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Over two decades have passed since the infamous 1998 Tour de France, which was mired by the Festina affair doping scandals. Now a new film, “The Racer,” revisits a fictionalized version of that Tour to tell the story of Dom Chabol, a veteran domestique nearing the end of his racing career who is struggling with moving on from the profession that has shaped his identity for nearly 20 years. Filled with drama and, of course, performance enhancing drugs, the film brings the notorious 1998 cycling season to life.
By William Tracy | Images Courtesy of Paul Mcquaid & Independent Films
Originally conceived of as a short film by co-writer Ciaran Cassidy, the idea for “The Racer” had been floating around for about a decade, says director Kieron J. Walsh. Though not a devout cycling fan himself, Walsh is intrigued by professional cyclists, and even finds some similarities with their lifestyles and his. “[Working in the film industry] is like being a Tour de France rider,” he says. “You never know when the next contract will come along.” But it is domestiques in particular, like the film’s main character Dom, and their dedication to helping others win that Walsh finds most captivating. “To devote your life to that makes an interesting character,” he says.
Having seen the actual 1998 Tour de France Grand Départ in Dublin, Ireland, Walsh has a small connection to the source material. He remembers being impressed by how big of an event it was, shutting down the streets of a European capital for several days, and perhaps more impressively getting the government to do something it couldn’t seem to do otherwise—repave roads. Walsh’s challenge was to bring that spectacle to the big screen, but on a tighter budget than the actual Tour de France.
A grand tour peloton numbers nearly 200 strong, but Walsh’s team managed to realistically recreate the Grand Départ with only about a third of that number of riders. The production team sourced extras from local cycling clubs to find already skilled riders, placing ones with the most period-appropriate equipment closer to the front. A few women even help fill out the peloton towards the back! Digital effects in post production helped bolster the cheering crowd, magnifying an ensemble of 200 extras to 10,000. The end result is quite convincing. “I think we did as good a job as we could,” says Walsh.
Getting the Technical Details Right
Attention to detail is essential to the success of any film. The production team went to great lengths to ensure the technical accuracy of the bikes and racers, making this an enjoyable watch for even the biggest racing and bike-tech devotees. Walsh turned to the expertise of friend Paul Mcquaid, a professional road racer in the ‘80s and ‘90s who represented Ireland in the UCI world championships. Mcquaid also happens to come from an impressive cycling pedigree, with multiple brothers making Olympic teams and eldest brother Pat formerly acting as UCI president.
The movie outfitted two full teams of riders, with each team needing 10 matching bikes. As technical advisor, Mcquaid ensured each of the bikes the production team sourced was correctly built. The biggest error Mcquaid found? Intermixing Shimano and Campagnolo components within each team—something that would have distracted bike enthusiasts right out of the story. A mechanic by trade, he got to work stripping and rebuilding each bike, bringing in parts from his well stocked shop in Dublin as needed, to make sure the protagonist’s fictional Austrange team was riding all Campagnolo, and the rival Settosa team, whose kit was inspired by the notorious Festina team, was all on Shimano. And because protagonist Dom Chabol’s bike would be getting the most screen time, Mcquaid reserved for it a pristine Campagnolo Record groupset, the exact group a top rider would have used that year, which he borrowed from a friend’s bike. Additionally, Mcquaid prepped bikes for about 20 extras to fill out the racing scenes.
Mcquaid’s role extended to making sure the actors looked like real pros on the bike. He put the actors through a boot camp of sorts, teaching them how to ride more like real professional cyclists. “Luckily they were all in good shape,” says Mcquaid. Belgian actor Louis Talpe, who plays Dom, is athletic and was already quite comfortable on the bike, recalls Mcquaid. And on the whole, the actors were fit and able to get the hang of riding in a pack after riding 60 kilometers to 80 kilometers a day in the bootcamp. “The guys were totally committed,” says Mcquaid. But there were a few extras who, whether it was lack of confidence or simply how they looked on the bike, had to eventually be cut.
The bootcamp also served as a test run for trying out new film techniques that yield the in-the-action feel of the film’s race shots, which meant cameras were rolling when an actual crash occurred during training. It understandably scared Walsh, the director, at the time. “I thought they were going to die,” he recalls thinking. But there’s no substitute for the real thing, and it made the final cut, a decision which Walsh said made the actors happy because the cuts and scrapes they endured weren’t for not.
It Wouldn’t Be 1998 Without Doping
Making the riders look like pros of the era with the correct equipment was a straightforward enough task, but another crucial aspect of this film was slightly harder to find consultants for. Because this film takes place during the 1998 Tour, EPO and blood doping feature almost from the get-go. We quickly learn that our protagonist is not clean, and he’s not alone.
To this day, pros of that era stay tight lipped when it comes to drugs, says Walsh, the director. So to accurately portray doping on-screen, he relied on the reports of cycling journalists and consulted with doctors, taking a little bit of artistic license along the way. Walsh, who lived in Dublin during the ’98 Grand Départ, says there were stories floating around at the time from hotel staff about riders jogging up and down the halls in the middle of the night, or storing trainers with bikes next to their beds—events which feature in the movie, and which we now know to be tell-tale signs of EPO usage by riders trying to keep their heart rates from falling to dangerously low levels. At one point in the film a character even mentions a couple of his cyclist friends who died in the middle of their racing careers, Johannes Draaijer and Bert Oosterbosch. These are references to actual cyclists who died young in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, with doping suspected in both cases.
Where to Watch
Originally set to premiere in March at the canceled South by Southwest Film Festival, “The Racer,” like many movies this year, has had a delayed roll out. But it ended up getting a proper premiere for a cycling film as a drive-in release at the legendary Kapelmuur, along the Tour of Flanders route. For those of us who don’t live close to the cobbled bergs, “The Racer” is now available to stream through video on-demand services, including Amazon and iTunes.
While not exactly a story suitable for all ages, “The Racer” can be enjoyed by people who know little to nothing about cycling, as well as devotees of the sport. So unlike many other cycling movies out there, go ahead and watch this one with non-cyclist friends and family.