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Interview: the man behind Orica-BikeExchange’s Backstage Pass

Dan Jones reveals the secret behind the Australian team's hit YouTube show

In a very busy and rather claustrophobic Holiday Inn in Bern, I have agreed to meet Dan Jones: the man behind the show that goes behind the scenes. The man behind Orica-BikeExchange’s Backstage Pass.

Jones greets me warmly. He has spent the morning filming in the swimming complex and water slides that adjoin the hotel for a Backstage Pass episode broadcast on the second rest day of the Tour de France and we quickly get onto why the YouTube show has become such a hit with cycling fans.

“Yeah that’s an easy one,” he says. “People are just sick of hearing those stories [about doping in cycling]. People are sick of hearing something that at the end of it you feel like shit. And I think that is one reason why our stuff has been so successful, ‘cos people feel good about cycling.”

Dan Jones, pictured filming Estaban Chaves at the 2015 Vuelta a Espana, is the man behind Backstage Pass (Pic: Sirotti)

The Backstage Pass is a daily insight into the Orica team when racing. It provides a unique opportunity to see what happens before and after racing with ad-hoc interviews with the riders, team directors, soigneurs and fans; it then overlays race coverage with carefully selected music from Jones’ own collection.

Unpinning the seven to ten minute episodes is a quintessentially Australian brand of self-deprecating humour – one you might not imagine professional athletes to participate in, but it immediately breaks down the polished media-trained image so often presented when a camera is pointed in front of a pro cyclist.

The genesis

The circus that is pro cycling only came onto Jones’ radar after he finished film college in the early 2000s. The Australian openly admits he wasn’t a cycling fan at the time – but his father was and when he returned from a trip to watch the Tour de France with bundle of video footage and showed it to his son, Jones was struck by the colour and personalities behind the scenes.

After putting together two cycling feature films in 2005 (DeTour de France) and 2007 (DeTour The Movie), Jones then went to work for Fox Sports, covering the Tour de France between 2008 and 2011. During this time he got to know many of the Tour’s riders well; an experience which stood him in good stead for what came next. “It meant I knew 60 per cent of the riders,” Jones says. “If you don’t know the riders, it’s hard to go in and be jovial.”

When Gerry Ryan told Jones of his plans to launch GreenEdge Cycling in 2012, Jones saw his opportunity and pitched the idea of Backstage Pass to him.

Backstage Pass takes viewers behind the scenes with the Orica-BikeExchange team

“I thought ‘Jeeze, there are quite a lot of personalities in the pro peloton,’” Jones says. “They don’t often get asked questions that bring that out. So I thought I really want to do something different; I really want to shake it up a bit.”

Ryan liked the idea and gave Jones the opportunity. “Gerry said right from the start: ‘Don’t forgot we are in the entertainment business,’” Jones recalls.

But Jones knew that there was a significant barrier in his way.

“2012 was the first year of our team but it was also a pressure cooker,” he says. “Because the Armstrong stuff was coming out, there was a big gap in trust between journalists and the riders.”

With that, Jones decided he would tackle this delicate issue head-on before he started filming.

“I got up in front of the team at the start and said that the key to this relationship is trust. You guys are gonna have to trust me and that is something that I am going to have to earn. It might take six months, but once I have it, I’ll hold onto that.”

Jones quickly earned that trust and Backstage Pass soon built a cult following helped by a number of episodes which went viral on social media, including the team’s version of Carley Rae Jespen’s Call Me Maybe at the 2012 Vuelta a Espana, which now has more than one million hits.

Then there was the infamous bus-stuck-under-under-finish-line incident at the Tour de France in 2013 and the episode which provided a unique, behind-the-scenes take on Mat Hayman’s Paris-Roubaix win this year – and what it meant to every member of the team.

Jones, far left, has built a strong relationship with the team’s riders since Backstage Pass launched in 2012

Bling’s victory

Unsurprisingly, victories for the team create a spike in viewing figures and Michael Matthews’ win on stage ten of the Tour de France year was no exception, ending a two year drought for the squad at the Tour.

But, just as with Hayman’s Hell of the North triumph, it was the reaction of the team’s staff which really captured the public’s imagination and again showed how Backstage Pass offers a unique insight into the world of professional cycling beyond what fans see through their television screens.

“The day Bling won, what really stood out was [directeur sportif] Matt White’s reaction in the car, when he started crying,” says Jones. “It was a release. I was expecting him to start punching the air, but no… We had two rough years at the Tour, most of our hopes of a stage win had gone and it was a great moment and it shows that there is a lot that goes into this.”

Part of the success of Backstage Pass has also been down to Jones’ ability to open the door to the banter that you don’t usually see. But despite his gregarious personality, Jones has a sensitivity that is fundamental when exposing the inner sanctum of the team and, despite a hectic daily schedule to get each Backstage Pass episode online, first sought the permission of White to include the footage. “I wanted to show it to Whitey first, ‘cos he got emotional in the car,” Jones says.

