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.”

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