A tale of three documentaries

This post is a review (of sorts) touching on three films about cycling. All portray amateur efforts to overcome physiological and psychological limitations, and two of the three end up, by chance, being about topics rather grander (and darker) than the original intentions of the film-makers. The final film of the set is no less complex, but, for me at least, speaks of a less troubled and more positive version of cycling obsession, possibly only because of the reality that unfolded, but serendipity aside I think we could all do with something constructive and life-affirming right now.

The three films in question are Icarus, The Journey to the Other Side, and Brevet. All play with the truth about cycling and what it takes to challenge expectations of human capacity.

Because I have to start somewhere I will start with Icarus because it is the film which deviates most from its initial authorial intention, indeed wandering so far that one ends up wondering whether the shift in subject from frustrated amateur cyclist and film-maker, to Russian (anti)doping czar is also a shift in authorship. The slip from being a film about doping to being THE film about doping is both fascinating and troubling.

But the hidden narrative here is that the director started making a tired and formulaic replica of stories by others about amateur self-doping, and was saved by his access, granted by Don Catlin (oh yes the man with the freezer of doom), to the greatest orchestrator of doping fraud (no not LA), Grigory Rodchenkov (and just how charismatic is he?). What gets lost on the way is that this starts out as a redemption film for the director, who is trying to push himself to place higher in the Hautes Routes event, and who knows that the people above him are probably doping and getting away with it (although he is careful not to say this explicitly). Hilariously, his doping regime improves his physiology, but seems to have a negative psychological impact, and cannot offset the mechanical issues which cost him time (although see this interview, which I read after seeing the film). This is a film about failure: everyone in it is a failure, from WADA to individual athletes and indeed Rodchenkov himself. And like all car crashes it is a joy to watch, but does little to make me feel positive about the future of sport of cycling, or my place in it. I too am frustrated by my inability to succeed in cycling as I wish to, but there isn’t anything here for me except the fascination of the ethicist confronted by mendacious and talented scoundrels.

Given that I have publicly enjoyed following three editions of the Transcontinental Race (and written about it here and here), and ride relatively long distances, often solo, you might imagine that The Journey to the Other Side would float my boat in a more direct manner, and maybe even provide some helpful pointers to becoming a better long-distance cycling. This film is an unofficial documentary covering the first edition of the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, which has a similar format to races like the transcontinental, but is actually closer to some of the unsupported US races that follow a fixed route, such as the Trans Am. I was troubled by some of what I saw of this race, and the approach to risk being taken by riders, but generally I accept that although I would do differently, that is a personal choice. Watching the documentary made me feel less comfortable, and I wrote most of the next two paragraphs last year, well before this year’s edition of the race was cancelled in response to the inquest into Mike Hall’s death.

There is no doping here (as far as I can see), but there is death, and there is a rather unpleasant if not unsurprising fatalism which I found completely surprising, and somewhat shocking. The obvious and painful contrast between the ‘winner’ (who does not win) and the ‘loser’ who dies is present right from the start, before anyone (unless you live under a rock) knows the outcome. Mike Hall looks troubled and unhappy, whereas Kristof Allegaert looks carefree and talks endlessly of fun. I followed this race as it happened, and watched a duel which looked honourable. This film my made me deeply uncomfortable, and I question your empathy if you can watch it without discomfort. But that isn’t the fault of the documentary which has an honesty and directness that Icarus lacks. The catch sequence made me feel physically sick. I haven’t been able to watch it twice, although I have dipped in to check my memory on some issues.

In short and this is the bit I have struggled with, I have come to the conclusion that being “more Mike” isn’t necessarily an embrace of life. It is, as is so often with extreme sports (such as mountaineering), an embrace of risk and marginality which is far from where I think cycling should be going. Nearly every recent race of this kind includes a fatality (most recent editions of IPWR, TABR & TCR all had fatalities), and the only attempt to properly estimate the risk of entering a race of this kind suggested it could be as dangerous as BASE jumping. If I discovered that the fatal accident rates were as high on Audax rides I would never start. There, I’ve said it, and take no pleasure in it. I found it extraordinary that when the lanterne rouge of last year’s Transcontinental expressed a similar view he was asked to delete the offending tweets. He’s now gone from twitter, so you’ll have to take my word for it. I have much more to say about what I found in this film, but I’m not ready to share. Suffice it to say I am not aligned with the majority of the YouTube commenters on the film.

