The man who was so often The Leader of the Pack (La Course en Tete) was Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist in history and, it must be said, an astonishingly beautiful human being. Joel Santoni’s film tells us that and much else, but leaves the enigma of the man as impenetrable as ever.
Starting with the pain of defeat – much the greatest pain shown on Merckx’s notoriously impassive face over the next two hours – in the controversial 1973 World Championship (causing a rift with Freddy Maertens that has never really healed), the film traces the contrasts of joy and pain in Merckx’s life on the road and at home. There’s the joy of family life with Claudine and kids and the pain of crashes on the track and road; there’s the joy of reflection on victories and the pain of the muscles being brought back to life by his loyal soigneur; there’s the pain of doping allegations (ever so briefly raised and dropped) and the joy of the jerseys and trophies accumulated by the man who could bear pain better than any other.
It’s in the details that the film excels. Bikes are perfect triangles of thinnest steel tubing, obviously designed on graph paper with a ruler and pencil. Team jerseys are of lightweight wool, with sponsor’s names etched in such continental calligraphy. Riders are free of helmets and sunglasses, their sacrifices on climbs and in sprints lain bare before our eyes. Crowds crowd the riders, on the roads and at the finishes. Everyone wants a piece of Merckx, many literally swiping his hat and anything else as he is consumed by an adoring public and jealous Italians.
We learn little of Merckx the man. That he hated losing is hardly a revelation nor that he obsessed over his bikes, fetishising the components, fiddling with saddle heights and cassettes, watching mechanics like a hawk, partly to make sure they did their jobs with the same single-mindedness as he did his and partly (one suspects) in envy for their shelter from the public and their long hours in the sole company of bicycles.
Of the rider, there’s ample evidence for his nickname, “The Cannibal”. He pushes big gears up mountains riding tempo until there is nobody left on his wheel and then rides tempo to the finish to win with a momentary smile. His style is reminiscent of Jan Ullrich in his glory days. At other times, he looks ugly on the bike, out of the saddle and over the handlebars, fighting against the gradient – like Cadel Evans trying to suck a wheel. In time trials, he attacks the course, showing it no respect, dismissing it from under his wheels – like Fabian Cancellara at his best. We see Merckx winning sprints, but there’s no evidence of a real jump, more the relentless ability to go faster than anyone else, no matter what the circumstances.
As ever when a camera is pointed at the Giro or the Tour, there are breathtaking landscapes through which the cyclists ride and some fantastic shots of the kind of medieval towns through which the Giro passes every year. The best shots have the more terrible beauty of the mountains, especially descents in rain, even full storms, in which Merckx shows that he may have gone uphill like Ullrich, but he descends like Pantani – Merckx was a bike handler nonpareil.
There’s a lot wrong with the film – the music is ill-judged and intrusive and the cuts from massage to the day’s climb are too cliched – but it is a remarkable chronicle of a remarkable man at a time when cycling, with its grands tours and monuments, was undeniably foreign, untouched by the familiarity that comes with global sponsors, live television and cheap air travel. The footage is but forty years or so old and Merckx himself isn’t yet 70, but one is looking in on a world gone forever. It is to M. Santoni’s credit that he brings so much of that world to the screen.
You can see La Course en Tete by clicking here.
(This review will also be published at Made Good.)