Film Review: Le Vélo de Ghislain Lambert

Ghislain Lambert

“The loser” is a regular staple for comedy films, yet often celebrated in cycling as the lanterne rouge. Add on scenes from retro Belgium circa 1970, insert a comic actor with good timing and an elastic face and things get better.

This Belgian 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 Man Bites Dog film from 1992. Here 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, literally with slapstick scenes of riders flying over the handlebars into the ditch for laughs. Such stunts are sure to appeal to a wider public while the cycling fan can enjoy 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, a joke grounded in reality. There’s more, for example mocking Eddy Merckx who built a primitive 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 no story of cycling can escape this.

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 credits cite Pierre Tosi, a modest pro in the 1970s with stints at the Gitane-Frigécrème team in 1973 and Magiglace-Juaneda in 1974, you can see where the Magicrème team in the film gets its name from. 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 (a lot of the mountain scenes come from the Semnoz and Bauges in the Alps). 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 Belgian comedy with subtitles. The cycling fan will get more from it with all the cultural references and in-jokes. Non-cyclists will laugh at Lambert’s tragedies, 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 still 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.

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

  1. I bought a DVD copy on Amazon I believe based on the original review. Could not find it streamable.
    Thoroughly enjoyable. The chasing skirts (strictly forbidden of course) sequence pulled out memories of Fingnon’s We Were Young and Carefree.

  2. Funny to see that there must have been photomontage on the poster, as the bike has chainrings and derailleurs on the left side. I wonder if this was intentional, to carry some sense of absurdity. Or was it simply poor photography and graphic design planning, the picture not fitting they decided to flip it, then putting back the jersey, bib and cap inscriptions in the right orientation?

  3. Hi – If anyone is interested in films / docs centred around the bicycle you may want to check out the list that I’ve shown in the bicycle film club that I run – here – covers all aspects of cycling not just road as different film genres from comedy to existential to serious etc. The club has been on hiatus for a bit as I’ve had other things going on in my life. However I aim to get it going again at some point. I’ve always wanted to show Le Vélo de Ghislain Lambert but not as yet managed to track down who can authorise a screening license. Stay safe everyone.

Comments are closed.