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HomeCyclingPEZ at the Movies: Hard Miles

PEZ at the Movies: Hard Miles


“Hard time” is prison slang for a sentence that results in incarceration in a maximum security penitentiary, where the worst criminal offenders mix, sealed off from the outside world. It seems appropriate that a new film about four American teens held at Ridgeview Academy, a reform school for juveniles in Colorado, should be titled “Hard Miles,” given that they face the reality of being uncaringly shuttled to adult prisons, losers whose already troubled lives could get much worse. But the miles in the title refer to a bicycle trip that could be their ride to redemption, led by the school’s coach and social worker Greg Townsend, who has some issues of his own.

Hard Miles 2024

Although the film is a work of fiction, it is based on a real Greg Townsend who, for many years, has worked with troubled teens, leading groups of ten on cycling trips as therapy and “Hard Miles” is a distillation of a trip from Ridgeview to the Grand Canyon, featuring four riders who have had troubled pasts, whether in school, the courts or in gangs, and under the guidance of Townsend, played by Matthew Modine, they set out on their week long trip. The opening scenes at Ridgeview show that while it looks like a normal high school, the security guards are there for a reason and fights explode, seeming over nothing, and combatants have to be pulled apart, clearly still seething.

There are several threads to the story. The Townsend character has arranged for his own holiday, the Tour de Grand bicycle ride, and politics affecting the school’s future mean he might have to forgo this. Instead he hatches a plan with a colleague, Haddie (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) to take four of the teens on the trip with the idea that positive reports on the outcome (on Facebook!) will help the school, which is privately run, in its dealings with Colorado state officials.

Hard Miles 2024

The four would-be endurance cyclists are a diverse lot. Smink, a thin, owlish youth, uses his eating disorder to try to control events around him; Atencio, an Hispanic, has connections to gangs and talks of getting his own “crew and has a raging temper; Rice’s main fault (along with considerable anger) seems to be laziness and an unwillingness to apply himself to tasks; while Woolbright is a rebellious African-American, someone who only sees the negative and seems most likely to descend into the circle of adult criminality but in whom Hattie, to Townsend’s surprise, sees leadership qualities and she demands he is taken on the trip.

The school has a van, so with Hattie driving logistics are settled. Townsend goes to Speedy, the owner of the local bike shop (played by Sean Astin), to get sponsorship for the team as they basically have no equipment. Or seemingly any cycling experience. We have some inside-cycling with Townsend when he corrects the school administrator who mentions the trip is 1,000 miles by jumping in and correcting him that it is 762 miles—an exact number that Speedy also mentions in the shop.

With our focus on cycling here at Pez, let’s look at the cycling element of “Hard Miles” but it cannot be overlooked that this film is not really about cycling but rather is meant to show what a chance for accomplishment can mean to those who have accomplished nothing and see nothing ahead. It is entertaining to see the four youths try to come to grips with this new world, which they have entered differently than most of us have but they have to make the same discoveries and progress that we did to become experienced riders.

Townsend’s role at the school goes beyond coaching as he runs a class where students actually build their own bicycle frames. He goes from one project to another, complimenting the students on their at workmanship as warranted, correcting others. While the movie’s central focus will be on that actual bicycle trip, perhaps a bit more emphasis could have been placed on what a meaningful thing it is to actually build your own frame and definitely no small accomplishment but the youths don’t seem overly excited by it. A fight breaks about between Woolbright and Atencio over the term “triangle” versus “trapezoid” and Townsend has to intervene. These kids are just looking for a fight.

Once the bikes are built, outfitted with parts from Speedy’s place, training begins. Everyone gets put onto trainers and are launched into what is so familiar to us—the ramp test. Smink cranks it up like a madman while Woolbright quits immediately and after this single session Townsend is able to classify the team’s roles: Smink is the climber, Rice the sprinter, Atencio the puncheur and Woolbright, well, he is named as the domestique, “the water boy.” Considering Woolbright’s unwillingness to even be there, this might not be a helpful label.

Hard Miles 2024

There are more horrors ahead, such as learning to use clipless pedals and, most appalling of all, the eam kit. Let’s not overlook the “Butt Butter” and these are not boys keen on the trauma that is lycra. One one has to ponder Townsend’s choice of a name for the group. “Banda di Catena” translates from Italian to “the Chain Gang,” which is meant to reflect bicycle chains and is a term indeed used in the UK for a group rotation. But it also conjures up the famous “Convicts of the Road” thing from the 1920s Tour de France and being called members of a chain gang may not be so attractive to people already incarcerated and close to relocation to far more restrictive environments.

Hard Miles 2024

Smink, seemingly the least criminally-oriented of the group, is the most enthusiastic about riding and takes up the team kit right away. The others wear the gear under their street clothes, while Woolbright will have no part of it at all. But once the ride begins, and Day One is just hilariously laborious, positive things begin to happen. If they want to get to the Grand Canyon, they need to work as an ensemble and not individuals. They learn about the effectiveness of drafting and how to support teammates. They have to eat properly to have the strength to do the ride. They learn new skills and there is a scene in which Smink, after a major climb, decides that euphoric descending is possible when he really has no idea what he is doing. This leads to an unexpected confrontation between Woolbright and Townsend and for a moment one thinks it will rocket off to one of those heated discussions so beloved by YouTubers: disc brakes versus rim brakes. Thankfully it does not.

Hard Miles 2024

The Townsend character grew up in an abusive environment and was taught, harshly, to never show weakness and Townsend goes off the rails himself in this direction. These are indeed hard miles as the team is not experienced or had the benefits of long hours training and are pushed beyond their limits, because Townsend goes beyond his own. His example leads to a crisis as he is forced by family circumstances to go one while the team, now under the influence of Woolbright, goes another. No spoilers here but this is meant to be an inspirational film. In spite of all the issues, it remains sweet and hopeful.

Like that other cycling classic, “Breaking Away,” “Hard Miles” uses cycling as a way to tell a story about something else entirely. A week long trip requires self-reliance, motivation and work and the bicycle might help to release those things but they have to be inherent. The art of mentoring is to bring them out and Matthew Modine’s Townsend character is deeply sympathetic but also a realist. Not everyone can be saved but maybe everyone should have a chance. The story is nicely-scripted, with comedy mixed with the drama, but perhaps one of the most outstanding elements is the scenery that the riders go through on their Tour de Grand—magnificent landscapes such as Wolf Creek Pass or the mesas of Utah–can make you believe that people might be willing to suffer, to follow advice, to work with each other, to stop being angry, to be enveloped by it, a greater world.

Hard Miles 2024

“Hard Miles”
Directed by R.J. Daniel Hanna
Starring Matthew Modine, Sean Astin, Cynthia Kaye McWilliams, Leslie David Baker
2023, 1 hour 48 minutes

  • “Hard Miles” was released theatrically in May 2024 and is currently playing in 53 cinemas in the United Kingdom in the Vue and Odeon chains.
  • In addition, you can buy “Hard Miles” in Canada on Microsoft Store, Google Play Movies, YouTube as a download or rent it on Google Play Movies, Microsoft Store, and YouTube online.
  • In the United States, you can buy “Hard Miles” on Vudu, Microsoft Store as a download or rent it on Vudu, Microsoft Store, and Spectrum On Demand online.


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