The final film, Brevet, follows three participants in an event I had entered, but failed to start: Paris-Brest-Paris 2015.

Brevet – Official Trailer – English from CURLYPICTURES on Vimeo.

PBP is an amateur race that isn’t a race, a de-fanged version of itself, run for randonneurs, but raced at the front, whilst everyone else rides for their own time, their own finish. I am very different to the three riders they followed: two were younger and very competent faster riders, the other an older, slower but much more experienced rider. Yet there were elements in things they said and did that resonated deeply with why I started (and have returned to) long distance riding. In a sport where I have experienced much bullshit, there was little here to upset me: no cutting corners, lots of cameraderie, and the risk-taking seemed within bounds. These were people pushing limits, but not so far that they seemed self-destructive or cruel. The film simply did what it set out to do. And the smiles seemed truly genuine: for one it was the satisfaction of continued flow; another the satisfaction of challenge met; and for the third a joy in life which I am sure helped her complete the most recent Transcontinental Race. I bought the full version, with English subtitles. If I ride PBP in 2019 it will be because I watched it.

Epilogue

Shortly after writing the first draft of this piece four cyclists on the Flatlands 600 (a ride I considered entering this season) were struck by a hit and run driver.

The cancellation of IPWR also happened. Long distance cycling is risky, and that the pressure of racing undoubtedly increases this risk. I also know that bad driving is much more likely to be the cause of an RTA than bad cycling, but also that the risk profile changes with distance and lack of sleep. As Chris White (who has finished TCR three times) puts it:

The strongest criticism that I’ve heard about ultra-distance bike races is that they encourage people to cycle on public roads in a state of reduced alertness. Race organizers have a minimal influence on this, so participants need to manage their rest sensibly. There are not only personal goals and safety to consider, but also the safety of other road users and the future viability of this format of racing.

Ride Far

Finally, this has become rather more real to me as I have entered the inaugural Race Around the Netherlands. I am minimizing my risk by entering a race on Dutch roads and cycle infrastructure, and by building a schedule that includes plenty of sleep. I know I can ride 600 km on 2 hours sleep, but I am certain that I will need much more than 5.5 hours to ride 1600 kmt! In other words I am playing safe. I cannot do otherwise. I don’t expect you to watch (although you can if you want), and I don’t really care what you think of me (although that’s probably a lie). It’s not about you (?).

And it’s not about Mike Hall, who I admired as the creator of the TCR and promoter of long-distance unsupported riding, and as a talented racer who I could never emulate even if I wanted to:
I don’t want to be more Mike, I want to be more… me. And If I cannot reconcile the risk, or overcome my fear (those are two different things) I won’t start.

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When a punch is not just a punch: vigilantism, fascism, sport and fiction

Superheroes conflate goodness with hitting things. For the superhero genre, the best person in the world is the one with the greatest power; beating evil is a matter of hitting it harder. A world in which force and goodness are one and the same and both always triumph is a world in which you’re essentially worshipping force…

(Berlatsky, 2013)

[Warning: this piece contains movie spoilers and the examples portray real and fictional violence]

Yesterday Chris Froome punched a spectator during a Tour de France stage. I was surprised to see many commentators (both professional and amateur) supporting this violent act: in summary, they argued, fans get too close to riders and are endangering them in their workplace, therefore a punch is justified through the principle of self-defence. I found myself disagreeing with this rationale as I do not think such actions are justified in general or in this particular instance. The punch was, I would argue, both disproportionate (the fan seemed to be presenting a potential rather than immediate threat) and a vigilante act outside the expectations of rider behaviour. The race jury agreed with me, and the video evidence might form a fairly good basis for an assault prosecution in other circumstances. Whilst some have characterised the blow as an elbow/forearm strike, it certainly isn’t a push or a barge, and is clearly premeditated – unlike George Bennett’s collision today (with an almost stationary fan on a bend) which looks almost reflex and unavoidable.

