Great Sports Documentaries Part Two: “Hell On Wheels”

The director of Hell On Wheels (2004) wanted to reveal “what it means to go to the edge of physical possibilities, to see heroes doing things normal people can’t do, to be so close to see into their souls”.

The film is a documentary about the 2003 Tour de France. It follows the German outfit Team Telekom, particularly the great sprinter and multiple green jersey winner Erik Zabel and his loyal domestique and roommate of ten years Rolf Aldag.

The closest the film gets to its stated goal is during Stage 9 in the Alps, when it follows the tormented climbs of three dropped riders up the Col du Lautaret (2058m) and then the Col d’Izoard (2360m).

One struggles up into the slipstream of another only to suddenly grimace and rip his foot from the pedal, collapsing at the side of the road. Cameras and microphones record his physical distress and shame.

Then Frenchman Jimmy Casper eventually gives in to his exhaustion, flinging the bike against the railing and hurrying into the ‘sag wagon’.

The final victim, Zabel’s teammate Andréas Klöden, eventually succumbs to a fractured coccyx suffered in a mass pile-up on the first Stage. Later he would say “The worst part is riding in the damn clean-up van. You pass all the spectators at five kilometres an hour. You just want to pull your hat down so nobody sees you.”

It’s the intimacy of the film that makes it so special.

We are in the team bus watching them recover. We witness them sweating, struggling for breath, spitting, coughing up phlegm, and having their wounds treated. In the absence of conversation the slap of massaged flesh is a constant.

During the racing we hear the riders’ laboured breathing, the staccato whining of the helicopter and the crowd’s distorted cheering. The sustained speeds even on the steepest ascents are remarkable and only become obvious when you see a sprinting spectator get left behind.

The introspection of Zabel makes him an excellent subject. Nearing the end of his career he questions his motivation and contemplates the rise of the young sprinters McEwen, Cooke and Petacchi.

In a touching tribute to his closest teammate he admits “I owe so many of my successes to Rolf where he absolutely sacrificed himself. You can never repay someone for that. You can say stuff like, ‘I’ll never forget you for that’, but you can never give it back.”

The team’s elderly and doting masseur is Zabel’s confidant.

The film’s original German title is Höllentour, meaning Hell Tour – an appropriate description for what was about to take place.

Of course this was the year of the famous Stage 15 in the Pyrenees from Bagnères-de-Bigorre to Luz-Ardiden. A resurgent Jan Ullrich had dropped Armstrong on the Tourmalet only for the reigning champion to pull him back.

Half way into the tortuous climb of Luz-Ardiden, Armstrong’s handlebars caught a spectator’s musette, flinging him to the ground. Ullrich avoided crashing but didn’t attack Armstrong while he was recovering, following the unwritten rule that the yellow jersey holder be allowed to recover from a crash.

The incident put Armstrong into another zone and he overtook the leaders. The film shows the fiery-eyed American ploughing alone through the mist and the crowd as he approaches the summit.

It is ironic that Ullrich’s action was labelled that of a “true champion” because it probably cost him victory in the Tour.

With the doping revelations that have surfaced since, the film’s interest value has increased significantly.

In what was deemed at the time to be one of the great Tour feats, Tyler Hamilton rode with a broken collarbone to win the final mountain stage.

Zabel commented, “Hamilton really took off like a motorcycle. Everyone just shook their heads. Groups of ten kept trying to catch him and every ten kilometres they fell back, exhausted. They couldn’t believe it.”

It seems the best judge of dopers are the riders themselves, as Hamilton later admitted to systematic doping. A calendar seized during Operation Puerto allegedly indicated that Hamilton performed two blood transfusions during the 2003 Tour.

Alexandre Vinokourov is also inadvertently implicated by one of his own Team Telekom teammates after winning the ninth stage. “But I really admire Vino’s stamina. It’s impressive when he passes you like that. Almost like a motorcycle!”

Vinokourov would be removed from the 2007 Tour because of blood doping. Earlier that year Zabel and Aldag admitted to “experimenting” with EPO during the 1996 race.

Lance Armstrong may have been referring to close calls with doping officials rather than the unnerving fear engendered by the centenary edition of the great race when he commented:-

“This has been a Tour of too many problems; too many close calls, too many near misses, I just wish it would stop. Many of the problems I haven’t discussed, but there have been a lot of strange things that happened this Tour de France that I need to stop having. It’s been a very odd, crisis-filled Tour.”

Significantly, this was the Tour in which Australia proved it was a major cycling force. In recent history individuals had performed well but this year Australia was over-represented in the achievement ranks.

The opening prologue would be won by’s Bradley McGee, who would then work as lead-out man for his sprinter Baden Cooke, in a ding-dong battle for the green jersey with Robbie McEwen that would go down to the final sprint on the Champs-Elysées.
Stuart O’Grady, a previous holder of the yellow jersey and runner-up in the green, would also be prominent in the finishes, claiming the special Centenaire classification.

In May 2011, however, a UCI report leaked to the French daily sports newspaper L’Equipe included a list of riders in the 2010 Tour who “showed overwhelming evidence of some kind of doping, due to recurring anomalies, enormous variations in parameters, and even the identification of doping products or methods”. Australians Michael Rogers and Matthew Lloyd were two such riders.

In an article for the sports website The Roar I asked if the golden era of Australian road cycling was tainted?

Last year O’Grady admitted he took EPO prior to the 1998 Tour.

The documentary also highlights the difficult relationship between rider and spectator. To survive, the competitors must turn inwards and ignore the crowd. They may not always respect it either. Writer and amateur cyclist Tim Krabbe wrote, “Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.”

The film’s historian/philosopher explains: “Hinault, Lapize, Indurain, and Armstrong come to you, the regular guy, the loser[!], the metro commuter. Cycling is the only sport that ennobles its audience.”

The ‘losers’ also come to be mesmerised by the feats of these sporting psychotics. And to leer at the spectacle of elite athletes who look like they’re on death’s door – gaunt, skeletal and weather-beaten – and wonder why they do it.

Erik Zabel didn’t appear to know why he did it, admitting “As a cyclist you shouldn’t think too much.”

Great Sports Documentaries Part One: “Senna”

It is rare for a movie to convey successfully the experience of sport. The documentary is the finest method – the uncontrived story and compelling footage already exist.

A famous figure who dies prematurely is an easy subject. And for a documentary on the great and charismatic Senna it was even easier: the cameras, including his family’s, were always on him.

It’s not often you see a sports film win audience awards at film festivals but this one did: Sundance, Los Angeles, Melbourne and Adelaide. It also collected a prestigious BAFTA for Best Documentary.
Much of the film covers Senna’s disintegrating relationship with his great rival and McLaren teammate Alain Prost; the sort of situation we have seen with Alonso and Hamilton, and more recently with Webber and Vettel: “That’s when the gloves come off within a team. That’s when engineers stop sharing their information. That’s where drivers start looking over their shoulders to see who is giving what to whom”.

It was also where each teammate causes the other to crash (1989 and 1999) to ensure they take the championship.

The film is about Senna not just because he died but because he was special. In a 2009 poll by Autosport magazine he was judged by his peers to be the greatest driver ever. Presumably four-time world champion Prost was one of them.

As a driver he had an ability to go to another level that many saw as irresponsible and dangerous. Prost at one point says: “Ayrton has a small problem. He thinks he can’t kill himself because he believes in God. That’s very dangerous for the other drivers”

When Jackie Stewart took him to task about the number of accidents he had been involved in Senna replied: “I find it amazing that you make such a comment. Being a racing car driver means you are racing with other people. And if you no longer go for a gap that exists you are no longer a racing driver.”

Senna though also held fears about his racing mind: Talking about his qualifying runs at Monaco in 1988 he admitted: “I was no longer driving conscious. I was in another dimension. Then, suddenly, something just kicked me. I kind of woke up. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding. Immediately my reaction was to back off, slow down. I drove slowly to the pits and I didn’t want to go out any more that day.”

He was unique in other ways. A shy, polite, intelligent and religious man who had endeared himself to his troubled country. Despite his privileged upbringing he was not comfortable with fame. He just wanted to drive.

During his last visit to Australia in 1993 he said his fondest time was go karting: “It was pure racing. There wasn’t any politics then, right. No money involved either. It was real racing. I have that as a very good memory”.

Professor Sid Watkins, the chief Formula One medical officer at the time recalled: “He had a wonderful humility which is not common among racing drivers”.

Throughout, the film gains momentum as it approaches its final twenty minutes – when it documents the fateful 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.

