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In praise of cycling films

Trevor Ward
29 Mar 2019

When you’re not riding your bike, what else is there to do except watch films about other people riding bicycles?

My one-act play, Peloton, premiered at the Lowry Theatre in Salford in January 2012 and lasted one performance. It was my entry in a competition hosted by an experimental theatre company and it told the story of an everyday family man and his mid-life crisis.

A keen cyclist, he decides to enter the Etape du Tour to win back some self-esteem and respect from his wife, kids and friends.

During his training, he is visited by ghosts of the Tour, including touriste-routier Jules Deloffre, who entered the 1908 race independently and paid for his bed and board by doing acrobatic tricks at the end of every stage, and 1923 winner Henri Pélissier, whose personal life, from his wife’s suicide to his own murder at the hands of his young lover, would make a 10-part Netflix series.

Anyway, my play flopped.

The judges didn’t consider it ‘experimental’ enough, instead awarding the prize to a boiler-suited gay Pakistani whose own ‘play’ consisted largely of him smearing shaving foam over himself.

But the point is this: why isn’t there a 10-part Netflix series about Henri Pélissier or any of the other colourful, flawed and heroic characters populating the history of professional road cycling?

For a sport stretching back across three centuries that has taken place in some spectacular locations in extremes of weather and has featured a constantly changing cast of heroes and villains, it’s surprising that so few films have been made about it.

Some of it has to do with the physical act of riding a bike – it’s actually not that gripping a spectacle beyond the team pursuit final in the velodrome.

What makes road cycling compelling is the protagonists and their suffering, sacrifices and egos.

What the sport lacks is a Rocky franchise, even though there is no shortage of rags-to-riches stories that could rival Mr Balboa’s.

Of cycling documentaries, A Sunday In Hell is regarded as the benchmark.

William Fotheringham’s recent book of the same name (minus the A) provides a fascinating insight into the combination of improvisation and planning, chance and calculation, that made Jorgen Leth’s coverage of the 1976 Paris-Roubaix, in Fotheringham’s words, ‘the greatest cycling film of all time’ (even if a book celebrating a film celebrating a race is dizzyingly meta).

But it’s Leth’s earlier documentary about the 1973 Giro d’Italia, Stars And Watercarriers, which includes one of the most remarkable scenes in bike racing when, during a lull in the action on a flat stage, the director passes his microphone – attached by cable to a tape recorder on a motorbike! – around the peloton, inviting riders to interview each other.

The only rider who doesn’t enter into the spirit when a rival asks him if he’ll let him win something for a change is race favourite Eddy Merckx.

‘He was insulted – he didn’t want to deal with the question,’ Leth explains in Fotheringham’s book.

Earlier documentaries provide intimate snapshots of long-discarded traditions.

Domestiques raid a bar for beers, spirits or – as a last resort – water during the 1962 Tour in Vive le Tour, directed by future Hollywood legend Louis Malle.

Riders stop to cool off in a roadside pool during the 1965 Tour in Pour Un Maillot Jaune, an occasionally surreal, freeform 30-minute film directed by Claude Lelouch (who the following year won two Oscars for relationship drama Un Homme et Une Femme).

Both of these films are on YouTube, incidentally.

Stop keeping it real

While the sport is well served by documentaries, what it lacks is an original drama that does justice to its beauty and brutality.

Instead, cycling is often used as a metaphor for universal themes of love, loss and redemption.

All these are present and correct in the Italian neorealist – ie, it couldn’t afford professional actors or a studio – film, Bicycle Thieves.

Made during the peak of the tifosi’s obsession with Coppi and Bartali in 1948, the film is actually about a poor bill-poster whose livelihood is threatened when his bike is stolen.

His quest to find it, accompanied by his adorable little son Bruno, is one of the great symbolic crusades in cinema, with every bicycle in Rome bearing the weight of existential gloom.

Coming of age is the theme of Breaking Away, whose screenplay about an American teenage road racer’s obsession with all things Italian won an Oscar in 1979.

My best friend and I went to see it, less for its life lessons about friendship and responsibility, more to get inspiration for our forthcoming cycle-touring trip to the Cotswolds.

It worked. The trip was a success, despite a leaky tent, and we both retain a soft spot for anything shiny and Italian.

But for gorgeous, retro-styled cycling action, two films stand out above the (admittedly limited) competition.

One is a French cartoon, the other a Belgian period comedy.

Belleville Rendez-Vous (2003) recounts the wonderfully preposterous story of a racing cyclist – bearing an uncanny but incidental resemblance to Fausto Coppi – who is kidnapped during the Tour de France.

He is then transported to 1920s New York, where he finds himself forced to churn the pedals on a static bike in a mafia gambling den.

Le Vélo de Ghislain Lambert (2001) is set on the early 1970s Belgian racing circuit.

The attention to detail (period bicycles, woollen jerseys, leather mitts) is a joy, and the story (the misadventures of a hapless amateur with a Merckx obsession) is affectionately told.

But we still await the definitive movie about Henri Pélissier and his fellow ‘convicts of the road’.

So if anyone wants to buy the film rights to my play, Peloton

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