The Racer: The gruesome politics of professional cycling

Review: Non-accusatory but gruelling treatment of compromised glamour

Louis Talpe (in pink) stars as Dominique Chabol.
The Racer
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Director: Kieron J Walsh
Cert: 15A
Genre: Sport
Starring: Louis Talpe, Iain Glen, Tara Lee, Matteo Simoni, Karel Roden, Timo Wagner
Running Time: 1 hr 37 mins

The latest film from Kieron J Walsh, nearly a veteran of Irish TV and film, has a lot to say about the gruesome politics of professional cycling. It also, in passing, repeatedly reminds us that 1998 was a different country.

The Racer, set amid the opening Irish stage of that year’s Tour de France, abounds in reminders of things that don’t happen anymore. As the plane touches down, one of the cyclists is listening to Primal Scream’s Rocks on a CD Walkman. They pass beneath an image of Boyzone in the airport (not even the less antediluvian Westlife). A doctor on the tour proudly announces she’s been allocated a mobile phone for the duration. As the characters’ peruse a print edition of The Irish Times, we are, however, reminded that certain cultural phenomena remain as robust as ever.

Anyway, back to the meat of the project.

The Racer uses Dominique Chabol (Louis Talpe), an older, struggling support rider, as its conduit for a stream of commentary on this most troubled sport. “Lazarus is raised,” Sonny McElhone (Iain Glen), his tough Scottish trainer, growls when Dom appears at his door. We then flashback three days to learn of the protagonist’s recent traumas and efforts at rehabilitation.


Were the film released in 1998, casual viewers might have been shocked at the promiscuous levels of doping, but, following revelations about Lance Armstrong (whose run of seven wins began a year after the events depicted), we now fully expect the hotel rooms to be decorated with bags of blood and the fridges packed with mysterious phials.

Sonny makes no apologies. It is taken as read that this is how you endure the Tour’s impossible demands.

Nothing about this world is attractive. It is the sort of hyper-male world where “Hello, ladies!” is still seen as a satisfactorily hilarious opening to a team meeting. The new boy has to endure tedious practical jokes. If the riders aren’t being pumped full of Erythropoietin, they are being fed mounds of plain pasta while their trainer scoffs cheeseburgers.

All this would be tough enough for top riders who can compensate with acclaim. Dom is one of the so-called domestiques (French for “servants”) who create slipstreams through which the stars can cruise to victory. It would be tough enough if you weren’t coming to the end of your career. Banjaxed by drugs and hard riding, Dom, who talks us through his scars like Quint in Jaws, now wakes up coughing and choking. He makes overtures to another team. He squabbles with one of the top riders.

The Racer is not accusatory in its tone. There is a sense that the culture is now irrevocably established and, like fish swimming in the only available water, the riders see no easy escape. Dom’s frustration is apparent, but not until the closing moments does he make a proper attempt to break the conventions.

It is a strong, stoic performance from Talpe in a film that doesn’t allow its secondary characters much nuance. This fellow is volatile. This chap is susceptible. Tara Lee has an impossible role as a recently qualified medic who may as well be called Dr Conscience-of-the-Team.

Those outer inadequacies are, however, easy to forget when James Mather’s camera is scooting in and out of the hurtling peloton. With so much of the action confined to a mid-market hotel, it comes as an exhilarating release to zip furiously down rural roads and across closed-off urban thoroughfares.

Those second-hand thrills don’t come close to justifying the pharmaceutical and psychological pressures put on the cyclists, but we do, at least, get some sense why someone would sign on in the first place. A gruelling treatment of compromised glamour.

Opens on December 11th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist