A long, pensive look from big, bloodshot eyes…
A deep, massaging stroke of a long, stubbly chin…
A tired, resigned loll of the head…
“Aahh, probably started in fucking 1994″…
A sardonic, chastening laugh, followed by a correction…
A figure’s illuminated head and neck stands out starkly against a solid, black backdrop. A scene which looks interrogatory in nature, but has the tone of the therapists couch.
The figure is David Millar, professional cyclist since 1997. The topic of conversation is his entry in to the sport and his love for its biggest event.
“Beeep, bip, bip, bip, bip, beeeeeep!”
Cut to bright, Italian spring sunshine. The wind rushes by as we follow Millar as he starts Stage 7 of the 2014 Tirreno-Adriatico, an azure sky contrasting with the sun-bleached concrete of the San Benedetto del Tronto waterfront.
A white noise soundtrack of air and spinning wheels blasts out as we struggle to keep up.
Millar’s body rises out of the 90 degree tuck position he is holding, his right knee jutting out to point the way through a corner.
We fleetingly pick up the shouts of the crowd. A close-up of Millar’s face shows deep, calm, controlled breathing, eyes are hidden behind mirrored glasses, helmet chin-strap is done up tight to a neck which bloodflow has painted red with effort.
We move alongside to witness the form and framework adopted to optimally slice through the resistant sea air. Only the parts between hips and toes are in motion, rotating quickly and powerfully, with a liquid-like fluidity.
A perfect racing line is taken through a wide, sweeping bend, a tongue darts out immediately prior to a quick, exhale – the first visible sign of effort.
The rythmical breathing becomes quicker as we see the finishing straight appear.
9 kilometers of torment ends as Millar crosses the finish line and sits up, facial expressions now giving away the full extent of the effort involved.
The discipline Millar has just engaged in, like the eponymously titled film we are vieweing, is Time Trial – the cyclist’s battle against the watch, an effort to beat the seconds, minutes, and hours..and sometimes the years.
David Millar’s story is a well known one; signed by the Cofidis team in 1997, he went on to wear the leader’s jersey and win a stage in all three grand tours, picked up a two year doping ban in 2002, and like many reformed characters, came back as a staunch, vocal advocate against his previous transgressions. 2006’s return to racing with Saunier Duval was followed by a move to Team Garmin, which Millar helped set up and was part owner.
Time Trial follows Millar’s final season as a professional road racer, in 2014, and the action is predominantly taken from the Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo of that year. The thread which knots the film together, though, is the Tour De France, with many of the interview scenes and commentary focusing squarely on Millar’s build up to, and failure to make the team for that season’s Grand Boucle.
Millar distinctly signed off from the tour in 2013, seemingly content with the fact that it would be his last, with a break on the Champs-Elysees which ended up with him riding solo, leading the final stage. An event which he described eloquently in his book, “The Racer”:
I’m alone on the Champs-Elysees, leading the 100th edition of the Tour de France on a road I know so well, for numerous reasons. Flecha is right: I have it all to myself, the peloton is at thirty seconds, which would be close in any other circumstances, yet not here. they may as well be on another continent.
David Millar, “The Racer”
2015 – Yellow Jersey Press
This feeling of acceptance that the 2013 Tour was his last is now completely gone by the time we see him in 2014; Millar’s emotion at the decision by Team Principal, Jonathan Vaughters, and Directeur Sportif, Charlie Wegelius, to deny him a place in the team going to the Tour is writ large in the film’s most insightful, raw, and tearful segment of interview where he recounts being told of his omission.
The Millar we see in preceding footage is one coming to terms with the fact that he may no longer have it as a professional bike rider, but this is a feeling that is discarded, presumably along with the memory of his actions in 2013, when the chance to partake in the big dance comes around again.
The junkie-like jonesing for another shot at the Tour completely usurping Millar’s previous honest assessment of his abilities at the time.
The film’s Director and Producer, Finlay Pretsell, whom we spoke to last week, along with Director of Photography, Martin Radich, manage to beautifully capture the feeling of being in the middle of a bike race, both via cameras mounted on a motorbike, as we’re familiar with during all professional bike races, and via cameras mounted on Millar’s bike itself.
