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Film Review: David Millar rages against the dying of the light in 'Time Trial'

28 Jun 2018

David Millar plays the cyclist as a dying animal in Finaly Prestsell’s hypnotic and propulsive film

Cyclist Rating: 
• Beautiful, brutal, and frenetic. • As close as you'll get to the peloton short of being run over by it
• Might be a little niche for non-cyclists

Getting a dressing down from Paxman. It’s a strange honour and a reminder of just how big of a deal David Millar was. Before Brits regularly won Grand Tours he was the nation’s great cycling hope.

The first British rider to wear the leader’s jersey in all three Grand Tours, his story; early promise, doping, redemption, is well known.

Partly thanks to his own excellent autobiographies. Millar’s final season and a last ride at the Tour de France were to form the subject of Finlay Pretsell’s Time Trial.

Early in the film and somewhere during the infinite churn of racing, out of season hotels, and countless pasta dinners Millar realises the end of the road is fast rearing up ahead of him.

As he puts it 'I used to like hurting myself', yet now a family and greater personal contentment have dulled this masochistic streak.

Not only that but his abilities are fading. Doing everything right, the fitness is elusive. Always one for self-flagellation Millar finds himself wondering 'why am I now so slow, and why is everyone else so fast?'

Looking for a way to both round-out and synthesise his turbulent career a last ride at the Tour, the race that he was once thought a potential winner of, becomes a goal he believes will offer closure.

A thoughtful introvert with an exhibitionist streak, Millar is perhaps a little too smart for life in the peloton. As his roommate, Thomas Dekker, another wrong-un and survivor of cycling’s recent past advises him at one point in the film, 'maybe it’s better not to think so much'.

Yet Millar thinking about cycling, the choices he’s made, his career, and what it’s end might mean form the philosophical backbone of Finlay Pretsell’s film.

The propulsive grind of racing day in, day out provides its spectacular backdrop. Shot with incredible technical skill, parts of the film are almost hallucinogenic, drawing the viewer in with the rhythm of turning pedals and heaving riders.

Following in incredibly close, there are moments of rarely seen calm, such as when the team leaders fan out across the road to prevent early breaks.

These are contrasted with tumultuous times at which no one is spared, like when the race explodes on the slopes of a decisive climb.

Chasing after what was supposed to be Millar’s early season journey to a final ride at the Tour, you can see him imbuing it with so much deferred catharsis that disaster seems as inevitable as in a Greek tragedy.

I don’t think it’ll spoil anyone's enjoyment to say Millar never makes it to his final Tour. Cut by the team who believe his form is not good enough, the fallout from this decision defines the later part of the film and still sours his relationship with his former friends and fellow Slipstream founders, Jonathan Vaughters and Charly Wegelius.

There are lots of great moments including a phenomenally sweary trip in the team car with Wegelius. A miserable and rain-soaked Milan-San Remo.

And the only time I’ve ever seen a time-trial look not only exciting but thrilling. Then there’s the genius pairing of the team’s grumpy elder statesmen Millar and Dekker as roommates-cum-living embodiments of the muppets’ Statler and Waldorf.

There aren’t many riders who could have taken a film about an ageing racer chasing after a final lap and made it into a meditation on life, ageing, and human endeavour.

Having invested so much of his life in cycling, the way in which Pretsell captures bike racing brings you as close to understanding why Millar let the sport chew him up so much, yet seems unable to tear himself away.

In the same way he was famous for turning himself inside out while racing, Millar guts himself on film. Funny, complicated, open, and with just enough sense of his own occasional pomposity to be an excellent narrator, it’s a film about a man who has made the road his life, and what it means when that comes to an end.

Rarely has cycling been approached with this level of understanding and technical skill. Getting up there with Jørgen Leth’s 'A Sunday in Hell' or Tim Krabbe’s novel 'The Rider', it’s very, very good.

Helped by a terrific score from Dan Deacon it gets into the sport in a way that’ll be new to devotees, yet accessible to a mass audience.

Plonking the viewer right into the peloton, the sheer hardship and repetition of it all is also remarkable. Head spinning to look at, the film makes obvious just how extreme the sport really is when raced at its highest level.

Beyond the copious swearing, there’s something redolent of punk and slightly Brit Pop-ish about the whole thing.

Even though everything is more constrained than in Millar’s prime, the circus of professional racing still seems like it runs on a wing and a prayer.

Watching it made me remember why I love bike racing, and why I’m glad that for me it’ll only ever be a hobby.

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