||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
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;
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
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.
Buy it at: Amazon