The Racer is three stories in one. It’s an insider’s view of the life of the domestique, the unsung heroes of cycling who set the pace for their top man, act as a windbreak and even help him take a piss – the glamour. It’s a personal drama about a long-time domestique now approaching the end of his career who would like, just once, to wear the yellow jersey after winning a stage. And it’s a romance about a man finding there is more to life than cycling.
All three combine in the figure of Dominique Chabol (Louis Talpe), a solid team player embarking on 1998’s Tour de France, the first stages of which were held in Ireland that year.
You might not remember, but that was the year when the Tour got renamed the Tour de Farce by the newspapers, after a massive doping scandal broke, mostly around the use of erythropoietin (known as EPO), a drug used to raise the level of haemoglobin in the blood, which enhances oxygen levels and hence performance.
The plot follows Chabol, his fellow domestiques and cocky, highly strung and handsome star rider Lupo Marino (Matteo Simoni) as they train for the tour. This involves not just regular sessions out on the road, ice baths and monotonous mountains of protein for every meal, but also their regular doping sessions with team masseur (and unofficial Doctor Dope) Sonny McElhone (Iain Glen).
Chabol suspects he’s on the way out, what with being 39 years old and the team owner (Karel Roden) no longer quite looking him fully in the eye when they talk. Then he’s dropped for one of the stages and his worst fears are confirmed. Stepping into the breach comes Lynn Brennan (Tara Lee), who as well as being very pretty is also a doctor and an Irish woman and soon introduces the crestfallen Chabol to the joys of craic, Guinness and the glory of normal everyday life.
Along with Lynn come her family. They’re handy in terms of plot because they ask all the questions about cycling that any ignorant viewer would ask – how come the domestique never wins, for instance, and doesn’t Chabol want to?
Which lines us up nicely for the last third of the film, when Dominique is suddenly back on the team for one last stage. No prizes for guessing what’s uppermost in his mind.
Talking of prizes, Talpe should probably be given this year’s Christian Bale Medal for Physical Transformation, such is the amazing physique he displays in this film, the result of a miserable dietary regime that whittled his body fat down from 15% (the fit male) to 7% (the Tour rider). He literally has no stomach.
Talpe also has that at-oneness with his bicycle in the many cycling sequences, brilliantly handled by director Kieron Walsh, who situates us right in the pack as the riders pump and jostle.
The acting is excellent throughout – a nod to Iain Glen, who has the rangy physique of the former rider he’s playing, but also brings a laddish sleaziness to his role as the EPO fixer. There’s a particularly nice scene where Sonny’s lads are all tucking in to yet another meal consisting of nothing but meat while he sinks his teeth into a cheeseburger and fries, Glen laying on the humour with much licking of lips.
This is where The Racer is at its best, in these behind-the-scenes sequences, where for example we learn that one side-effect of EPO is that it can cause a rider’s heart rate to drop to a dangerously low rate while he sleeps. Hence the use of a heart monitor to deliver a wake-up call, followed by a pulse-quickening stint on the static bike set up in the room for just this purpose.
The romantic storyline sits less well. It’s not that it isn’t a touching story in itself, it’s just that there’s already a boy-wins-girl, boy-loses-girl dynamic going on with the boy-wins-ride, boy-loses-ride story and this doubling up means they’re both jostling for advantage.
Watch it for the cycling, the acting and the eye-opening behind-the-scenes glimpses, ignore the (lovely) romance.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021