Professional sport is full of dubious mythology, and cycling is one of the worst offenders.
New film The Racer opens with the words of the sport’s most glorified hero Eddy Merckx: “The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most.”
It’s a quote often used to conjure up romantic images of grimacing men grinding up mountains on heavy steel bikes or battling through cold Belgian rain.
The Racer uses it to show the sordid truth of what it actually means to “suffer the most”—and what that has to do with one of sport’s biggest scandals.
Dom Chabol is woken by the warning beeps of his heart monitor and crawls onto the indoor cycling trainer at the foot of his bed. He stands in front of his hotel room mirror pinching at the non-existent fat on his body.
Then he walks down the corridor for an injection of the dangerous banned drug EPO.
This is a fictional story set during the 1998 Tour de France, beleaguered by real life doping scandals. At the age of 39, it’s also likely to be Dom’s last big race.
At the end of a career riding in support of others, Dom’s health is showing the strain.
The doping is the biggest danger—it threatens to kill him in his sleep. But that’s not all.
Dom is covered in the scars left by broken bones he’s sustained in crashes. His immune system is weakened.
And his body has been moulded to the point of deformity, his stomach seeming to cave in below his chest.
It’s said that doping isn’t endemic in cycling as it used to be. If that’s true, it’s because the slew of scandals threatened to drive away the sponsors who fund the whole thing and whose demand for wins encouraged doping in the first place.
But everything else—the depression, the disordered eating, the horrific crashes—haven’t gone away.
You might question The Racer’s appeal. Do you really want to watch another film about a flawed man moping through an existential crisis? Let alone one set within a sport dominated by affluent white blokes.
But the film has more to say and you don’t have to be into cycling to appreciate it.
It’s about someone who’s given his life to an industry—a “circus”—that’s wrecked him and now wants to throw him away.
That’s the “suffering” professional sport doesn’t like to talk about so much.