Film Review: Wonderful Losers

There’s usually only one winner each day in a race and only a few contenders meaning most of the peloton have a different job to do. Their daily self-sacrifice is the basis for this film.

Is this a cycling film? Part of the wonder of the film is that attempting to answer this leads us down a long road. Yes there are scenes of men racing, we have team cars, lycra and other clichés of a bike race but they all seem superficial. The usual linear tale of a race with the start, middle and victory is absent and this spares us the clumsy explainers needed for the general public, there’s no “Stage Racing for Dummies” primer. Watch closely and the scenes from the Giro d’Italia are from both 2014 and 2015, something readers of a niche cycling blog could notice. You may also spot one of the concluding scenes is Svein Tuft being applauded as he dons the maglia rosa in Belfast, but work out this happened right at the start of the filming. The point is not to be picky on the continuity, it’s telling us about the role of the domestique rather than presenting a set of events from one edition of the Giro. It’s it’s not about the Giro and someone who has never sat down to watch the Tour de France will still be able to enjoy the film without having to worry about jargon like peloton, nor tactics and aerodynamics. Yet the race is also the fundamental premise, a caravan crossing the mountains in a blizzard or speeding into town and so it’d be hard to make something like this if it was about athletics, tennis or boxing.

It’s reminiscent of Louis Malle’s 1962 documentary “Vive Le Tour” (search and you’ll find it online), a short film that explored the Tour de France and where the race and results were almost extraneous to the stories of hardship as riders fetch drinks or endure injuries and crashes. Malle’s soundtrack of an accordion isn’t far from the soundtrack to this film with its breathing, the repeated inhalation and exhalation. Wonderful Losers shows the same agony when a rider crashes hard.

The trailer shows crashes, mud and blood and a reservation before sitting down to watch was this was going to be a celebration of gore and crashes, or a prolonged version of the “cyclists are tougher than footballers” internet meme. It’s neither. Here the camera lingers on the rider on the ground, a long single shot of their attempts to stand up and either get back on their bike or climb into an ambulance. Film affords the slow shot which TV with its cutback, slow-mo and replays barely allows for, perhaps rightly so because there’s still a race on. Here it’s the story of the domestique and long hospital scenes show what’s involved. We may see a crash for a few seconds, read of an “abandon” or catch the letters DNF next to a name on a results sheet, this film shows the medical staff at work, the rehab and explores the anxious thoughts of a rider as they lie in hospital. The scariest scene is a shot of a pouch of medical supplies as the Giro race medics perform a quick stock check, checking the oxygen masks and naming the vials of medicines, a medicinal version of Chekhov’s gun to foreshadow the possibility of grave accidents rather than show a horror crash itself.

Director Arūnas Matelis includes lots of footage of tunnels. Drive around Italy and it’s part of the travel, the same for the Giro’s journey but Matelis uses footage to suggest the race isn’t taking place beside the crowds and in warm sunlight but instead riders are in the shadows rather than the limelight, something compounded by the shots of the peloton in a snowstorm as slush seems to build up in the camera lens. Two riders, Daniele Colli and Svein Tuft, are the most visible in front of the cameras but their tales could almost be those of others – indeed they’re not actually introduced, nor even named during the film. Tuft’s unique ways come across right from the start with his backwoods training, using old truck tires for strength training; working on his recovery, immune system and cortisol levels by bathing in an icy stream; and while some travel to Tenerife or rig altitude altitude tents in their bedrooms, Tuft takes a sleeping bag to the top of a mountain in Andorra and sleeps in the wild and the film has him musing on his job while sitting in front of a campfire. You’ll finish the film wanting more Tuft, an oddity for the scripted and branded World Tour peloton.

But is it art? Some scenes can make us reflect on what helping others. One shows a Giant-Shimano soigneur holding up musettes in the feedzone and his face is a picture of concentration as he scans the distant peloton and eventually hands up the bag. It’s all in one long shot that’s 90 seconds long and it feels longer… but all this for a man to hand up a bag of sandwiches? We might spot this but for the typical public the soigneur could be a racer with his team clothing and sunglasses and they’ll watch and watch until the final moment reveals he’s not a racer but team staff and it’s interesting this way.

