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Cycling at the movies

They may be retro but these 5 films are not just cycling classics they are also cinema classics. Reputed by many top directors they capture some wonderful moments in a way that inspires and intrigues.

One thing is for sure, Arthouse loves the world of cycling. These are arguably the top 5 films ever made about cycling. The Imax Tour film is about to be released and it’s reported to be excellent, so RCUK decided take a look at the best from the ‘golden age’ of cycling.

If you have ever been to the Tour de France you will know the imagery and atmosphere surrounding the race is incredible. Several respected film directors recognised this fact early in their careers. The common theme in all of these films is not just the atmosphere that surrounds the races but also the suffering the riders put themselves through. This is the central theme for bike racing and for all of these films.

In spite of all any arty nonsense these films tell you more about cycling than sitting in front of hours of Eurosport can. It’s slightly strange that, although dated, the racing is far more exciting, almost timeless and you get a real feel for the personalities in the sport, a sort of fly on the wall approach you will enjoy regardless of the time that these films were made. So forget the Turbo session for one day, get the beers in and enjoy one or two of these gems.

Vive Le Tour
Director: Louis Malle
Running time: 18 mins
This is based on the 1962 Tour de France. Louis Malle (who directed Atlantic City and Au revoir les enfants) makes a hard hitting documentary about one of the classic battles in July. Sometimes funny and often painfully realistic this film may only be short but it has a familiar feel to it, the tour riders may have changed but the race is still the same, the toughest challenge in cycling. Shows a wonderful sense of humour and also what makes the Tour so special.

Pour un Maillot Jaune
Director: Claude Lelouche
Running time: 30mins
Three years after Louis Malle’s film this slightly longer and more involved film.
Claude Lelouch was one of the darlings of French cinema in the 1960s. He won two Oscars for his wonderful romantic drama Un Homme et une Femme (A man and a woman) and he demonstrates his understanding of the sport, his respect for it and a more cinematic result than Vive le Tour. Although this is another short documentary style film it shows some excellent touches and great action. Very enjoyable.

Stars and Watercarriers
Director: Jorgen Leth
Running time: 100mins
Set at the Giro D’Italia 1973. This is a remarkable film. Jorgen Leth was destined to make some fantastic films (especially ‘The Vanishing’ – possibly the scariest film ever made). This film follows the fortunes of several riders and the contrast in fortunes of the Stars and the Watercarriers – the team leaders and the domestiques. Nowadays the fortunes aren’t as diverse but the structure is the same and the race tactics very similar. Some wonderful filming and excellent editing makes this a delight for all cycling fans and film buffs alike.

La Course en Tete (The head of the field)
Price: £27.99
Director: Joel Santoni
Running time: 100mins
When you consider his palmares, Eddy Merckx was some rider:
5 Tour de France, 5 Giro D’Italia, 4 World Titles, 7 Milan-San Remo’s, 5 Liege-Bastogne-Liege, 3 Paris – Roubaix, 3 Fleche Wallone, 2 Tours of Flanders and 2 Tours of Lombardy. That’s a staggering 32 international classic victories. Plus the world hour record and 17 Six day victories (track). Who can deny he was the greatest ever cyclist?

This ‘homage’ to Eddy Merckx is a wonderful insight into the world of a pro rider. Following the 1973 season, the film starts with disappointment at the World Championships were he finishes 4th behind Gimondi. Once again he’s messing about with his saddle position (he’s also at it in A Sunday in Hell) and see if you can spot who builds his Molteni frame… Then there’s the Giro, the Tour de France and even drugs allegations – it’s all in this film. If there’s one thing you understand after watching this, it’s why they called Eddy ‘The Cannibal’. But there is a lighter side to this film too, as his wife Claudine says; “Deep down he has a sense of humour. It’s just no fun cycling 280 kms a day.” How true.

A Sunday in Hell
Director: Jorgen Leth
Running time: 105mins
Jorgen Leth’s classic about the French Spring classic race.
It’s the 1976 Paris Roubaix. This race demands everything from the winner, you have to be strong, skilful, tactical and above all a little lucky. Once again Eddy Merckx appears to be the star of the show, or is he? The incredible thing about Merckx, and what stands him alone as the ‘greatest’, is that the riders of the time were also very talented riders; Roger de Vlaeminck, Walter Godefroot, Francesco Moser, Marc Demeyer, Freddy Maertens and Hennie Kuiper were all here to do battle on the cobbles. When on form Merckx was just a little bit better, however he was nearing the end of his career and this time he suffered like the rest of them.
The crashes, the punctures, the missed moves and the weather are what make the race so special. This is a fantastic film of the toughest of all one-day races and possibly the greatest bike racing film ever made. Some wonderful scenes featuring Merckx in 70’s suit (nice sunglasses Eddy) and adjusting his saddle (how picky?). The operatic ‘Paris-Roubaix’ music is somewhat bizarre and the commentary limited, there is a lot of Flemish and French dialogue, but it all adds to the flavour.

RCUK Video verdict
Seeing as all of these films are ‘classics’ I’d recommend any of them, they are a ‘must see’ for any cycling fan. They may be retro but they tell us more about the bike race than recent films have. My favourite has to be A Sunday in Hell, it cheers up any rainy Sunday afternoon.

All these videos are also available on DVD (and some great books etc) from:


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