Michael Matthews victory on stage ten of the 2016 Tour de France ended a two-year drought for the team in cycling’s greatest race

Jones also understands not everyone wants to play a starring role in Backstage Pass. He respects the fact his chief characters are professional cyclists, so he gently nudges those a little more reticent to participant while fuelling those who are eager to be involved.

One such front man is Christopher Juul-Jensen, who Jones admits has been a big help. “I did ask him, ‘did you come to this team just ‘cos of the videos?’ He told me it was a big part of it…

“I said to Yatesy [Adam Yates], ‘will you do the intro to the first episode [of the 2016 Tour] and he was like, ‘do I have to?’. Then Jensen popped his hand up and was like, ‘I’ll do it’.”

Long days on the road

So what is a ‘normal’ day like for Jones on a race like the Tour de France? Breakfast may be the most important meal of day for many, but not for him. “I skip it and sleep in,” he says. But this isn’t out of laziness, but the long hours ahead, filming through the day and editing into the tonight, and Jones values some structure to a day otherwise played out on the cuff. “You’ve really got to be into your sleep patterns,” he adds.

He emerges in time to jump on the team bus, and during the drive to start he is constantly listening into the riders’ conversations. If he hears something he likes, he’ll ask them to repeat it for camera.

On arriving at the start he starts filming interviews – with the staff, with riders, with the fans. Then it’s into a team car. Sharing with Julian Dean, they leave around 30 minutes before the start so there is an opportunity to stop to film some of the Tour’s colour and atmosphere.

“I’ve learnt after five years to skim through the shit and look for white teeth. ‘Cos they are either laughing or talking”

Jones aims to try and get to the finish 20 minutes before the riders, but what he does next is defined by how the stage has played out.

“After a heated finish, I never go on the bus,” he says. “Leave them be, let them calm down a bit and then go in an hour after. You have to have a bit of a radar. But if we win – you can interview anyone at anytime.”

Depending on how long the transfer is back to the team hotel, Jones may start editing on the bus journey. He has a total of six cameras of material to run through, which means hours of footage. He explains the secret of when reviewing the footage from the cameras installed in the team car: “I’ve learnt after five years to skim through the shit and look for white teeth. ‘Cos they are either laughing or talking,” he says.

Jones says he is now able to edit an average episode in about three hours (although Hayman’s Roubaix victory took nine hours). Not only does he produce the version that goes on YouTube, but he prepares scrubbed versions that have the music and subtitles removed and are sent to the major broadcasters.

Music, however, is a vital element to each online episode, reflecting the tone of the day’s event. “I love old crap as well, that’s why every now and again you’ll hear Roxette or something,” he says. But, Jones explains, music can be a bit of minefield, as the songs must fit in with the YouTube rights holders policies.

“Sometimes if you haven’t thought about it beforehand, you could spend half an hour finding some bloody music,” he adds.

All being well, Jones finishes around 11.30pm. It’s a draining day; one which he wasn’t sure he could do for three weeks straight through a Grand Tour when he first started Backstage Pass in 2012.

“After a week you are fine. By the second week you feel yourself start cracking. Now as I’m talking to you [on the second rest day] I’m alright cos I have just spent two hours with the boys on the water slides – but it doesn’t become fun,” Jones says.

Italian travails and next steps

Each race has its own challenges and fans of the Backstage Pass will have noticed that Jones was thrown a huge curveball earlier in the year at the Giro d’Italia. “I rocked up to the Giro and I was told before that I couldn’t use any of the race footage,” he says. “I pretty much lost it for a day. Then I thought, ‘right, I’m gonna go out and buy a heap of toys and I’ll make my own highlights package.’”

Jones admits that the decision by host broadcaster, Rai, “forced us to think outside the box”. But his inspired recreation of cycling footage with toys and riders imitating commentators was not well received by everyone. Two of Backstage Pass’ most popular videos (the 2014 Giro victories of Pieter Weening and Michael Matthews) were removed by YouTube after complaints.

“They could have picked any video from any year, but they picked two with victories. I said to myself, ‘if this is where it is headed, then I don’t wanna be a part of it.’”

As for the future, Jones reveals he has a big project in the pipeline – a feature-length documentary which will show the trials and tribulations of Orica since 2012. Partnered by award-winning producers from Mad Men Entertainment, together they have been weaving together old and new footage over the past seven months.

With a promo version already near completion, the hope is for a release in March 2017. Jones is extremely excited about this, but emphasises that it won’t be all fun and laughter. “It can’t be a puff piece,” he says. “We are going to talk about some of the harder moments like when Whitey left the team in 2012,” he says, referring to the former rider turned directeur sportif’s doping confession.

“Once the race is done, all you have is memories. Photos are good and stories are ok. But the fact that you can go back and watch some of these… it’s like a treasure chest”

As our conversation draws to an end, Jones sums up his role and the value of Backstage Pass to fans. He sees himself as creating a “window”, which people can peer through and see what life within professional cycling is really like – both the highs and the lows.

“Once the race is done, all you have is memories,” Jones says. “Photos are good and stories are ok. But the fact that you can go back and watch some of these… it’s like a treasure chest.

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