A handful of filmmakers attempted to take us inside the Tour de France during the early 2000s. Their documentaries captured the grandeur of the race, but missed the doping, dysfunction, and nefarious activity that we now know was pervasive during this era.
That’s not to say, however, that history has rendered these films worthless. Instead, watching them with the benefit of hindsight is a surprisingly revealing exercise. Riders and managers tiptoe around the sensitive subjects in interviews. Seemingly innocuous comments gain new significance. And as fans, we can hypothesize and extrapolate what they were actually trying to say. Here are three favorites.
“Hell on Wheels” (2004)
Directed by German filmmaker Pepe Danquart, “Hell on Wheels” (“Hollentour” in German) chronicles Team Telekom’s Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag as they suffer through the 2003 Tour. Stunning mountain shots and finish-line interviews show just how miserable it is to complete the race. The film has plenty of massage-table interviews and quirky behind-the-scenes moments, such as Telekom’s soigneur buttering the team’s chamois. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available on Netflix, but you can rent it on iTunes.
What we now know: Telekom’s team-wide doping program with Lothar Heinrich and Andreas Schmid stretched back to the mid-1990s. Aldag and Zabel have admitted to doping.
What we see: Both nearing the end of their respective careers, Zabel and Aldag are unable to keep up with the supercharged peloton. This failure leads to constant introspection. “Look at this shit,” Zabel says, flashing the tooth-like profile of a mountain stage to the camera. “Why didn’t I become a surfer?”
Revealing Moment: While detailing Tyler Hamilton’s heroic, solo stage 16 win, Zabel rolls his eyes and gives a deadpan expression as he recounts the action.
“Hamilton really took off in front, like a motorcycle,” Zabel says. “Everyone just shook their heads. They couldn’t believe it. When I caught up with the field there were about 55km to go. I asked somebody, ‘What’s the situation?’ They said Hamilton was up front with five minutes’ lead. Behind him, there were three more. Groups of 10 kept trying to catch him. And every 10km they fell back, exhausted. It was wild. And he still came in two minutes ahead. I’ve seen a lot, but that was really over the top today.”
“Overcoming” takes fans inside Team CSC during the 2004 Tour de France. Directed by Danish filmmaker Tomas Gislason, the film focuses on team owner Bjarne Riis, presenting the former Tour winner as a Svengali-like motivator who finds a way to get the best out of his riders.
What we now know: Former CSC riders Tyler Hamilton, Bo Hamburger, Michael Rasmussen, and Jorg Jaksche have all said that Riis knew about their doping. A recent report from the Danish Anti-Doping Agency has stated that Riis also encouraged his riders to dope.
What we see: A stressed-out Riis uses a wide range of psychological tactics and cajoling to get his riders to do things, like jump into freezing water and use power meters. We also see that Ivan Basso can’t swim or speak English, and Bobby Julich likes ketchup.
Revealing moment: Hoo boy, there are a few. Riis spends the entire movie convincing his riders to do things, so you must wonder what he’s able to get them to do off-camera. And the film is packed with Riis quotes that show just how far he will go to win.
“The fate of the team depends on me,” Riis says. “Of course it does. So you think: Is it dangerous that [the riders] are extras in my little show?
“I can’t let myself wonder or worry about whether others approve of what I’m doing,” he says.
And finally, a smiling Riis addresses a straightforward question about doping. “Unfortunately in this sport, if someone rides fast, they’re probably doing this and that. What should we do about it?”
“Nike Presents: Road to Paris” (2001)
Produced by Nike’s ad agency of record, Wieden + Kennedy, “Road to Paris” gave casual American cycling fans one of their first in-depth looks at Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal team. There are some really memorable moments, including a Belgian radio commentator convincing George Hincapie that he’s actually won Gent-Wevelgem. The complete film is available for free on YouTube.
What we now know: The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s “Reasoned Decision” took us on a deep dive into Postal’s team-wide doping program.
What we see: Omerta at its finest. The film’s central thesis is to explain why Armstrong and Postal are the best in the world. The explanation? They simply train harder, are closer friends, and take things more seriously than the other teams. Or, as Paul Sherwin says, “Lance and his team train to hit specific goals. I think that’s the difference.”
Most revealing moment: In one interview, Armstrong discusses his motivation to win. “I really enjoy just constantly seeing if it’s going to continue to work,” he says. “We have this template and we can continue to run it over and over again. Train hard and make sacrifices. Just to win the biggest and best bike race in the world year after year.” Unfortunately, Armstrong does not give any details about the team’s winning “template.”