Time Trail - a film about David Miller, the first rider to wear the leaders jersey in all three grand tours and then be disgraced for doping. Serving a two year ban he then made a comeback to the top end of the sport as an anti-doping campaigner and voice for clean athletes.
Director Finlay Pretsell and his film crew follow and record Miller in his final season as a world tour rider in 2014. A season in which Miller had hoped to complete his 13th and final Tour De France. The film takes its slightly raw narrative and shape through what happens to Miller during his final season. The end result most likely becoming something very different to what they had originally envisaged at the beginning of the project.
The director isn't so much concerned with capturing the conventional and often seen beauty of grand tour racing with scenes of rolling mountains and grand chateau's. Instead he captures the dark and arduous reality of what many view as the toughest sport on earth. It is beautifully recorded using some interesting techniques through the lens, many moments of imagery come as if by accident (Pretsell revealed in the Q&A afterwards that many were indeed pleasing accidents). One example is when water runs down the inside of the camera lens, creating a shimmering effect as the bike moves smoothly through the French streets. After the film the director spoke of how dull his original shots of the peloton rolling past were and how he had to think of new ways of capturing the race. The main way being by using multiple cameras attached to both miller and his bike as well as filming him alongside, in-front and from behind. This results in a real surround viewing experience and there is a slightly euphoric and detached feel throughout, as if you are peering in on what is a very personal pursuit with intimate detail. All this combined make for a hugely compelling film that is at times difficult to watch.
We are treated to snippets from inside the peloton that we don't often see - soundbites of banter between riders, of gears flicking, mumbling and chatter between riders recorded by a microphone attached to the bike. Amateur racers will appreciate the familiarity to a local road race. These snippets are only enough to leave you wanting to hear more though, we're left with a sense that a lot was not revealed that could and perhaps should have been.
Cycling films are difficult. This one is a niche but wonderful piece of cinema with a small budget and a relatively unexperienced director resulting in a more creative approach. It is not a conventional film with a beginning-middle-end style plot. The parts are pieced together based how how his racing season played out. This reveals a strong narrative in itself but without flow. This is particularly evident in the final scene of Miller dancing in a nightclub, symbolic of his freedom from professional sport. It just feels like an add on and attempt at a happy ending to what is naturally quite a sad and dark film. The film is orientated towards cycling fanatics and if you're looking for a reportage style documentary, it isn't for you. I also think that those less familiar with the sport will probably struggle with it. However, others will appreciate the cinematography and gain insight into the nature of bike racing.
Instead the triumphant climax that Miller would have hoped for, a final swansong around France to top off an action packed career. The film reveals Miller's despair at his fading physical and psychological powers as a professional athlete. Very few will truly understand these emotions as he asked himself "Why am I so weak when others are so strong?". Scene's like this one are very thoughtful and serve as metaphors for everyday life, of how we all have a vision of ways we would like things to be, but inevitably they don't work out the way we thought and we have to adapt. The constant movement of the bikes whizzing through the streets another metaphor for the constant passing of time in all our endeavours.
Clearly a naturally creative person, Miller tells us after the film how he, like so many others, started cycling as an escape, but as his talent at the sport became clear it became the total opposite. He spoke with enthusiasm about his new role within cycling of commentating and owning his own brand 'CHPT3'. He told us how riding on the back of a motorbike at the Prudential Ride London was one of the most exciting things he has ever done and gave him a new perspective on the way a bike race moves along. As viewers, this left us with the positive end to the evening's viewing experience that the end of the film perhaps was not.
Miller was keen to mention on a final note how as cycling fans we love to romanticise the history of the sport but we should be aware of its origins. That it was created by the media as a way of selling newspapers, with journalists at the time loving stories of riders cheating by taking trains for hundreds of miles to get an advantage. Nowadays we read about all sorts of different ways riders get an advantage over the others and the circus that is professional cycling continues. "Cycling at its origin, was the love island of its time" - David Miller. Now theres a note to end on.
The film is being screened at Picturehouse Central, London all this week and its well worth a watch on the big screen. A lot of its effect will be lost on your tv or laptop at home.
Tickets available here