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The cycling film made by an ex-doper: Kenneth Mercken Q&A

Based on the director’s own experience, Belgian film The Racer lays bare the dark underbelly of doping in pro cycling in the early 2000s

Peter Stuart
13 Nov 2019

Cycling on the silver screen has had its ups and downs.

Kevin Costner’s 1985 depiction of Greg Lemond in American Flyers has enjoyed cult status, as has the grittiest of gritty Sunday in Hell (1976). Yet the heavy-handed depiction of the corrosion of Lance Armstrong’s soul in the 2015 The Program was met with less enthusiasm by those well versed in the intricacies of cycling’s troubled years.

The Racer (Coureur) has opted for realism over sensation – the lead actor, Niels Willaerts, is a cyclist, and director Kenneth Mercken is not only a cyclist, but a man who has had first-hand experience with the film’s seedy doping subject matter.

The Racer follows a young neo pro, Felix, who becomes National Road Race Champion, but finds himself thrown into the exploitative world of pro cycling, pushed onto an Italian team that he must pay his way into, and pressured into taking increasingly performance-enhancing drugs.

Life at home isn't easy for Felix either: the son of a successful racer, Felix is constantly clashing with his father, who heaps pressure on him to perform while also dealing with the growing jealousy that his son's talents are eclipsing his own.

Belgian filmmaker Kenneth Mercken sat down with Cyclist to explain how the film reflects his own experience of racing, doping, black money, intimidation and techno.

Cyclist: Are there elements of your own life as a racer in the film?

Kenneth Mercken: Yes it was based on my own story, of course. I had to fictionalise it a bit to create a romantic line, and create fictional versions of real people I knew – which was not an easy journey.

Cyc: How much is real and how much is fictional?

KM: It’s difficult to say how much was my own experience. It becomes confused after a while. There are some elements that are fictional. For instance, the scene with the blood transfusion from my father never happened. But I’m convinced that if I asked him next week to give me his blood he would do it. So in that way it is real I guess.

Cyc: In terms of authenticity, was it hard to find a star actor who actually looked like a cyclist?

Our star, Niels Willaerts, is in fact a cyclist – a good cyclist, at an amateur level. We were sure we wanted to work with a cyclist. We left this open for the casting, but we saw lots of actors from theatre schools and this didn’t work for me.

Cyc: The film touches on some of the shady financial arrangements that surround pro cycling. Was that your experience?

Of course there was a lot of black money involved. It was kind of part of the culture of the sport. The year I was a professional racer this money came from some kind of telecom company – they had a satellite firm and they paid for my contract so I was kind of a money laundering machine in a way. And that’s how it happened.

In this small team where I was racing as a pro, almost no one was paid in real money. The money always would come from a sponsor, they would pay themselves from savings or whatever.

Coureur director Kenneth Mercken

Cyc: Did you consider there to be exploitation of riders at that level?

Yeah, of course, and it’s good to be transparent about this even though it’s part of the past. But I also think these practices are still going on. I think the pressure you face as a young rider is intense. I mean, once you get to a top team there are psychologists and all involved, but if you’re in a youth team the support isn't there.

The money is also an issue. I had to keep my time-trial bike because I was owed money.

I remember a time when we were trying to not be put on medical insurance. Our coach said if you can’t follow the race, you're sick, and you have to go on medical insurance. He did that because then he didn't have to pay our wages. So we were not actually riding for prizes, we were racing hard so we didn't have to live off our medical insurance!

Cyc: What was your own experience of taking EPO during your career?

Just like in the film, I didn’t respond to it. That kind of made me useless in an Italian team. They tried to give it to me and my blood values went down instead of up.

In those days it was impossible even in amateur cycling to race without EPO unless you were gifted with high blood levels, but of course everybody was doing it so I had to quit.

Luckily this time was before blood transfusion. Maybe that would have helped, but I never took part in that.

Cyc: When did you first confess to your use of drugs?

I guess the moment I confessed to all of this was when I made my first short film, this was in 2011, and the year I was national champion with the amateurs was 2000. Who was clean in those days? I mean EPO was not even traceable back then.

Cyc: You finished the film with the use of documentary footage of yourself and your father, why did you choose to do that?

I always knew this was how I wanted to end the film. It was something intuitive.
I wanted the viewer to know that this was a story based on reality, but at the same time I didn't want to have a statement at the beginning of the film saying this film is based on real facts.

I wanted them to have them appreciate it as fiction film, then at the end be confronted with this footage and realise that it is based on my own experiences.

Cyc: How’s your relationship with your father now?

We have quite a good relationship now. I guess he’s kind of proud that we made this film but he will never be as proud as when I won a race. But he still races, just like I do. He’s my mechanic and he takes care of everything.

If I don’t win he’s not happy. Sometimes I think for him it’s more important that I win a race than that he wins his own race. I guess he’ll never change.

Cyc: Would you do it all again?

Rationally, I would say no. But if I was in the midst of this racing addiction again maybe it would be different. Put me in a room and with a doctor telling me I have to take growth hormone to improve my performance, even though it increases my chance of cancer, and maybe I would.

Cyc: Finally, we noticed there was some interesting use of techno music at the film’s climax, why were you attracted to this?

Cycling for me is addictive, and it reminds me of techno music, which is monotonous and keeps going on and on in the same rhythm, It pushes you.

• The Racer (Coureur) is available on iTunes, Amazon, Sky Store, Google, Sony & Microsoft now

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