Im still stuck in the 70’s for my next installment of my favorite cycling films and this time the film is La Course en Tête.
Long before the anti-christ came to dominate cycling with his doped up USPS team Eddy Merckx was the man. This film covers the breadth of his remarkable career. You see Eddy winning—from mountains to velodromes—in France, Italy and Spain, as well as in his native Belgium. The beauty of this unusual film, however, is not the celebration of handsome Eddy’s many victories. Rather, it is the depiction of European bicycle racing before the likes of Lance Armstrong modernized the Tour by transforming the riding into a science and the event into a commercial enterprise. This film depicts a simpler time, when Tour riders slogged along without the benefit of computers or two-way radios, when sponsors were barely noticeable but fans were omnipresent.
In fact, despite Armstrong’s accomplishments, Eddy is still the greatest bicycle racer of all time. Although he won the Tour “only” five times, Eddy dominated it (1969-74) even more than Lance did. He still holds the record for Tour stage wins (34 versus 24 for Lance) and days in the yellow jersey (96 versus 83).
But Eddy’s domination extended far beyond the Tour. Unlike Lance, he won bicycle racing’s two other Grand Tours: the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, as well as several World Championships, Olympic events and other important races.
La Course en Tête shows all this up close. Best of all, it depicts how amazingly fanatical the fans were. They throw the riders flowers, drinks and kisses. At the end of the day they seek autographs and seem to give advice. Throughout the race, they touch the riders. The crowds press so close, jump onto the course so often, and chase the riders so dangerously, that you wonder whether you’re watching a bike race or the Running of the Bulls at Pamplona.
It’s worth buying a copy of this film for repeat viewings because it is full of emotional, amusing and bizarre scenes. Each time through, you’ll see more, such as racers drinking wine, repairing bikes, dressing wounds and relieving themselves—all while riding.
One of the most effective moments in La Course en Tête comes as we see a rider break down in tears after losing a race. Because this is a documentary, the moment is raw and honest. We are not informed who this rider is, but it is not Belgian cycling champion, Eddy Merckx, the subject of this film. The anonymous rider’s moment of devastation is a powerful image taken out of context. This is both the strength and weakness of the entire film.
Director Joel Santoni made a creative decision to explore Merckx’s rise and fall on the racing circuit without regard for chronology or narrative. We get bits and pieces of Eddy Merckx’s story, but they are scattered throughout. Interviews from different years are spliced together, which further disrupts any coherent time line. The director has embraced the documentary style of cinema verité, which seeks to find truth by using unobtrusive handheld cameras to simply observe without commentary.
We learn that Eddy was a great champion, winning the Tour de France in 1969; that he was a dedicated family man; and that he was accused of using performance-enhancing drugs. None of these points are delved into too deeply and, as a result, we never truly get to know Merckx. Santoni would rather show us the life of racers in general than to detail the life of this particular racer.
I’ll post more images from the film when my computer stops playing up.