“The loser” is a regular in comedy films yet celebrated in cycling where the lanterne rouge can be a hero. Add on scenes from retro Belgium circa 1970, insert a comic actor with good timing and an elastic face and things get better.
This Belgium film dates from 2001 and is widely available, complete with English subtitles. If cycling films are rare, this is a gem.
The main role is played by Benoît Poelvoorde, a Belgian comedian and actor with a string of awards to his name; film students might know his earlier Man Bites Dog film. Poelvoorde goes for full comic effect, at times there’s an exaggerated wobbling style on the bike but often it’s the way he pulls faces that makes the laughs.
The film regularly goes over the top, the hardcore cycling fan doesn’t need images of riders going flying over the handlebars into the ditch for a laugh but these stunts are sure to appeal to a wider public. But the film includes some poignant observations that mirror realities from the sport that only racers might get, for example the rider who enters a hotel room and moves his absent team mate’s luggage from the large bed to the small one. There’s also a rider hired to help with doping his team mates who is instructed told if it goes wrong he’ll be fired and made to carry the can alone, a joke grounded in reality. There’s more, for example mocking Eddy Merckx who built an early altitude chamber in his garage, the troubled role of team managers desperate for results and sponsorship, agents getting greedy and the rider watching his weight. Even small in-jokes like the scene with a fortune-teller dangling a small pendulum as a nod to the legendary directeur sportif Antonin Magne. There’s also the excess of amphetamines, a portrayal in film of what Paul Kimmage told in his book Rough Ride. The doping aspect is amusing but also a bit cringe-worthy, as if you can’t escape from the tyranny of the syringe while watching a film.
It’s set in the Merckx era so expect classic team cars, vintage bikes and leather jackets with wiiiide lapels. They’ve clearly got an eye for the detail, perhaps frame-by-frame analysis might reveal inconsistencies but the retro vibe, from the woollen jerseys to the retro decor, feels right.
The film uses real locations whether the Roubaix velodrome or the Col d’Izoard but doesn’t overplay them, they’re almost there for the cycling fan to spot. The same for the recreation of the now defunct Bordeaux-Paris race, the audience isn’t told or even prompted with information about the race we just see it before our eyes with the nocturnal scenes and the derny bikes at dawn.
A film for cyclists
The film is amusing enough for non-cyclists, at least if they’re in the mood for a retro Belgian comedy in French with subtitles: niche. But I think the cycling fan will get more from it with all the cultural references. Non-cyclists will laugh at Lambert’s tragedies but cyclists will laugh with them as the scenes and script pokes fun at the life of a racer. The script is funny but for an English audience the subtitles are the weakest bit, the translation isn’t great and at times it loses the cycling references, a coureur becomes a “runner” rather than a “racer” or “rider”. It’s hard to translate jokes at the best of times and cycling’s jargon only compounds this. But this isn’t a dealbreaker, it makes for a fun film.
Retro cyclesport comedies are an odd subject and at times the focus on cycling might put off the more general viewer. Fans of cycling, especially Belgian cycling, will enjoy this. It’s amusing at times for the slapstick, dark comedy in other moments but better for the insider cycling references and the way it gently prods at the sport and its rituals. It’s far from the greatest film ever made but an amusing and sometimes hilarious distraction.