The Verdict
Many a documentary have a premise of “here’s what happened and here’s what you should think about it“. Wonderful Losers goes easy on the diagnosis and prescription to the point of being vague, not evasive but open-ended, take what you see. Those hoping for action and revelations will be disappointed and it’s deliberately slow, this is not a montage of fast-moving scenes, it doesn’t end with a life-affirming message and a feel-good track as the credits roll. Think of it as a form of meditation to allow us to dwell on the topic without caring who actually won that day.

Chances are regular readers know all about the role of domestiques in a race and know the likes of Tim Declercq, Sam Bewley or Imanol Erviti to name three among hundreds of workers who’ll shape races this year. But you’ll still enjoy the film for the way it shows their side of things and because the film doesn’t focus on Colli and Tuft themselves but more upon their experiences and ideas it’s universal to the peloton and because of this it’ll probably stand the test of time, like Malle’s Vive Le Tour.



28 thoughts on “Film Review: Wonderful Losers”

  1. It looks interesting and this is a topic I wanted to explore a part of myself. Mainly I think stories on the riders getting dropped and ploughing on is as fascinating as the winner, but it’s not something you see/read much about, probably because it is bad for business in pro cycling world, so riders shy away from talking about it never mind celebrate it. But it is still something every rider will experience at some point.

    • It’s also an essential part of the sport, with 200 starters in the race that means 199 “losers” although in cycling we qualify this with talk of making the podium, a top-10, points or other things which as a good such as making the break, closing down the break and so on. But certainly towing the peloton for 100km or acting as a bodyguard for a team leader for three hours is a less visible role especially if it’s before the TV cameras appear. But telling these stories is as much a part of winning the race. For a good example look at the old Cervelo Test Team’s “Beyond the Peloton” documentaries which tell the story of trying to win even if you know it can’t happen that often.

      • Beyond the Peloton was a great series, I believe it is still available on YouTube? Shame it faded away with the merger as it would have been good insight having behind the scenes in Garmin/Cannondale etc… up to the news at the Vuelta in 2017.

  2. I am a VC member and watched it about 4 weeks ago. It’s subtitled for the most part. I really enjoyed the film, it’s a great look at the domestique’s but goes into more detail around the hardship etc as you have pointed out.

    It’s a worthy rent for sure.

  3. If this is half-as-good as Vive Le Tour it would be worth watching, but I’ll wait until it (like Vive Le Tour) is free via YouTube. Seems like all the good ones have been uploaded these days – Greatest Show on Earth, Stars and Water Carriers, 23 Days in July…

    • The thought occurs that if everyone expects content to just be stuck up for free rather than shelling out a couple of quid to watch it, there’ll be no content left to enjoy.

    • We’ll all come and join one of your rides for free, if we puncture we’ll ask for a spare tube, when it’s lunch we’ll sit at the table you’ve reserved at the cafe along the route. Ok? 😉

      Joking aside yes Vive le Tour is all over youtube and worth watching but Louis Malle went onto greater things and presumably riches. Here the film maker spent eight years on this and sold his house and I think it costs $8 to rent. Like I say above if you want 70 minutes of action and scenery… don’t go for this but if you want something exploring this hard job (and to see how Svein Tuft trains in March) then it’s enjoyable.

      • C’mon, media has no value these days, it’s all free via the net! There’s a guy who runs this thing called Inner Ring and he won’t even set up a pay scheme so fans can support his work, instead he wants you to buy caps and socks! 🙂
        Joking aside, this seems like something (like Vive Le Tour) that will have the same value years from now when it’s free on YouTube like the other great films I mentioned…so if/when it shows up there I’ll remember your review and take a look.

        • Just because you yourself place no value on media, doesn’t mean media has no value. Slightly surprising from you; considering how old-fashioned your views about cycling can be, I thought you’d be old-school about this too.

          • No room for any sort of joke on here these daze I guess? But media’s a funny thing, no? Since I am old I remember when they produced it and you bought it whether it was a newspaper, magazine, vinyl, etc. Rarely was it just given away (like TV) though I can remember some free local cycling publications – they were worth what they cost with articles usually written for free by writers who couldn’t sell their work as it wasn’t very good.
            Fast forward to now, when media’s free all over the internet with very, very few paywalls. Only those will truly excellent content can (NYT, etc.) can get people to pay these days.
            Just like with films, how many go to the movie theater and pay to sit there with their feet sticking to the floor listening to someone talking through the thing vs waiting for it to show up a few months later included in a home-theater package or streamed for free on YouTube? If this film’s as good as Vive Le Tour it’ll still be good when it shows up on YouTube. Somehow I think the creators will still be making money from it one way or another. Is that my fault?

