The spectacle of cycling has attracted some great filmmakers – doubtless, in part, because it is so hard to convey on screen.
Jean-Luc Godard loves to fill his frames with the sight of dozens of concentrated cyclists whizzing by in a blur of multiple colours. Philippe Grandrieux ended his film Sombre (1998) with a spooky, slow-motion glimpse of the Tour de France passing through a remote, rural area. And Luc Moullet created an entire film called Parpaillon (1993) which is simply hundreds of gags, strung end to end, about a group of cyclists riding up a mountain.
Hell on Wheels is an excellent German documentary that follows the Tour de France of 2003. Directors Pepe Danquart and Werner Schweizer were able to cover the action from every kind of angle and vantage point: still, moving, close, distant, before the riders arrive at a location and after they depart it.
The results are, at two hours, a little repetitive but often exciting, due to snappy editing and a pleasantly cheesy music soundtrack.
Naturally, the film gives us a privileged glimpse of German cyclists such as Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag, but it does not neglect the stirring tales of participants such as Tyler Hamilton who, injured on the first day, fights back and eventually wins the last mountain stage.
Struggle, endurance and overcoming are the heroic keynotes here. But we also come to appreciate the more humble pride of those cyclists who will never be superstars, but give their all nonetheless.
Hell on Wheels shows us, around the race, the modern media circus and the endearingly daggy, everyday life of France (a scene involving a stern policewoman is priceless). Serge Laget, a breathless historian with a seemingly infinite Tour de France archive, delivers anecdotes that cue some remarkable archival footage.
And the obsessive coach 'Eule' Dieter Ruthenberg almost steals the show with his comparison of cycling and religion as two forms of devotion that both involve "suffering and love".
© Adrian Martin May 2005