Time Trial “re supposed to” document the veteran riders last Tour de France but instead became a more compelling analyse of the wane of an upper-class sportsmans powers
And then everything just turned to shit, David Millar said the other evening, after watching the first half of a documentary film called Time Trial, which records his final season as a professional bike racer in 2014. He was talking about the turning point of a year in which carefully laid plans to close his career with an extended lap of honor completely fell apart.
Time Trial records his desperation at the discovery that, at 37, the first British rider to wear the leaders jersey in all three grand tours France, Italy and Spain no longer had what it takes to compete at the highest level. Why am I so weak, he asks himself in a sequence capturing one among many moments of despair, and why are the other guys so strong?
Few and fortunate are the athletes who do not experience that painful prelude to the end of their period at the top. Millar was surely not expecting it to happen during the season in which he was being followed by a movie crew, but his hopes of a glorious finale were dashed by several factors, most significantly the dramatic the actions of his squad directors to drop him from their squadfor the Tour de France, the intended climax of his season.
His emotions were further stirred by the identity of “the mens” building the decision: his partners in the ownership of the team, put in after his return from a two-year prohibition enforced where reference is acknowledged use EPO. Reborn as an antidoping campaigner, he had envisaged the project as a standardbearer for clean racing. And the 2014 Tour would have been the last hurrah: a Grand Dpart in the UK, a final glass of champagne on the way to Paris, maybe even a stage victory en route.
But the teams priority was to select the best nine riders for the years most important event. When he learnt of their unsentimental decision on his form and fitness, Millars initial reply was ferocity at being deprived, by the attire he had helped make, of a last chance to ride in the very race that had enticed him into the athletic during his teenage years.
I couldnt understand why the team would do it to me, he wrote in The Racer, his book about that season, published a couple of years ago. Wed been through so much together. Now I could see it was over. I was no longer needed or wanted by them. I was simply an ageing pro cyclist past his prime, steadily losing his intellect , not to be counted on.
While it was a disaster for Millar in the short term, his absence from the peloton when the Tour started in Yorkshire that July turned out to be providential in two respects. First, he was offered a task co-commentating on the race for ITV, a role at which he turned out to be a natural cyclings own Gary Neville, single-handedly creating the level of analysis. Second, while depriving the movie of the possibility of setting up a triumphant climax, it provided a new and more compelling narrative arc: one involving failing and humiliation.
The director of Time Trial, Finlay Pretsell, persuaded race organisers to permit a motorbike-mounted camera to infiltrate the peloton during several races in the first half of the season, including Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix. He mounted a miniature camera on Millars bike and attached a microphone to his jersey, enabling us not only to eavesdrop on the various kinds of chattering that goes on between the riders but to hear the non-verbal sounds of the peloton, both mechanical the clicking, crunching and whirring of gears and tyres and human, like the groans that go up when a rider jumps away to attempt a lone break.
That moment is followed by a vivid example of old-school peloton discipline as the senior figures range themselves across the road at the front of the bunch in order to deter any further initiatives. It used to happen a lot more, Millar says, in his early days as a pro, when riders like Claudio Chiappucci or Gianni Bugno would impose their wishes.
Equally fascinating is the close-up position of the undramatic moments. We find Millar freewheeling alongside the team automobile, stuffing water bottles up his jersey. He responds to the benediction of his directeur sportif, the former rider Charly Wegelius Have a good day, David with a formal Thank you, Charles before pedalling back up to distribute the bottles among his team- mates, merely to detect, when they are all gone, he is short of one for himself.
At the end of a days racing, we see him and his Dutch team-mate Thomas Dekker not only sharing a room in an overnight hotel, a common practice in most team sports, but switching off the illuminations as they snuggle down in adjacent twin beds. Good night, honey, says Dekker. Good night, darling, Millar replies, as the bedside lamp goes out on the pairs giggling fit.
Its a bit of a setup, of course. Theres a camera in the room, and someone to operate it, and probably a director, too. But Millars manner tends naturally towards the talkative and theatrical if this were a feature film, he might be played, with a hint of dandyishness, by the young Richard E Grant and its easy to imagine such an ironic exchange even in the absence of a movie crew.
The visual verse of Louis Malles Vive Le Tour set a high standard for cycling documentaries in 1962, followed by two classics: Claude Lelouchs Pour un Maillot Jaune and Jorgen Leths A Sunday in Hell, recording the 1965 Tour and the 1976 Paris-Roubaix respectively. More lately there have been Pepe Danquarts Hell on Wheels and Jason Berrys Chasing Legends, portraying the 2003 and 2009 Tours through the eyes of the Telekom and HTC-Columbia teams.
But Pretsell, whose work includes short documentaries on prison hairdressers, makers of ballet slippers and way cyclist Craig MacLean, offers a different, most intimate and in the end more brutal perspective on the athletic. The lyricism of the early sequences all spring sunshine and swooping descents gives style to days of racing in the cold and rain, during which Millar begins to rail against the signs of his diminished powers. The films producers are planning to submit Time Trial to the organisers of the Cannes festival, in the hope of a jamboree premiere in May. Having been denied a sweat-soaked apotheosis on the Champs lyses, Millar could find that an elegant stroll along the Croisette provides his happy ending.
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