Judge William Lee hasn't got the legs for bike racing but that doesn't keep him from wearing spandex shorts.
Our reviews of Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) (published May 31st, 2012), Hell on Wheels: The Complete Second Season (published July 16th, 2013), and Yell For Cadel (published March 25th, 2010) are also available.
Three films that go behind the scenes of professional bike racing.
The Tour de France is the Mount Everest of bicycle races. Its athletes practically run a marathon every day for 21 days. It's an annual competition that attracts a media circus and mobs of excited fans. Thanks to modern video and broadcast technologies, the Tour de France is also one of the most spectacular sporting events to watch on television. Cameras mounted on helicopters, cars, motorcycles, helmets and handlebars bring the action so close you can almost feel the 55mph wind on your face. Watching the peloton—the mass of cyclists strategically positioned to draft behind the leaders—glide through the French countryside, there is scenic grandeur to complement the thrilling speed and breathless crashes.
The Heart of the Peloton is a three-disc boxed set collecting three documentaries about the Tour. The films are available individually from First Run Features but their thematic link makes them well suited for a compilation set. Bike racing enthusiasts will appreciate the three perspectives on the most grueling contest of all. Viewing them as a set, the strengths of one film make up for the weaknesses of another.
Blood, Sweat + Gears: Racing Clean to the Tour de France chronicles a year in the life of Team Slipstream. Former pro racer Jonathan Vaughters started the American junior team after he quit the sport disgusted by the rampant doping among its participants. With a strong "racing clean" message, the upstart professional team works hard to earn an invitation to the 2008 Tour. The team roster includes David Millar, a disgraced veteran who was caught cheating and confessed his use of illegal supplements, and young rising star Christian Vande Velde. Produced for the Sundance Channel, this film does a great job of telling the human stories behind the sport. You really get a sense of the business of bike racing as you listen in on the strategy meetings and learn how decisions are made about who gets sent to which race. You also get an understanding of the professional racing circuit as the team participates in different "tours" around the world. One of the most punishing is the single-day Paris-Roubaix race over old Roman cobblestone roads. The physical and mental toll of the lifestyle is also evidenced by the injuries regularly sustained and the strained relationships of the racers. Blood, Sweat + Gears is about as intimate a portrait of pro bike racers as you can expect short of joining a team yourself.
Extras for the film include seven minutes of behind the scenes footage with director Nick Davis. The director's biography and his introductory statement are presented on text screens. In another 11-minute interview, David Millar talks about his experience with doping and his return to the sport after the scandal. Unfortunately, the technical specs are sub-par on this DVD. The picture is presented in a letterboxed 1.78:1 so viewers with wide screen monitors will have to zoom in if they don't like the black bars on all four sides of the image. Colors are bright with a nice level of saturation but the video is marred by excessive amounts of compression artifacts and digital noise. The two-channel mono sound is serviceable.
Hell on Wheels is a thoughtful German documentary focusing on the pink jersey-wearing Team Telekom during the 2003 Tour. Director Pepe Danquart uses lots of slow motion beauty shots and makes an effort to capture that pensive moment before a rider unleashes his power. Archival footage of the race from early in the twentieth century and comments from an expert on the history of the Tour de France expand the perspective of this film. There are moments shared with the fanatics who line the road in colorful costumes and the spectators in small villages patiently waiting for the peloton to whistle past. Höllentour, as it's titled in its native language, treats the race as an event steeped in tradition and as a sporting contest without equal. It certainly does not gloss over the physical toil of the riders.
Off the road, bike racers Alexander Winokurow, Rolf Aldag and Erik Zabel speak candidly about their profession, all the while receiving deep massage and other therapy to rejuvenate their spent bodies. While all of them dream of one day winning the Tour, most are resigned to the likelihood that they'll never capture a single stage. They pray they'll complete the race to Paris; they're thankful for the strength to last just one more day. This view of the race makes it look like a prolonged physical punishment but the camaraderie on display suggests the strong team bond in play. There are other revealing details about the Tour de France that happen outside the frame of the television cameras but are glimpsed here. For one, the doctors who check out the riders during the race, administering examinations while hanging out of a speeding car. There are also the pee breaks which, once you see it happen, you realize of course they have to do it somewhere.
Hell on Wheels looks and sounds quite good on this DVD. The anamorphic video shows a consistent level of film grain that is noticeable but not distracting. The grain and the color palette lend the film a pleasing celluloid quality. The stereo audio is basic but the Germany (predominantly), French and English voices are clear enough. English subtitles translate the dialogue only when it's needed. Supplemental materials are: seven minutes of bonus footage (mostly of a town's street crew working before and after race day), a photo gallery and the trailer.
Yell for Cadel, the third disc in this documentary set, may be of interest to Tour fans but as a stand-alone title it is a weak effort. Striving for a vérité look behind the scenes of the race—it is fashioned together from raw video and audio from the 2008 Tour and no narration is used—it feels, however, like an unfinished product. The footage, looking like parts of a video diary, captures the action between stages or just after the film's subject, Australia's Cadel Evans, finishes racing for the day. As a result, the film is mostly detached from the excitement of the crowds and the exhilarating speed of the peloton. For the first third of the film, I wasn't sure if the camera was actually at the Tour de France or a series of preliminary races. All we learn about the race comes from the inter-title screens that open each chapter—and sometimes the transitions from those screens are timed too fast. It's too bad that this film doesn't quite measure up because Evans comes across as a pretty interesting and likable guy. He's clearly a driven athlete and it's commendable how he deals with fans and the media. He manages to stay remarkably cool when suddenly surrounded by a mob of cameras even though he's completely exhausted. The film leans slightly toward building Evans as a celebrity athlete but we also see a lot of his team and support crew. Probably the key thing learned from watching all three movies in this set is that professional bike racing is without question a team sport.
The video quality of this disc is mixed—sometimes it looks broadcast quality and other times it looks like a poorly streaming online video. Some interviews appear to be recorded at lower frame rates. The picture detail tends to be soft and colors are slightly washed out in daylight situations. The audio suffers from location conditions so the quality is inconsistent but for the most part subjects' voices are clear when it counts. There are about 20 minutes of bonus interviews and footage of the time trials, engineering tests and physical treatments.
Viewers that are already fans of the sport will enjoy The Heart of the Peloton for the three different perspectives on professional cycling's biggest contest. It should be noted, however, that none of the films offers a complete picture of the Tour de France for the uninitiated. The first two discs in the set show much of the logistics that make the race work but further Internet research will fill in the gaps regarding rules and Tour routes. These films are not meant to be an introduction to the sport but anyone with a cursory knowledge of the race and who isn't overly concerned about the nitty-gritty details will follow events just fine. The third disc is worth a look for fans but it's not as involving compared to the others. If you don't already own Hell on Wheels, the boxed set is worth considering as a purchase since you get another two different and recent perspectives on the sport.
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