No sporting event pushes its participants to the brink like the Tour de France, and in Clean Spirit director Dirk Jan Roeleven and journalist Nando Boers have encapsulated the agony and ecstasy of the world’s biggest bike race.
The documentary follows the 'clean' Argos-Shimano team’s successful 2013 Tour de France, when their young German superstar Marcel Kittel won four stage victories.
It delivers on its claim to take you In the Heart of the Tour. The filmmakers were allowed to film everything, from the team bus to the riders' hotel rooms – “Everything apart from penises,” says Roeleven wryly in the post-screening Q&A.
The end result is intimate and authentic, more so than Chasing Legends, the glossy film that followed the HTC Columbia team at the 2009 Tour. However, it is also claustrophobic – the cyclists spend their time off the bike eating or resting in nondescript French hotels, and much of the film takes place in these drab surroundings.
Roeleven was fortunate in the rich subject matter, which gives the film a clear, emotionally-satisfying narrative. Contrasting with Kittel’s triumphs is the Dutch rider Tom Veelers sustaining terrible cuts in a controversial crash with Mark Cavendish that eventually force his abandonment.
Kittel is a revelation: handsome, bright, charismatic and a natural leader, at ease cajoling his more experienced teammates or berating the team managers when their error costs him a win.
His youth is successfully captured, too (Roeleven describes the film as “men becoming boys”) – when the sprinter talks to his parents on the phone after a stage victory he could be any young man seeking his mum and dad’s approval.
Veelers' abandonment is dealt with poignantly, as he eventually admits defeat after riding for more than a week with his unhealed wounds. At the hotel, he is consoled by first his teammates and then his parents, who had visited the race to cheer him on.
There is humour, too. Veelers is briefed for the press but goes wonderfully off-message to blame Cavendish for the crash, and certain members of the UK audience will enjoy Cav becoming the film’s pantomime villain, and the target of the team’s derision.
Previous, similar works have suffered in posterity due to their stars' subsequent drug scandals and inevitably, given the film's title, the question of doping lurks throughout.
The filmmakers make no attempt to shirk the issue, and the team appears open and honest, but there are uncomfortable moments that show the difficulties and hypocrisies of running a 'clean' team.
The team doctor, for example, reveals the large handful of (legal) tablets most of the riders take just to get through each day. Kittel, he explains, is one who refuses the pills, despite the doctor’s repeated attempts to persuade him that they will enhance his performace.
Then there is the tiring rider who drops back from the peloton to demand caffeine tablets. The driver of the team car passing him the pills is Rudi Kemna, directeur sportif, who had just served a six-month ban for historical EPO use.
John Degenkolb, the team’s ‘other’ German star, sums it up. He speaks eloquently about the pain of seeing his childhood heroes' reputations in tatters and his own resolution to race clean.
“But I’m saying the same things they were saying 10 years ago,” he says. “So how can I convince people they should believe me?"
Clean Spirit: In the Heart of the Tour was showing as part of London Rides: Bicycles on Film, a bi-monthly series of cyclo-centric screenings at the Barbican.Reuse content