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Religious Suffering
By Tom Demerly

 

Academy Award winning director Pepe Danquart puts his lens on the Tour de France. The results are the most beautiful video haiku we’ve ever seen.
I don’t often sit down to write a movie review, but this is more than a movie. It’s a master work. Academy Award winning director Pepe Danquart’s remarkable Hell on Wheels is a razor sharp vignette of the spectacle that is the Tour de France. It’s also beautiful poetry: Voyeuristic and empathetic, opulent and thrilling. It is an important, perhaps the most important, contribution to cycling literature in the last two decades. It’s hard to gush enough about this precious gem of a film.

The Tour de France was thrust into the American media mainstream in the era of the internet, OLN’s excellent broadcast and domination of the race by a U.S. based team. But that is not the story of the Tour de France; it is only a page in the long history. If your curiosity about the Tour de France was wetted by the past few years’ media attention, then you can slake your thirst for the real Tour de France by watching Hell on Wheels. This film captures the soul of the race and the essence of sport with insight and sensitivity never seen before on the cycling subject.

The film is a 123 minute look inside the Tour de France as experienced by Team Telekom during the 2003 Tour de France. There is so much beauty and insight in the film it is hard to pick any one thing to rave about.

The Tour de France is many things: Postcard, race, crucible of suffering, sporting event and celebration of summer. Hell on Wheels captures all of it.

Firstly, the movie is luxuriously photographed and meticulously crafted. Rewind the opening sequences of a beautiful morning in France with bread shops and bakeries opening to a symphony of sunrise and street life awakening. The landscapes in this movie are a treasure.

Pan instantly to the riders on Team Telekom revealing their concerns over the race. They relate the feeling of fear, vulnerability and reality as they prepare to face something enormous. They are humanized. You have felt what these men describe before your first club ride, your first bicycle tour or your first triathlon. Showing that is what brings you into this movie. The men are concerned; scared.

Change lenses (literally and figuratively) to the exciting start of the prologue of the Tour de France. See the technology, the color, the scale of the production that is this massive sporting event. Director Danquart pans back, then zooms in to put you on the bike seat during the prologue, and it hurts. If you have turned a crank in anger you can instantly feel the adrenaline from your chair as you watch- then get sucked into the film. It is pulse pounding.

The movie is in English and in subtitles with German commentary from some of the riders and staff of Team Telekom. It’s a documentary, but a “wet” documentary with pretty photography that shows and instills a reverence for the subject matter. The film makers and editors must be cyclists themselves, because they knew exactly what to capture, what to show, how to show it. The sensitivity of the film is its most valuable and insightful feature. Perhaps the one downside to the movie is that this sensitivity may speak loudest to someone who has ridden a bike, but less so to a non-cyclist.
If you already know the subject matter in depth, you will run around with the DVD shouting, “Finally! A documentary that gets it!” If you are a new comer to The Tour during the last decade, then this movie will finish reeling you into the excitement of the race and tell the story overshadowed during the last decade. If you aren’t a cyclist at all then perhaps you will enjoy the photography, the scenery, the colorful aspect of the sport and wonder why the hell someone would do this to themselves. In either case, you’ll enjoy the ride.
Another part of the film is educational. Take notes: Do you see how the soigneur applies chamois cream to the rider’s shorts with such care and attention? Guys, you don’t need another “man saving” saddle, you need to pay attention to your “pants” and do what the guys in this film are doing so you can sit on the bike seat all day in relative comfort. How do you treat road rash? Watch the movie and listen to the grisly recounting of scrubbing out abrasions to speed healing time. How important is bike maintenance? Watch the mechanics speak of their labor as “religious suffering” when they describe the riders’ devotion and their endless labor to keep the bikes in perfect condition despite the terrible and never ending abuse of the race.
The value of Hell on Wheels is particularly important during the sequence of the team time trial. While you may get lost in the exciting visuals and the tense shots of the team “direktor” relaying instructions to the team members over the radio, this film-record of the event captures a part of the race that may be disappearing. The 2006 Tour de France has no team trial stage. This is an important chronicle of that part of the race, arguably the most visually spectacular and the most tense: The potential for disaster during the team time trial was probably the highest and that is one reason the stage is gone in 2006. Hell on Wheels’ depiction of the 2003 team trial captures it like nothing else I’ve seen.
Cut to a touching sequence of Erik Zabel describing his eleven years of sharing a hotel room with Rolf Aldag. The sequence is shot with a delicate portrait view of Zabel as he lays on the massage table, speaking of his friend Rolf Aldag in quiet and personal tones. In this instant you learn a lot about why the Tour de France is touching and poignant. Contrasted against the scenes of the riders doing 55 kph on the open road in aero helmets on sword-like aerodynamic time trial bikes and you feel the variety and pace of the movie.

I watched Hell on Wheels three times in two days to write this review. The more I watched the greater a treasure it became. The title of the film is awful and says nothing about the depth, scale and insight of the project, let alone the mastery of the treatment of the subject matter. Don’t let the cover deceive you; this is a more important movie than any of the quirky classics of bicycle racing like the old Le Course En Tete. When you put those films in the DVD player your wife runs from the room. They are weird and boorish. This movie will have your wife calling travel agents to book a flight to the French countryside.

Most importantly, Hell on Wheels depicts every aspect of the Tour de France and professional bike racing with detail, field of view and sensitivity rare in film making. There are so many dimensions and so much to see, it is an absolute treasure chest of sights, sounds and perspectives. There is even a lot to learn about the sport in the movie.

Buy and watch Hell on Wheels over and over. If you are any fan of cycling and endurance sports, it will become a treasured volume to revisit again and again.

Hell on Wheels. (2004) Starring: Erik Zabel, Rolf Aldag Director: Pepe Danquart, Werner Schweizer. 123 minutes on DVD.

Resource: Website

Buy it at: Amazon

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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