October 4, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Kieron J. Walsh
Culture Representation: Taking place in Ireland in 1998, the sports drama “The Racer” features an all-white cast representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A 38-year-old Belgian cyclist, who is a domestique (supporting) team member in the 1998 Tour de France, faces an uncertain future because he’s been a longtime doper who will soon be considered too old for the sport, at a time when pro cycling officials are starting to crack down on dopers.
Culture Audience: “The Racer” will appeal primarily to people interested in dramatic movies about professional cyclists, the Tour de France and the types of athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs.
You don’t have to be a sports fan to know that for many athletes, winning at all costs is the only thing that matters. It’s why using performance-enhancing drugs (or “doping”) will always be around, even though some sports leagues have made some headline-grabbing attempts to punish athletes who have been caught using these drugs while competing in their sports. “The Racer” is a fictional look at a professional cyclist who is caught up in a doping lifestyle, not just because he wants to do it, but because he can.
People who are interested in the psychology and culture of doping in cycling have plenty of documentaries for reference, including the Oscar-winning 2017 film “Icarus” and the several documentaries that have been made about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of all of his Tour de France champion titles. “The Racer” (directed by Kieron J. Walsh), which takes place in 1998, is an intimate look at a fictional doper cyclist who’s a “domestique”: someone whose only job on the team is not to win but to be a supporting team player who will help the chosen team member win.
Because of the nature of their supporting roles on the team, domestiques don’t get the glory of being racing champions. It takes a certain kind of person who is willing to accept this role of knowing they’ve agreed in advance to lose the race as an individual so that someone else on the team can win. These types of athletes don’t have a big enough ego to crave being the center of attention as a champion. They’re just happy to be a part of the team and make it to the big leagues of the Tour de France.
Belgian cyclist Dominique “Dom” Chabol (played by Louis Talpe) is that type of person. Dom, who is part of the fictional Austrange cycling team of international cyclists, is at a crossroads in his career because his contract with the team might not get renewed and he’s at an age when most professional athletes have to start preparing for retirement. He is 38 years old, he’s been a sports cyclist for about 25 years, and his entire identity is being a cyclist. At one point in the movie he says, “Without a bike, I’m nobody.”
Dom is also a longtime doper. Why? Because being a doper is considered “normal” in pro cycling. Almost all the pro cyclists take performance-enhancing drugs, according to Dom. Based on what former Tour de France champ Armstrong and many of his former teammates have told the media, doping in pro cycling has been an open secret in real life for years.
Dom is a loner whose closest companion is his cycling team’s “Dr. Feelgood,” who supplies them with the drugs and secretive medical treatment that he gives to the dopers on the team. This drug supplier is a Brit named Sonny McElhone (played by Iain Glen), a former pro cyclist who has a “father figure” persona to the cyclists on the team. Sonny travels with the team, so that he’s always on call whenever members of the team need his services.
Sonny’s official title is “trainer/physical therapist” but he’s really a glorified drug dealer who injects the cyclists with the drugs and does things like gives massages to the cyclists, watches them train, and monitors their vital signs. Dom is one of Sonny’s favorite team members because Dom is easy to get along with and respectful to everyone. Sonny also makes sure that the team’s owners and management don’t get all the details about the drug activity, because these head honchos just don’t want to know.
The star cyclist of the Austrange team is Lupo “Tartare” Marino (played by Matteo Simoni), an emotionally volatile Italian who is both cocky and insecure. Tartare is most insecure the night before a big race, when he has severe anxiety. When he has these anxiety attacks, Tartare paces back and forth and starts rambling about how he’s going to lose the race. Tartare also has the huge ego of someone who needs to be the center of attention, but he backs up that ego with the athletic talent of someone who’s very capable of winning races.
Dom is the only one who can really calm Tartare’s nerves when Tartare is having an anxiety attack. Therefore, Tartare is not only physically dependent on Dom to be his domestique during their races together, but Tartare is also emotionally dependent on Dom. Tartare and Dom are not close friends, but they are generally respectful of each other.
The Austrange Team’s coach is nicknamed Viking (played by Karel Roden), who is a no-nonsense leader with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about the doping on his team. His chief concern is winning. And if members of the team use illegal drugs that are commonplace in their profession, he’s not going to stop them.