As early as the opening credits we are reminded of Senna’s destiny when his mother says: “May God protect him from all the danger he may face. That’s my greatest fear.”

Later, we are on-board, riding with him during the last fifty seconds of his life, as he negotiates the difficult chicane at Variante Alta, descends the long straight down to the dual corners of Rivazza, through Variante Bassa, and into the main straight as his Williams screams towards Tamburello curve.

It is here that the guilt of watching hits home. Do we have a right to witness someone using up the final seconds of their life? Shouldn’t it be preserved for loved ones only? Perhaps, but we’re morbidly compelled to keep looking.

Senna’s helmet, in the colours of his beloved Brazil, is visible in the side mirror shuddering with the g-forces and about to take the violent impact that will instantly kill the famous man inside it.

Tamburello was also referred to as a corner, and a turn. Curve though is the correct term, for it was negotiated at speeds in excess of 300km/h – the speed that Senna left the road. Telemetry tells us a two second application of the brakes and a two gear downshift slowed him to 220km/h before he slammed into the concrete wall.

His body was unharmed in the impact. What killed him was the right front tyre that was torn off, striking him in the head causing multiple skull fractures. The exposed suspension then pierced his helmet and visor causing further head trauma.

“Ayrton ran out of luck. He didn’t have a broken bone in his body. He did not have any bruising. If that piece of assembly had gone six inches higher or six inches lower he would have walked back to the paddock”, remarked an ESPN commentator.

The cause of the accident has been put down to a steering failure or cold tyres resulting from a safety car phase following a nasty accident at the start of the race. The danger of front tyres being flung from wrecks had been clear for a very long time. Previously they had killed and injured mainly spectators.

The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix highlighted the danger and callousness of the sport. There were four serious accidents.

The one on the grid at the race start resulted in nine spectators being injured from flying debris and a wheel. A young Rubens Barrichello was fortunate to survive a high-speed crash during qualifying.

Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger and Senna were killed in separate accidents and yet the race went on – to be won by the next great Formula One champion Michael Schumacher. Schumacher’s Benetton can just be seen entering Tamburello as Senna leaves the track.

The depiction of these accidents is a reason the film also won a BAFTA for editing.

In an unnerving piece of footage Ratzenberger is seen shaking his head, and heard speaking to a member of his crew in the pits:

Ratzenberger: “I just need to get myself under control. I’m doing things with that car that no-one…”

Crew Member: ‘Throwing it around a bit?”

They then have a chuckle.

The film cuts immediately to the Austrian taking off, with that unholy shriek only an F1 car is capable of, for a qualifying lap. It shows him completing an aggressive turn with a wheel briefly locking up. What isn’t shown is the car sustaining damage to its front wing at Variante Alta. It will cause him to lose control at 320 km/h on the Villeneuve curve.

Next is a grainy amateur film taken from behind a safety fence opposite the concrete wall that Ratzenberger is seen ploughing into. The squealing engine is silenced as you hear the deep thud of the collision and the sound of the car scraping along gravel and grass.

A distraught Senna is shown watching replays of the accident. The collision can’t be seen on the official front-on footage but the wreck suddenly appears from behind the fence, losing momentum and slowly swinging around on to the track at Tosa corner – revealing the huge gash in the cockpit and Ratzenberger’s lolling head. Senna looks away.

When it becomes obvious medical staff are trying to resuscitate Ratzenberger, Senna cries out, turns and hurries away from the screen.

The next day the world will be watching as Senna’s own body is extricated from its cockpit and forlornly worked upon.

The footage from the helicopter is remarkably clear and still, good enough to notice a slight movement of Senna’s head.

More importantly for the director the helicopter then slowly ascends as Sid Watkins narrates: “He [Senna] sighed and his body relaxed and that was the moment, and I’m not religious, that I thought his spirit had departed”.

As a sport documentary the film is excellent for many reasons, but its greatest attribute is its examination of a unique person (a type that exists in all fields of endeavour) – the genius who is driven to greatness but is incapable of happiness on attaining it. Madness or death awaits them.

In a sport where women are viewed as grid girls, groupies, or gold diggers it is significant that the person who understood Senna and his fate better than anyone was his mother Neyde:

“I once asked Ayrton when he would stop racing. ‘Mum, I’ll stop when I become world champion’. I know deep inside it is not true. We all know that.”