Film Review: Le Vélo de Ghislain Lambert

Ghislain Lambert

“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.

Benoit Poelvoorde

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.

Ghislain Lambert 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.

The Verdict
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.

18 thoughts on “Film Review: Le Vélo de Ghislain Lambert”

  1. Thanks INRNG. Nice to see this reviewed. It’s a bit dated but even so a wonderful look at the sport and all its idiosyncrasies. As you rightly say, well worth viewing.

        • Anonymous. The subject matter is a 1970s bike comedy. For your elucidation the term ‘dated’ (colloq) has more than a dozen meanings, of which one of the more common is : ‘Be recognizable as belonging to a past or particular period’. Maybe the 1970s fits the description pretty well.

          If English happens to be your first language, then try a little harder not to lower the tone of this excellent site with your uninformed, juvenile and troll like contributions. You would also have been better advised to have used narcissism (n), which would have been the correct term if you intend to be abusive !

          Why so determined to spoil an excellent review from our host ?

  2. I haven’t seen this for years, but really enjoyed it when I did, and yes there is loads of little extra bits that cyclists will really enjoy. Thank you for reminding me of it!

  3. I had forgotten about this film. My French coach showed and translated it for my team when we were juniors. We laughed about it for the whole summer. This is like cycling’s version of Slapshot.

    • You’re trolling 😉

      Benoît Poelvoorde is francophone and presumably the Belgium + France box office is bigger than Belgium + Netherlands. Plus the film has references to Merckx including TV footage of him.

      • Maybe I am somewhat making that comment from under a bridge. I havn’t found a damning clip online yet, however it seems a safe bet that even in scenes that are clearly in in Flanders they’ll still have all the people and the announcer talking French. For me, that’d just be very jarring and highly detracting from the film, but for at least some Flemish viewers it’ll seem like the usual cultural arrogance that’s strengthened the Flemish nationalists over the years.

  4. I’ve seen it a lot of time ago and found it great. Must see for cycling fans.
    Am I wrong or was there a reference to beetroot, portraited as an advice given by some kind of Dr. Mabuse type? I didn’t know the movie dated back to 2001 and I’ve been quite surprised to find out that the vegetable reference could be so old, while it’s still pretty fashionable in Dr. Ferrari’s forum, for example.

    • Hehe, yes he’s told to eat “white radish” first by the special “Dr Mabuse” doctor he goes to visit. I can’t remember beetroot but there are other things, the scientific training methods of his last team. The script is loaded with references that a casual viewer won’t get.

    • At the end of the 1976 season I brought a bag full of ex team jerseys back from Brittany and sold most of them for a small profit, bought from Marcarini Cycles with the my seasons winnings, (my mate rode for Marcarini Cycles) who at the time had a shop in either Gourin or Carhaix can’t remember which. Coincidences eh!

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