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Höllentour (Pepe Danquart & Werner Schweizer, 2004)



THE WHERE:
At home, watched half while - surprise, surprise - biking on the trainer and the other half afterwards like regular human beings watch movies.

THE WHY:
Obsessed with cycling. Was looking for cycling & Tour de France DVDs on Zip.ca when I came across it and it looked fantastic, particularly given that I already knew a lot about the 2003 Tour and that it followed some of the riders I knew and was interested in (Kloeden and Vinokourov).

THE UGLY:
This documentary is made for people who already know and appreciate both professional cycling and the Tour de France. There is pretty much no exposition in this movie about the Tour itself or even any of the riders which we otherwise get to know intimately. I found this more surprising than anything else about the film and a quality that would make it perfect for the die-hard cycling fan (such as myself) looking for an in-depth look into the Tour and its riders... or so you would think.

For a documentary that focuses on such a niche event and doesn't feel the need to burden itself with the need to explain any of the basics or logistics of it or professional cycling, the film comes across as very unfocused and lacking any real objective. That's not to say there aren't some fantastic moments the camera captures that normally go unseen: the riders on their team bus away from the spotlight of the media, the unheralded roles of domestiques etc. In fact, it's the inclusion of these very moments which causes me to be confused as to why the directors decided to water down such strong content with an overwhelming number of other superficialities like time trial montages, landscape shots and most curious of all, multiple scenes of the Tour crew taking down and putting up barriers. It doesn't make any sense from both a logical or artistic point of view.

What little historical insight that does exist is brought to us via a single source, a french cycling historian, not exactly solid academic footing. What makes it even worse is how fanatical the man is in his love of the Tour, so any bits of insight that I found he made (e.g. compared to the World Cup or the Olympics, the uniqueness of the Tour in that it's free and the proximity of the fans to the stars etc.) felt less convincing coming from this "extremist".

The directors should have borrowed from the producers of the Ironman World Championships broadcast. There's a reason why these guys literally win an Emmy every single year for their coverage of the event, and that's because they realize that what makes these monumental endurance events so compelling are the people and their stories. They showcase the physically disabled athletes with iron wills that inspire and even manage to humanize the otherwise superhuman pro athletes in the race, all while including the obligatory vista shots (it is Hawaii after all) and plenty of narration and exposition.

It's a real shame because in many ways, I think the Tour is an equally compelling event despite the fact that it's only populated with professional cyclists. The examples may not be as immediately obvious to the casual viewer: after all, there are no amateurs in the Tour, none of them are missing any arms or legs like in the Ironman, but the stories are there.

The Tour presents so many situations that don't exist in any other sport in the world. 100m track specialists don't enter marathons and vice versa, and yet this is exactly what happens in the Tour. All athletes have a great degree of pride, and the world's best even moreso. And yet the Tour humbles everyone at one point or another. There's something so powerful seeing a man like Erik Zabel, a man who can out-sprint literally any given cyclist in the world, being left behind by the rest of the peloton in the mountains as he struggles up them all alone.

Another thoughtful bit was the behind-the-scenes bit on the tough life of the domestiques on a cycling team. In no other sport is there so much sacrifice by a team for the glory of a single man. It's so much more revealing to hear it from the lips of the domestiques, talking about how, for example, they could be struggling all day just to keep up with the peloton, but if the team leader suddenly needs water or nutrition, they have to drop all the way back to the team car, stuff 6 water bottles into their jerseys, claw their way back to the front in order to deliver them, and then still find the strength within themselves to finish the race.

This doc could have definitely been better as either as a truly "advanced" in-depth look into the lives of pro cyclists at the Tour or as an introductory documentary to the Tour de France. It's a shame that in the end it seems like it just straddles the line between the two.

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