          • Larry,
            I wouldn’t say it’s your fault – it’s entirely up to the creators how they choose to monetise it after all -I say this as I realised after I commented that it’s available via CyclingTips to their membership. But it’s their choice, that’s the critical thing, and they should be the ones to benefit.

            The problem I have with watching copyrighted content via YouTube etc is basically “how d0 you ensure the creators are the beneficiaries of any stream”?
            Say someone (and not the creator) ripped the DVD and stuck it up on YouTube without permission, would you have any qualms about watching it? Personally, I would. Home Theatre or Netflix or whatever at least ensures that the creator will benefit somehow.

            Many people online think things should be free to them and distribute things accordingly – this is without wondering (or caring) where the money to make future content will come from.

            YouTube is a rat’s nest of illegally uploaded copyrighted content that is posted and reposted, and it can take a very long time to have things removed.

            I think media has a problem in that it will most likely find its way onto the internet for free one way or another if something is decent content (or indecent, if one reads up about how P*rnh*b came to be – Jon Ronson’s output is excellent about this, “The Butterfly Effect”).

            This can be through straightforward outright sharing, or even simply cherrypicking important quotes and making an article – you see this all the time, somewhere that’s not behind a paywall like the BBC or The Guardian will publish a report quoting from something that is behind a paywall like The Times or Telegraph.

          • Inrng wrote “Vive Le Tour” (search and you’ll find it online) not me. Did he check to see if whomever controls the copyright gets benefit if you find and watch it before he posted that? As to the rest of the fauxtrage expressed here I’ll explain that I’ve happily paid in the past for VHS copies of Stars and Watercarriers and all of the other greats, including many that had to be ordered from Bromley in the UK.
            I’m sorry that you didn’t get the JOKE I was making about the value of media.

  4. This is a film that I really want to screen at the cycling film club I run. Just need to track down agreement for a licence to screen it which is the most frustrating part of trying to screen films I’ve found. I’ve never been able to find out a contact for Stars and Water Carriers for example so so far have not been able to screen that.

    • IAN- just curious as to what prevents you from projecting any film available on YouTube in front of an audience as long as it’s not for commercial purposes?
      Back-in-the-day I contacted the folks I purchased my original VHS tapes from before I transferred them to disc (which of course digitized them) even volunteering to purchase copies on disc from them, but they said “knock yourself out” when I explained I was doing this just to preserve them for my own non-commercial use.

      • @Larry – technically in the UK if you are screening a film publicly – even if you are not charging for it you need permission / a licence to do so. Also I screen my films in a bar so need to make sure that everything is legit. I’m also very keen that those who produce content get something for it. So I run the nights as a not for profit and simply split the cost of the licence between the number of seats I have. It works out well for all concerned I think. The difficulty can be actually getting a licence in the first place – Stars and Water Carriers being a good example but I have a long list of ideas / films to screen that I’ve not been able to get permission for yet.

  5. Sveino warrants. Film all off his own. From riding down from Canada to Southern US with a trailer on the back to camping on college football fields. He is a wonderful human being. Along with his belief systems 🤘🍀

  6. I just watched it and enjoyed it. It certainly shows a different side of racing that many don’t see but most of us are pretty much aware of.

  7. Thanks for the review and the link. I’ll be renting it this weekend. I also just finished “A Dog in a Hat”, from your recommendation, and very much enjoyed it. A first hand account of a second-tier US racer making a living in Belgium in the 80’s. Great stuff. Makes me want to throw a kermis race or two.

  8. I watched it 3 times (haha, got my money’s worth!), the last time with my wife. Watching the medical team leap out at a crash site and begin an immediate triage of damages like medics on a battlefield; the soigneur handing out musettes, his facial expression shifting to a look of terror as the thickest part of the peloton flies past, and the faint glimmer of pride once he’s done, you understand how dangerous the feedzone is; Daniel Colli overcoming his injuries, taking his first steps; and of course SveinT, a sort of Paul Bunyan figure. Yes, i enjoyed it.

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