I do not intend to dwell on all that though. Opinions are cheap. The more interesting debate to be had is around the collision between sport as a fictional spectacle and the reality it occupies. Froome and the fan are real people: their altercation resulted in physical consequences. Many of those who were excusing and even praising Froome’s actions seemed to be revelling in a vigilante approach to fan control. The argument goes like this: if the fans are dangerous and can’t be controlled by the authorities then this is justification for taking the ‘law’ into one’s own hands. There are two components here: the right to take action as an individual and the extent of this action. Whilst many might find a shove or barge acceptable in relation to the first component, the escalated level of response in this case seems to tap into a desire for disproportionate action: punishment rather than self-protection. And this takes us, depressingly, to the links between vigilantism and fascism.

Before getting all serious though, we need a detour into the pure fiction of the superhero, away from the hybrid fictional reality of sport. We’ve been here before of course. I’m not the first person to associate champion cyclists with superhero narratives. Take seemingly inhuman performances, add technological and biological performance enhancement, and you just need morally self-righteous violence for the superhero analogy to be complete. And we all know what happens when the morality turns out to be fake: Armstrong looked like a superhero until he was exposed as a bully and fraud. What concerns me is that in these days of the hyper-real the violence of Armstrong  (mainly psychological) or Hinault (rather more err… direct) isn’t just entertainment or spectacle, but also real: the victims (Simeoni; French trade unionists) are real, and although we can treat these events as fictions to be amused by or learnt from, they actually happened.

In a recent piece by Chris Yogerst in The Atlantic an attempt was made to argue that our fictional superheroes are not fascist, and that their vigilantism somehow aligns with more liberal tendencies. Benjamin Welton, in a slightly more sophisticated piece, contrasts the actions of Dirty Harry of Magnum Force with Frank Miller’s Batman: the former, while on the edge of the rules, works to maintain them, whereas the latter undermines and eventually destroys them. Noah Berlatsky unlocks this further: for him superheroes may represent fascism, but the stories they are embedded in allow us to critique the logical consequences of their hyper-vigilantism. They are stories about the roots and consequences of vigilantism/fascism and the desire for power through violence and can be read as propaganda and/or critique. Some of the more deviant superheroes  (Wonder Woman, The Comedian, Deadpool) are written to more explicitly expose this critical tendency: in turn they show how you can be a superhero who isn’t a man and wants peace, how a superhero ends up a sadistic and amoral government stooge, or how you can be “super, but… …no hero”, revelling in comic nihilistic carnage.

 

But this is all fiction, not sport. Unlike the commentary on the Vietnam War in Watchmen, Froome’s punch is not just a fictional act, a signifier which connects him with the “hard men” of yesteryear. It is a real punch, probably born out of frustration, but nonetheless the exercise of excessive violence given the context. The surplus is symbolic, a message to all fans: get too close and you’ll get what’s coming to you. I’m happy to watch fictional violence when there is some effort to do more than just glorify it, but in real sport, no thanks. The fictional Jonathan E in Rollerball couldn’t tell the difference between sport and reality, and look where that takes him: the conventional reading of the apocalyptic ending of this movie is that it is a triumph of the individual over a corrupt dictatorship of corporate evil. But Jonathan E merely becomes a focus for undifferentiated glorification of a brutal spectacle, which when stripped of its social purposes and the rules that map onto these is just a sporting Lord of the Flies

We live in an age where fascism once again seems possible as a mass political movement. Trump, Brexit, ISIS, Putin and the like point inexorably towards the idea that folk is good and might is right. The frustrations of riders towards race organisers and federations over safety are real, but they do not justify any violence at all unless one believes that violence is the solution to frustration. It is all too easy for the powerful to co-opt our frustrations and their violent expression.

It may just be a punch to you but to me it symbolises all that can become wrong with sport. Froome may be super (and his winning attack certainly was), but he’s no hero…