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Irish film recreates the 'monster' 1998 Tour de France stage in Ireland

We spoke to its director, Keiron J Walsh.

IF YOU’RE NOT a longtime cycling fan, you might think the key to winning the Tour de France is simple: be the fastest cyclist.

But the world of cycling is more complicated and multi-layered than that, and one of the cyclists who plays a big role in the success of each team is the domestique. The role of this cyclist – who can never win, no matter how hard they try – is explored in the Irish film The Racer, which is in cinemas now. 

It’s telling that ‘domestique’ translates to ‘servant’, and the tough sides to the role are what writer Ciaran Cassidy (Jihad Jane) and director Keiron J Walsh (Jump, When Brendan Met Trudy) explore in The Racer.

Saving the sport

The theme for the film came from Cassidy’s love for sport, and fascination with the darker sides to it, like drug and EPO use. It was also prompted by his memories of 1998, when the Tour de France passed through Ireland. 

Walsh said that it wasn’t a great time for the Tour back then, and that some thought it would end that year.

 ”There was a huge drugs bust which happened at that time, riders were going on strike, a lot dropped out – it was a bit of a mess. As a last ditch attempt to save the sport they decided to put in a lot of structures to stamp out the drugs. Paul McQuaid invented the ‘blood passport’ for all the riders. It seemed as if that was going to help matters – however, Lance Armstrong won the next seven Tour de France races.”

Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey in 2013 that he used performance-enhancing drugs during those seven years. 

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The film isn’t a commentary on what cycling is like now, but in looking at the time through a fictional story, it does show cyclists using EPO in hotel rooms in preparation for big races. The fixation on winning and performance-enhancing drugs takes a toll on the main character, Belgian man Dominique Chabol (played by Louis Talpe), a domestique. It’s his journey that the film follows. 

Walsh describes Chabol as “an underdog – you’re rooting for him but he is drugged up to his eyeballs”. As a domestique, he can’t ever get any glory. 

“I think it’s changed a little bit now – I think people realise [domestiques] are an essential part of the way cycling works but at the time not so much,” said Walsh. “So that’s intriguing, the length these guys go to compete, the lengths this domestique went to. The drugs he took, the shit he put up with from his charge, his manager, everybody around him. He put up with all this crap but still he couldn’t win.”

Paul McQuaid was a technical advisor on the film, and Cassidy and Walsh spoke to various people about their experiences of the Tour.

“There were stories going around about guys in cheap hotels jogging up and down the corridors in the middle of the night,” says Walsh. “People would hear bikes on rollers crunching away in rooms in the middle of the night.”

Everybody is very scared of talking about drug taking because if you express any opinion on drug taking and the results of drug taking and how it happens… it implicates you. There is an omerta in the world of cycling.

Walsh notes that while cycling is seen as a “glamorous, sexy, cool sport” on the outside, the pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland it descended on was anything but.

“The government resurfaced roads for the tour, he said. “They wouldn’t tarmac them for the people who lived in the country, they tarmaced them for the Tour de France.”

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The film was shot in 28 days, and involved filming racing sequences in Ireland (the interiors were shot in Luxembourg as the film is a co-production with the country). 

“We had an extremely tight budget and timeframe to shoot,” said Walsh. “[The Tour] was a huge monster of a thing and we had to recreate this monster.” The races necessitated extras and people who looked like cyclists on bikes.

It also necessitated a cast who could cycle – and they struck gold with Louis Talpe, who is a fanatic cyclist himself.

The cast took part in a 10-day bootcamp, where they learned to ride together as a team.

The races involved a “huge amount of storyboarding” and pre-visualising the stunts and crashes – although one crash was a real one that led to broken bones for some extras (they agreed that it should be used in the film). 

But it wasn’t just the racing that was hard to shoot. “When I look back at it and think about it, the scene in the hotel room where they do the blood transfusion [was very hard],” recalled Walsh.

“It was a genuine hotel room, there was a heatwave going on outside, it was daytime but looked like night. There were probably 25 people in that room and there was probably more sweat expelled in that room than when they were riding.”

The Racer_Still_047 Iain Glen

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Up close and personal

While shooting the racing sequences, they used a camera on the end of a balanced pole, which they could swing in and out of the pack of cyclists.

The also had cameras on the bikes, and drones in the air for the aerial photography. “I really wanted it to be up close and personal. I wanted you to feel like you were in the middle of the peloton when it was happening,” said Walsh. 

While the Tour de France started in O’Connell St in 1998, that area is now so different that they filmed the section in Merrion Square. 

The biggest name in the film is Scottish actor Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), who plays team manager Sonny. “I wrote to him saying I’ve written this part for a Glaswegian and I really like what you do,” said Walsh. “He is very fond of Ireland and doing Irish projects. He was delighted to do it – he liked the idea of playing this part. Sonny is a conflicted character, you kind of love him but he’s as tainted as the rest of them, perhaps more tainted as he was in the organisation longer,”

The film isn’t intended to necessarily shine a light on abuse of performance-enhancing drugs, but nevertheless it will be eye opening for many viewers. One of the characters helps to portray the audience’s perspective, said Walsh. 

“I know this feels like a masculine film, but for me the eyes and ears of the viewer is Dr Lynn Brennan [Tara Lee], who is an innocent who is brought into this turmoil full of enthusiasm and optimism for it, and then realises and sees the grubby reality. I think she holds the hand of the audience and brings them through this thing without lecturing them.”

The film was due to be shown at the prestigious SXSW film festival in the US earlier this year, but Covid-19 put an end to that. 

“The worst thing is this film has got a real kicking because of Covid,” admitted Walsh. “It was sold and got released in America in September, when a lot of cinemas were closed. And it got pushed back here as cinemas were closed here.” He’s hoping that audiences will still be tempted to watch an independent Irish film like The Racer now that cinemas have reopened.

Next up for Walsh is a film adaptation of Ciaran McMenamin’s novel Skintown, which is set in Northern Ireland. That film is out for financing, and Walsh hopes that with the Covid-19 vaccine, it won’t be long before they can film its scenes which involve clubs and pubs.

“It’s hard enough to make a film in normal times without this other stuff,” said Walsh. But like all filmmakers, he loves it too much to do anything else. 

The Racer is in cinemas now.

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