Sunday, 19 April 2009

Die dog or shite the licence: Sport's greatest documentary

AS MANY a rhino and fully packed-up army regiment are 'tapering' for the London Marathon, my attention turns not to Brendan 'Bren' Foster or Steve 'Crammy' Cram's commentary but towards Northern France, Flanders, Holland and the Ardennes.
Because, it is at this time of the year where the real hard men of world endurance sport are crowned and where real sporting drama can become an art form.
In the cycling races Paris Roubaix and Tour of Flanders et al, the hardest professional riders brave strong winds and terrible conditions in a series of one day, eyeballs out, muck-and-gutters, die-dog-or-shite-the-licence endurance drags to prove who is the daddy.
Paris Roubaix, from Compeigne 60k North of Paris to the velodrome in eponymous town of the race's title, is the truest test of the biggest, hardest most powerful 'rouleurs' in the peloton.
Amid 166 miles of racing there are 20 sections of pavement, no longer used by normal traffic. The riders fight over broken cobbles either blinded by dust thrown up by support vehicles on dry days or through mud and gutters after spring downpours.
They are supported by huge crowds, glugging beer and chips, who throng the roads where once WWI raged. The race was given the savage soubriquet 'The Hell of the North' in 1919, and this race is a different kind of hell for today's riders.
It is cycling as far removed from the glamour of les Grands Tours and the sportives of modern times as can be and closest to the sport's late 19th Century roots.
Some the greats have won it several times: Eddy Merckx won it three times (once by the record margin of more than 5 minutes), Francesco Moser three times in a row (1978-80), Bernard Hinault won it once and vowed never to go near it again while my hero Sean Kelly, (below) took the trophy twice.

But the undisputed master thus far is Roger De Vlaeminck who won it four times in the 1970s.
Last week's winner, Belgian Tom Boonen claimed his third cobbles trophy and could challenge De Vlaeminck over the next couple of years. His win this year was a triumph of hard man riding, pushing the tempo over the last sections of cobble and making everyone else either fall or fall by the wayside.

But Paris Roubaix has thrown up the single greatest sports film of all time, A Sunday in Hell (1976), by the Danish director Jørgen Leth, an underestimated classic of the documentary genre. It is, in my opinion, rivalled only by the Canal+ TV film about the France 1998 World Cup winners Les yeux dans les Bleus by Stéphane Meunier.
Both films are given unlimited access to the most hallowed sanctums of professional sport: team meetings, hotel rooms, meal times and technical conflabs and, in both cases (particularly A Sunday), the showers.
But A Sunday in Hell, really captures the physical brutality of Spring Classics cycling and the often complicated machinations of how a team works in the sport.
It is spare in its use of music (a choir chanting Paris Roubaix at times), it has a sober and unintrusive commentary and its 20 camera and one helicopter shoot must have been revolutionary at the time. Its beautiful opening scene of a mechanic from Moser's Sansom team cleaning and lovingly assembling a bike is as articulate a scene as anywhere else in cinema.
As Nick Fraser, the BBC commissioning editor who showed it on BBC4 in 2005 says: "You can see every bead of sweat on the cyclists and every smashed-up ankle. It really makes you never want to get on a bike again. But it is an amazing film."

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