Dom does not have the type of close relationship with Viking that he has with Sonny. Dom’s contract with the Austrange team will soon be up for renewal, but Viking won’t give Dom an answer either way about whether or not the team will renew the contract with Dom. Viking says that a lot of it will depend on how well Dom does in the current Tour de France, which is taking place in Ireland that year, since France is hosting the World Cup.
The movie takes place when the Austrange Team is in Ireland for the first three stages of the Tour de France. During this trip, Dom starts to experience difficulty breathing, dizziness and night sweats. And so, Sonny calls a doctor to give Dom a checkup in Dom’s hotel room.
The doctor who gives Dom this medical exam is one of those “only in the movies” type of doctor. She just happens to be a 26-year-old Irish blonde beauty who looks and dresses more like a young actress than a typical doctor. Her name is Dr. Lynn Brennan (played by Tara Lee), and she’s the only woman in the movie with a significant on-camera speaking role. As soon as Lynn is introduced in the movie, it’s obvious that she’s going to be the love interest for Dom.
It’s a very “male gaze” director cliché that the would-be girlfriend has to be good-looking and often much younger than the leading man. The Lynn Brennan character is the one casting choice in the movie that is not convincing at all. And it didn’t have to be that way. It would not have been hard to cast a female doctor who’s attractive and intelligent but also looks like she actually has several years of job experience in the real world, instead of someone who looks like she recently graduated from college.
“The Racer” director Walsh (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Ciaran Cassidy) fortunately doesn’t let the movie get bogged down in a sappy romance. The movie realistically shows that an athlete like Dom who’s competing in the Tour de France will have this race as his single-minded obsession until his next major race. It’s why when Dom’s sister Emilie (played by Clarissa Vermaark) calls to tell Dom the bad news that their father has died, Dom chooses not to go to the funeral because it would mean that he would miss out on being in the Tour De France.
Emilie (who is not seen in the movie and is only a voice over the phone) is very upset with Dom’s decision, but he is unmoved. Dom isn’t cold-hearted, but he explains to Lynn that he never had a very emotionally close relationship with his parents. By contrast, Lynn is very close to her family. While she and Dom are at a pub together in their free time, she introduces him to her father Peter (played by Reamonn O’Byrne) and her uncle John (Lalor Roddy), who appear briefly in the film.
As for the racing scenes, they’re thrilling and filmed realistically. Because Dom is introverted, he tends to be emotionally closed off from his other teammates, so the other members of the team aren’t given much screen time in the movie. Dom is friendly to a young team newcomer named Enzo (played by Diogo Cid), who looks up to Dom. Although Dom gives this newbie team member some advice, Dom doesn’t exactly mentor Enzo either, since Dom keeps mostly to himself.
Because so much of “The Racer” depends on how Dom is depicted, Talpe does an admirable job in portraying the inner conflicts of someone who doesn’t express his emotions easily. He has a convincing physique as a doper cyclist with no body fat, but Talpe also brings to life a compelling psychological portrait of this very specific athlete. Glen also does a very good performance as Sonny, who come across as someone who’s convinced that he’s helping these athletes, even though the drugs he administers have long-term damaging effects to the athletes’ health.
The doping problem is not treated lightly in the movie (you can bet there’s at least one health scare experienced by a doper on the team), as the storyline of “The Racer” depicts the real-life doping scandal that took place during the 1998 Tour de France. Dom also has trouble dealing with how getting older is affecting his status on the team, when Viking chooses a younger, less experienced teammate named Erik Schultz (played by Paul Robert) instead of Dom for an important part of the Tour de France.
Will Lynn find out Dom’s doping secret? Will Dom get caught by racing officials? Will the Austrange team renew Dom’s contract, or will he go to another team? (The movie shows Dom making inquiries to join another team, in case he becomes a free agent.) All of those questions are answered in the movie, where Dom indeed makes some big decisions about his future. “The Racer” is a fictional story but it’s a competent dramatic depiction of the real-life issues faced by a doper cyclist whose entire self-esteem is wrapped up in the sport.
Gravitas Ventures released “The Racer” on digital and VOD on September 18, 2020.