when the doctors recommended biking for his father, who had diabetes and leg problems. Gift would steal his dad's bike to ride around town, and eventually his dad gave him the bike. After his dad's death, his family hit severe hardship and his mother struggled to put food on the table - "Maybe eat once in a day; maybe sometimes we didn't eat," he said. Having found his love of riding bikes, Gift leaned into the sport and entered his first race.
He won his first cross-country race by 10 minutes on an old bike that had no brakes. "I knew my dad would be proud," he said. He sold his prize, a boat cruise, to upgrade his bike and bring home some money for his family. He continued racing and things turned around for him and his family. Eventually, he made the Zambian team.
Gift's story is compelling to anyone who has ever leaned on mountain biking through life adversity (probably most of us?), and it brings gravity to the film in a way that I appreciate. It also shows just how big a difference something as simple as rolling around on two wheels can make to a person, to a family, and to a community.
Also, while it would be easy to write off Gift as a cross-country rider who isn't as fun to watch as the top freeriders featured throughout the rest of the film, that's simply not the case. It's quite the opposite. He's a ripping rider, hopping and manualing his high-posted hardtail through some rocky, loose trails. Out of all the segments in the film, that's the one that most made me - someone steeped in mountain bike culture on the other side of the world - want to grab my bike and go out for a ride.
The close-up giraffe shots are a cool bonus. Seriously. They're great.
Next is the other main "not just bros" scene, which features an all-star crew of ladies riding the Utah desert. The segment is anchored by 11-year-old Sophie Gregory through funny and endearing selfie phone videos.
Chelsea Kimball mentions her gripe that many films that highlight women have the women talking more than actually riding, so after that comment, the film naturally cuts to the riding. Chelsea shows just how at home she is in the desert, even throwing a backflip, which is just awesome. Sam Soriano is up next, and I love Sam’s playful style and impressive bag of tricks. There’s a sense of excitement and camaraderie as each of them throws down, and the mix of more experienced riders with up-and-comers is a great stylistic choice, highlighting the mentorship aspect that’s a throughline for this segment.
15-year-old Brooke Anderson is next, and she’s about as stylish as it gets. Then there’s Blake Hansen, a relative newcomer to freeride who is rapidly becoming comfortable hitting massive features and slashing her way down the hill. Then, of course, Hannah Bergemann absolutely stomps a variety of gnarly lines and features. Finally, to wrap it up, Sophie Gregory hits some of the same lines. And, again, she’s 11 years old. God damn, the future is so bright, and it’s illustrated nicely in a proper feel-good segment done right.
In many ways throughout, the film feels like eight different riding edits smashed together, without much bridging between, which takes away just a tiny bit of the central idea of bikes being a universal language, but not much, and each segment, in itself, is truly excellent. We see Tomomi Nishikubo doing what he does best - throwing ridiculous urban trials moves in Japan - before Kyle Strait, Cam Zink, and Darren Berrecloth take to Jackson Hole for some riding and whiskey-drinking. (It's about right here that the viewer remembers that both Jackson Hole Bike Park and Tincup Whiskey sponsored the film, but nothing about it seems terribly contrived. The rest of the product placement is pretty subtle: a Dometic cooler here, some Ride Concepts shoes and Schwalbe tires there, and a handful of Specialized athletes throughout.)
Right about the time I was watching the Strait-Zink-Berrecloth segment, I started to wonder why there weren’t women in any scenes other than the very specific women’s one. However, the film had a way of alleviating my concerns right when they started to bubble up. Three-quarters of the way through the film, Alma Wiggberg joins Emil Johansson and Lukas Skiold to meet up with Nico Vink at La Fenasosa Bike Park. Alma isn’t just there as the token woman, either. She’s hitting and tricking the same jumps as the boys, throwing the second female backflip of the film. There's another mini plotline there: we watch her crash twice trying to 360 a jump, then the suspense builds as the film flips to slow motion and she eventually nails it. The film does a great job of capturing the subsequent joy and relief, both in Alma and in the riders supporting her. It’s those little moments of struggle and redemption that make mountain biking so compelling, and similarly, those moments in the film are what make it more than just an epic riding edit.
One choice that I found interesting: the first riding shot of the whole film is of Brandon Semenuk, then he disappears until the very end. It grabs the viewer's attention in a “keep watching because Semenuk is yet to come” kind of way, even if I find that approach vaguely uncomfortable. Still, it’s effective. And it’s true that Semenuk just might be the most fun rider on the planet to watch.**extremely subject to personal preferences and opinions, nothing in this silly world is objective, please don’t skewer me
Semenuk's segment with Justin Wyper is outstanding, from the riding to the scenery to the filming. From there, it spins directly into a finishing crescendo, rolling through snapshots from all the different segments thus far. That ending ties it all together so that it doesn’t feel quite as much like a bunch of disparate riding scenes.
In case anyone became too caught up in watching the individual segments and forgot the main idea that bikes give us a universal language, the flashes through all the riders at the end help to ground the film and bring it all back to that theme without seeming too heavy-handed.
All in all? If you like riding edits, chances are you'll love this one, as the camera work and riding are excellent. If you're looking for storytelling, the film also gives a taste of that with Gift's segment and the ladies-in-Utah show. It’s a fun watch with a good mix of feel-good moments, absolutely beautiful filming, true storytelling, and - of course - a bunch of friends who are really, really good at riding bikes.