Image credit: The film was based on Greg Townsend’s experiences working for a group called Rite of Passage for over 40 years. COURTESY OF BLUE FOX ENTERTAINMENT

Summer 2024

Tour de Greg

By Jacob Baynham

The feel-good sports film “Hard Miles” is inspired by the true story of a man who takes at-risk youth across the country on homemade bicycles.

Greg Townsend wasn’t interested in anyone making a movie about him. He could tolerate the occasional magazine article highlighting his long career leading at-risk youth on transformative bike rides to national parks and other destinations. He could stomach the niche website reaching out for an interview about the against-all-odds athletes he coached in cross-country skiing, rock climbing, running and other sports. But when the Colorado-based youth worker started getting emails and calls from a Hollywood writer-producer? Townsend ghosted him.

“I kinda blew him off for a few years or more,” Townsend said. “I’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I’m more into doing the thing versus the whole blah, blah, blah stuff.”

[SUMMER 24] Tour De Greg Modine

Matthew Modine (right) with Townsend, the coach and welding instructor he plays in the film.


Finally, Christian Sander of Pensé Productions sent a handwritten plea, and Townsend agreed to meet. Sander flew to Denver and visited the correctional school where Townsend taught welding and coached troubled teens. He trained with Townsend and his students and observed the mutual respect between them. The more he saw, the more he wanted to make a movie.

“When you’re a producer looking for stories, you’re really looking for characters,” Sander said. “Greg is a special, special guy. How many people do you know that have pet tarantulas, farm chickens, have a helicopter welding lab and have done ski patrol in Japan?”

Convinced that Sander was in it for the right reasons, Townsend agreed to participate. So began the making of “Hard Miles,” a low-budget independent film that hit theaters nationwide in April and will be available to stream this summer.

The movie stars Matthew Modine, known for roles in “Oppenheimer,” “Stranger Things” and “Full Metal Jacket,” as Townsend leading four students on a 762-mile “Tour de Grand” cycling trip from Denver to the Grand Canyon. Along the way, the team faces accidents, revolt and chafed crotches as they confront internal and external expectations of failure. The students get into fights and threaten to run away. They battle dehydration and sun stroke.

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Modine channels a tough-love Townsend intent on making the kids stronger the same way they welded their bicycle frames: with heat and pressure. His Townsend is an acerbic drill sergeant, unreasonable, demanding and burdened with the baggage of his own fraught relationship with his abusive father. Townsend did have a difficult relationship with his father — as a kid he ran away a lot and once lived in the woods, alone, for six weeks — but he’s not as hard on his students as Modine is in the film. “Like my daughter says, it’s not really me, but it’s a good movie,” Townsend said.

The film depicts plenty of spot-on character traits, though, such as Townsend’s constant stretching, his catchphrases and his sarcastic humor. In the movie, as in life, Townsend doesn’t swear or drink and has never had a cup of coffee. Sander incorporated as many of these details into the script as he could. “Real-life Greg is very much a Mr. Rogers-clean kinda guy,” he said.

For 40 years, Townsend has worked for a group called Rite of Passage, where he’s led students on 22 cycle rides to the Grand Canyon alone. The accumulated adventures amount to more than could ever fit into one movie. There was the time Townsend and his students had to cycle through a herd of bison in Yellowstone National Park. Another time, Townsend and a student were hiking up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park when a storm forced them to seek cover. From under a rock, they watched a lightning bolt strike the valley beneath them and light a tree on fire. Once, Townsend and some of his students hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim and back in under 24 hours, walking through the night in a wet October snowstorm with worn-out sneakers, garbage bags for rain jackets and hand-crank flashlights.

The actors themselves faced hardships aplenty during filming. They braved windstorms, a mountain lion encounter and many miles of pedaling. “We were really riding those bikes, man, up those hills, in the blistering heat,” said Jahking Guillory, a rising young actor who plays Woolbright, one of Townsend’s former students. Though the actors received professional cycling instruction, the learning curve was steep for Guillory, who had never ridden a bike with gears, let alone one with click-in shoes.

“I’m from California, man, skateboards all day,” he said. “We had like a week of practice, clicking in, clicking out. If you don’t take your foot out fast enough, you’re gonna tip over. We fell a lot.”

On Guillory’s second day, an attempt at a sudden brake went awry. “Boom! The front wheel stopped, and I just went over top of the handlebars,” he said. “Luckily nothing broke, but it was crazy, and it was painful.”

The crew was further tested while filming along the desolate edge of Death Valley National Park. The scene was meant to capture a particularly grueling day’s ride of more than 100 miles in the scorching sun.

“Doing that scene, where we were really dying, we were really doing that,” Guillory said. “We were riding bikes through Death Valley, man. It was 110 degrees. We were wearing these bike suits. The sun was beaming. That was all method.”

During filming, the actors met the real Greg Townsend, who served as a consultant for the film. He loaned his own van to be filmed as the team’s support vehicle, called the “sag wagon.” He also supplied all the bicycles, which he and his daughter welded.

Townsend motivated the cast on a physical level, too. One day, Guillory and the other actors were riding the van up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to film when they passed Townsend on his bike, climbing more than a vertical mile of hairpin turns to the set.

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“The guy’s a real-life superhero,” Guillory said. “He doesn’t have a costume on, but the guy has superpowers. He saves kids. He changes people’s lives. He allows them to see something different.”

For the film’s climax, at the Grand Canyon, Sander and co-writer and director R.J. Daniel Hanna borrowed an idea from Townsend’s real-life trips: blindfolds. “We walk the guys up and they open their eyes, and they get to see and think what they want to think,” Townsend said.

Like the characters they were portraying, none of the young actors had visited the Grand Canyon before, so Hanna kept them blindfolded until they reached the canyon’s edge, at Navajo Point on the South Rim. What is on film is their real reaction. The sight brought a prayer to Guillory’s lips.

The production had a permit to film in the park, but the crew wasn’t allowed to obstruct other visitors. So, with the light racing down the canyon walls, a small troop of tourists watched the filming of the final scene.

“They were just the most respectful co-guests of that sacred space,” Sander said.

Townsend, now in his 60s, is still working for Rite of Passage. He’s currently planning a 3,438-mile transcontinental trip this summer with about 10 students and five staff. Arduous though these trips may be, they are the best way to build trusting relationships between students and staff, Townsend said, and to get them to “experience the world as it is, without the major excess of noise that tries to tell all of us who to be and how to act.”

“I take kids to national parks because it’s not the system,” he said. “People are not just numbers. Everybody has a life, a story, a family.”

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It wasn’t easy for Townsend to watch “Hard Miles” for the first time and see a fictionalized version of his life on the silver screen. But in the aftermath, he’s found peace in the notion that viewers might be challenged to join what he calls the “Give a Crap Club.”

“My hope for the movie is that someone is inspired to get out of their own self-centered self and maybe give back a little to other people, work with troubled kids or volunteer with a Boys and Girls Club,” he said.

Townsend’s ethos was evident at the movie’s wrap party at Lees Ferry, just upstream from the Grand Canyon. Under the light of a full moon, the cast and crew waded into the chilly waters of the Colorado River, shared food and drink, and enjoyed their last moments together after nearly a month of filming. To Sander, it was a picture-perfect ending.

“It felt like we were on one of Greg Townsend’s bike-packing trips,” he said. “It was a lot more appropriate than having a wrap party at a bar or a restaurant. We had it under the stars, barefoot in the sand.”

About the author

This article appeared in the Summer 2024 issue

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