To most people, the thought of training Hollywood superstars to ride fixed gear bikes convincingly in just seven weeks would be pretty daunting. But to Nate Loyal, a professional bike-fitter, rider and coach, it's all in a day's work. He spoke to BikeRadar about how he got the call from Sony Pictures to work with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dania Ramirez for cycling thriller Premium Rush…
Rather than belonging to a particular riding tribe, Loyal has experience across multiple disciplines. After starting out in BMX as a youngster he turned to the world of triathlon, eventually going pro before taking part in cross-country and downhill mountain biking and trying his hand at elite road racing. He can also add track state championship events to his bow, giving him a well-rounded CV.
Loyal is based in Santa Monica, California, where he also works as a bike-fitter, and Premium Rush isn't the first blockbuster he's worked on. He got that gig through one of his regular clients, an exec at Sony, but had previously trained the likes of Tobey Maguire, in preparation for the Spider-Man franchise (starting in 2002) and Brothers (2009).
For the latter film, Maguire needed the gaunt physique of a returning prisoner of war, so the pair would go for gruelling fasted rides, something Loyal said "is the worst thing you can do as a coach, because it's not healthy".
Written by John Kamps and Mission: Impossible scribe David Koepp, Premium Rush is a fast-paced action movie that follows a pair of New York bike couriers, played by Gordon-Levitt and Ramirez. Equipped with only their fixies, they become embroiled in a high-speed chase across the city involving a crazed cop (Michael Shannon) and a rather valuable package.
Needless to say, the film takes the usual pace of a bike messenger's day and turns it up to 11, with the characters weaving their way through a maze of unpredictable traffic and pedestrians at edge-of-your-seat speeds no commuter would feel safe trying.
It's not surprising that many of the sequences – including the frequent crashes, trials tricks and more deft bike maneuvers – were performed by stunt or pro riders. But director Koepp still wanted the actors to be able to play convincing NYC couriers, meaning it really is Ramirez and Gordon-Levitt you see in the saddle for many of the scenes.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in action on New York's streets
As Loyal explained, both actors had been on bikes before filming, but in the sense of riding beach cruisers and staying balanced. His task was to get them used to tackling Los Angeles traffic at high speeds, while riding fixed gear and pulling off realistic skid braking, trackstands, kerb jumps and on-the-go dismounts, all in the two months before the stars relocated to New York for shooting.
"If you look at it as seven or eight weeks of training, it seems like that's a fair amount of time, but it really isn't – a lot of it was just getting them on traditional road bikes, getting their fitness up," Loyal explained. The fixed gear bikes were also introduced from day one.
"Joseph needed the fitness to be constantly riding, constantly shooting. They couldn't just shut down the project because he was tired, so even though they'd be doing a scene of maybe a few seconds, they might do it 20 times with all the takes."
"In the very beginning we were doing an hour-and-a-half or two-hour ride a day, following up with an hour or hour-and-a-half of skill work, and that was just in the first week or week-and-a-half. Then we bumped it up to three or four hours of riding with another two to three hours of skill work. We had the script and I would always review it to understand what would be going on in some of the scenes."
Watching the film it's hard not to be impressed with Gordon-Levitt's apparent fitness and speed. "We definitely worked on cadence, both on the fixie and the geared bike," explained Loyal. "With either bike we'd be going out in the low 20mph range. Sometimes we'd do hard, hard efforts and be up in the upper 20s, sometimes we'd be backing off and doing much more endurance work in the high teens."
Both actors were enthusiastic about the physical challenge, meaning not much was needed in terms of psychological preparation or confidence boosts, just the odd five-minute break here and there. That didn't mean injury precaution took a back seat, though, with Loyal kitting Gordon-Levitt and Ramirez up in full downhill body armour along the way.
"It was a little bit of a trial by fire!" Loyal said. "Dania acutally had to do a Maxim cover shoot during our training, and she showed up and had all these bruises on her from our training! They got beat up pretty good."
As for knowing whether his trainees were ready for action, Loyal said he constructed a final test for Gordon-Levitt. "We met at a local bike shop in Santa Monica, and I was like, 'Alright, it's 5 o'clock, on a Friday afternoon, and we've got to go to Venice Beach, have a bite and then ride back, and he has to keep up, and that's it – just don't die, just stay with me, and I'll see you there!' He did phenomenally well, going pretty hard through traffic, in the full getup, with the messenger bag and everything."
Loyal works out of Helen's Cycles in Santa Monica, California
Nutrition, nuts and bolts, and NAHBS
Loyal's role didn't stop with on-the-bike help, either. While he wasn't too in-depth about what the actors should be eating outside of training, he did prescribe dietary advice to be followed before, during and after the rides.
The same went for basic maintenance skills – in the movie there are several sequences in which the actors need to look as though they know how to mend bashed-up bikes, the realism aided by Loyal's lessons. "That's something I do with all my clients," he explained. "We'd be on a training ride and if there was a mechanical or somebody got a flat, even if it was on my bike, I'd make them fix it. I'd talk them through it, but I'd make them do the work."
Although Loyal stayed in LA once the cast and crew had set up in New York, his involvement with the project continued from afar. For example, his experience as a fitter meant he was easily able to advise on bikes that could be used for filming.
"That was actually a long process," he said. "The production company were phenomenal – they really did their homework. They got a list of bikes, both New York-based and East Coast-based, in the Boston area, and they would come back to me and say, 'Hey, what do you think of these for the different actors?'
"Actually, I just went to the North American Handmade Bicycle Show and I met up with the Geekhouse Bikes company, and finally met Marty, who runs it. It was great; we were talking about their bikes that were in the movie."
As for the film's ongoing war between carbon road bike and steel fixie aficionados, as well as the argument over whether going brakeless is actually safer, Loyal says he would come down on the side of the steel fixie, but with a brake, if he were a cycle courier: "There's a limit. I know some guys who do ride with no brakes, but I'm always stunned and amazed!"
For more information on Nate Loyal's coaching and bike-fitting programmes, see loyalcoaching.com. And for a taste of the kind of action Premium Rush serves up, this time with trials star Andrei Burton and in London, check out the video below:
Premium Rush is out now on DVD and Blu-ray. To celebrate, we've got 10 copies of the film to give away as part of our March Commuter Challenge – all you need to do is log at least 20 trips to work and back on BikeRadar Training by the end of March, so get pedalling!