WCP La Course en Tete DVD
Pictures deceive. You've probably seen the still image of Muhammad Ali gesturing over a prone Sonny Liston at the end of their fight in 1965. Some consider it one of the most iconic sports photos of all time. It has even been used in advertising campaigns. Others will tell you that the picture is an illusion. If you were at the fight, or watching it on film, you probably missed the gesture. It was something that happened in the blink of an eye, but the photographer snapped his camera from a certain angle at a particular moment and it is shown around the world without context. On film, the gesture is barely seen:
and there's a good chance that someone who was actually present at the fight didn't see the gesture at all.
We bring this up in light of Eddy Merckx. Most of us never saw him ride. Many of us have seen pictures of the seriously sideburned cycling superhero cycling solo. Not much to make of Le Cannibal, save he seems a bit on the large side of such a fast cyclist. We might even believe that his moniker comes from his inimitable trophy closet.
Watch this two-movie DVD, and you'll have another understanding of Merckx. After watching La Course en Tête, 105 minutes, and The Greatest Show on Earth, 75 minutes, it's impossible not to think that Merckx got his moniker from the way he rode. He might appear smooth and composed and efficient in still photos, but it's another sight to actually watch him pedal a bike. He could be smooth when going easy, but when he was on the rivet, the Belgian appears to be in the process of destroying his bike. Unlike the smooth style of rival Felice Gimondi, Merckx is wrenching on the handlebars, swaying his shoulders, and powering a bigger gear while affecting an angry snarl. It's hard not to feel sorry for both his competitors and his bike. We're not positing that we're watching the true Merckx, but the portrayal of him on the attack is almost frightening.
Experiencing fear is not the only reason to watch this movie. It also functions as a great time capsule. Most of us have watched countless hours of pro racing from the nineties and the aughts, but few of us have seen from whence cycling developed. With both movies, we're able to witness segments illustrating the pinnacle of the sport from the early seventies. Shaggy hair, sideburns, wool, and cycling caps were in. Synthetic clothing, ergo shifting, oversized tubing, deep dish wheels, and PowerBars weren't even a dream.
We get to see soigneurs preparing panini for an upcoming race. We see Merckx apply his logo to an unlabeled chrome track bike. We see an era when preparing for time trials meant pulling on a jersey without pockets. We see how low-rent big-time cycling was in comparison to today. Ironically, from what we see, it appears that people had a greater interest in standing by the side of the road during time trials rather than during mountain stages.
The first movie on the DVD, La Course en Tête, is subtitled The Eddy Merckx Story. At the outset of the film, there appears to be a narrative structure. That is, using a single week to illustrate his entire life. Sunday opens with the 1973 World Championships in Spain. There's a four-man breakaway, and Merckx has a teammate, Freddy Maertens. Maertens seemingly leads Merckx out poorly, but with about 200 meters to go Merckx blows, leaving Maertens to duke it out with Gimondi and Luis Ocaña. Gimondi wins. Merckx is despondent, and everyone's eyes are on Merckx as he considers this disappointment. (Subsequent to the viewing, we learned that Maertens presence in the break caused a furor in Belgium, as he chased down Merckx's break). Monday follows. And he goes motorpacing. Motorpacing the day after the World Championship road race.
The format is sensible enough; the problem is it breaks down. The chronology is all over the place. With almost no narration, we are treated to Merckx at an undated Giro, possibly the 1973 Giro, possibly his first Tour (1969), and are then back at his house in Belgium with wife Claudine, and children Axel and Sabrina. Claudine is the main interviewee of the film. She talks about Eddy's life, her fears for him, and her concerns. The sound is strange, as her voice, as with all voices in the film, is faint. We read her commentary in subtitles. Merckx says a bit himself, but not much, as there are few interviews with him. Ironically, we're treated to a montage of Merckx being interviewed. Tuesday starts with him getting a big sweat on riding rollers, and then goes out to more racing, including going to Mexico to break the hour record. Wednesday, he's putting his bike in a car to go somewhere, possibly a race.
Music plays a big part of La Course en Tête. In some ways, it is the stringing together of several early music videos. The music was performed by The Early Music Consort of London with lots of horns, some flutes, and plenty of maddening, repetitive chord progressions. The first piece seems like something that might have been played for an afternoon of jousting and log lifting. In many ways, we should like this; it's an impressionistic telling of a story. But we found our minds wandering. Maybe we're too literal.
The Greatest Show on Earth is an excellent counterpart to LCeT. It is a straightforward narrative telling of the 1974 Giro d'Italia, the closest-ever Giro, which was decided by 12 seconds. It is also narrated in English, with overdubs of rider interviews. We get to hear the racers speak in English, even though they're talking in their native tongues. The soundtrack is also much more pop, with slices of songs we're familiar with.
We're treated to highlights of the race, with a focus on a few stages, as well as scenes behind the scenes. While it isn't nearly as intimate as Hell on Wheels, it does get close. The racers come off as philosophical. There's an interview with long-time promoter Vincenzo Torriani, who regards himself as an artist, and the film director does an operatic tribute to Torriani in action. We also see domestiques brazenly stealing soda out of local stores, something we're told is a time-honored tradition at the Giro. Back then, the riders stuffed glass bottles down their wool jerseys, and either opened them with a well-timed hit on the stem, or a bottle-opener stashed on a necklace.
The race, as portrayed by the movie, is pretty gripping. Jose Manuel Fuentes takes an early lead, but Merckx, Gimondi, Baronchelli, and Moser are close on his heels. This Giro came down to the stage finish atop Tre Cime di Lavaredo, a mountain climbed in the 2007 Giro as well. And we're treated to seeing much of the finishing climb, where a full-on battle for the Maglia Rosa was fought in all its overgeared glory.
As tifosi, as historians, as anthropologists, we loved both movies. Of the two, The Greatest Show On Earth drew us in more. As noted with the image of Ali at the start, we do wonder about truth. In such media, pro cyclists seem to come across as reflective and philosophical. We don't know if that's what the movie makers choose to show, if that's how translators clean up dialogue, or if it's us positing our own preferred framework on the cyclists. Fuentes, one of the greatest climbers of his day, talks about how the winner makes it look easy and everyone behind appears to be suffering. He feels people don't know that when he's in the lead, he's hurting as much or more. Most of us can't see through that illusion, either.