An Interview with Joel Harmsworth

Rapha Continental director Joel Harmsworth is a relative newcomer to road riding. Which makes his intuitive feel for the speed and flowing lines of the sport all the more impressive. “I guess it’s a bit like dancing,” Harmsworth explains. “You don’t need to be a great dancer to appreciate the moments of incredible beauty.”

It was while directing another Rapha film Down Under, Great Ocean Road Classic (GORC), that Harmsworth became fascinated with what he calls the “pain aspect” of road riding. “It’s amazing the extent to which the riders faces convey what they’re going through,” he says, “how much they suffer”.

The Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, location for The Snowys, are a popular training area for Australia’s pro riders, although principally in summer. Harmsworth and the Rapha crew were filming in autumn and found themselves up against challenging conditions as a result.

“To be honest, the mountains can get snow at any time of the year,” explains Wilf Sweetland, The Snowys executive producer at The Sweetshop, who produced the film for Rapha. “Even in summer, a sudden storm can dump a decent amount of snow. We had pretty much all the seasons in one day.”

Harmsworth headed out on location the weekend before filming began, an opportunity both to recce the route and to get to know the members of the local community whose dialogue forms the backbone of the narrative.

“These guys really are mountain men,” Sweetland says, “tough old types of the kind you find less and less these days.” From two days of interviews, Harmsworth and editor Michael Lutman pared down the dialogue into the final cut.

The film closes with lines from Andrew Barton Patterson’s celebrated poem, Clancy of the Overflow:

And he sees the vision splendid
Of the sunlit plains extended
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.

Known universally by his nom de plume, ‘Banjo’, A.B. Patterson is by some distance Australia’s most famous poet. International audiences tend to know him as the author of Australia’s unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda. In his native land, however, he is best known for verses such as Clancy of the Overflow, published in 1899, and The Man from Snowy River, published a year later and in which Clancy makes a cameo appearance.

Though fictional, the Clancy in question was based on a real-life ‘drover’ (roughly Australia’s equivalent of the American cowboy) and the Overflow was likely a livestock station, either in New South Wales or Queensland. Patterson himself was a Sydney lawyer, a writer whose work is characterised by overtly romantic portrayals of bush life and the characters who inhabit it. The enduring appeal of these ‘bush ballads’ remains the same as it ever was. At the time of publication, Australia was undergoing a period of rapid urbanisation and Clancy represented a life many Australians had surrendered only recently, and in some cases extremely reluctantly.

In the intervening years, Clancy became an expression of national character, the embodiment of the physically capable, carefree ‘dinkum’ Aussie. The appeal of his imagined life, one spent beneath big skies in open country, unfettered by what Patterson called the “rush and nervous haste” of urban life, is something that continues to resonate with modern, city-dwelling Australians; it is one that also resonates with every road rider.

The parallel Harmsworth draws between horse rider and cyclist in The Snowys is an organic one, and yet it was coincidence that led to the inclusion of the verse. “As we were talking,” Harmsworth explains, “one of the old guys started reciting the Clancy of the Overflow entirely off the cuff. You could tell he was quite a romantic sort and we got the feeling he had all this poetry inside him; suddenly it all came pouring out.”