The beauty of using Millar as the fulcrum of the action, with the camera rarely moving away from his presence, is that the swarming, bird-like movement of the peloton is shown from all angles. Riders move in and out of shot as the race ebbs and flows.
This leads to a, perhaps unintentionally funny scene, in which Millar is describing to Geraint Thomas why the actions of the current peloton lead to more crashes, compared to how they used to do it in “the old days”. Thomas’ subsequent rise from the saddle to power out of frame looks somewhat akin to an effort to escape the “back in my day” tone of the conversation.
The soundtrack, by Dan Deacon and CJ Mirra, wonderfully connects the aural and the visual. We get driving, pounding drums and horns to enhance the anticipatory feeling before a race sets off, the tolling of himalayan-sounding bells – the portent of a funereal end to a career? – white noise in the middle of the driving rain, and triumphant strings introducing a dance beat, backed by choir voices in the film’s final, dream-like sequence.
Natural sounds enhance the racing action – clicking gear changes, spinning wheels, rider conversations.
It is these conversations, and the other in-race action which we are never usually priviledged to, which are the film’s obvious highlight.
The sight of the larger members of the peloton manoeuvring to the front of the pack, to block potential breakaways, making that day’s racing easier, is a particularly good example of this. The number and volume of moans, groans and swear words which follow Katusha’s Luca Paolini as he escapes the block at the head of the peloton, and Mark Cavendish’s pleading with German powerhouse, Tony Martin, not to go in a break – things which you would never otherwise see or hear from normal race coverage – are brilliantly insightful in many ways, and unintentionally funny again.
The complete banality of the conversation in the peloton when the racing is off – where did riders spend the winter, how terrible parts of the parcours are, how bad the roads are, how bad the weather is – shows that it’s a workplace like any other, one where boredom can set in on the long days, and where the gap is only filled with mundane conversation with the same faces.
The one exchange which sums up Millar’s 2014 mindset throughout Time Trial, though, neatly distilling what we learn over the course of an hour and twenty minutes in to 42 honest seconds, is one with Kanstantin Sioutsou – “I’m too old. I’ve been around too long. I need to change”.
The footage of Milan San-Remo, kept mostly to the last 25 to 30 minutes as kind of chronology-defying final act, is a personal favourite.
Footage of the pre-race procedures is cut alongside a voice over from Millar’s Dutch Team Garmin teammate, Thomas Dekker, who’s evisceratingly honest and accurate in his summation of Millar’s mode at the time – “David is just getting angry at his age. He’s in the end of his career, the biggest highlights are alreasy past, he knows in the end of the year he stops. He’s not a typical bike rider. He’s probably also thinking too much. Maybe it’s better that you don’t think so much as a cyclist”.
What follows is the perfect example of Dekker’s definition of “thinking too much”.
On a wet, rainy and cold Milan-San Remo, we witness Millar let the temperature, the precipitation, his jacket, a missing set of gloves and everything that doesn’t matter get in to his head. It’s another brilliantly insightful, “heads gone” moment, captured in great detail by Finlay Pretsell’s team.
Millar, described the end to his Classicissima di Primavera in “The Racer” as such:
And so my lasting memory of my final Milan-San Remo will be of racing rain-blind with numbed, useless hands, dodging cars, off the back looking for Tom-Jelte Slagter. Just before the Cipressa, I’m a broken man. I make the last delivery of bars and gels to Tom and Sebastian and then let the race go and climb in to the next team car I see, frozen and tired to the bone.
David Millar, “The Racer”
2015 – Yellow Jersey Press
Time Trial is the perfect exposition of a man and an athlete in transition, struggling with the loss of everything he’s ever been and everything that’s ever defined him for 17 years.
Millar’s locquacity in describing this feeling, captured expertly by Pretsell when Millar is both ruminating during interviews, and experiencing the physical effects of the process out on the road, make Time Trial in to a masterful observation of one of cycling’s most polarising characters.
Whether you’re interest is in professional cycling as a sport, David Millar as a person, or the psychological insight in to the aging athlete coming to terms with losing the battle against the one foe they cannot overcome, Time Trial is something you need to see.
“Remarkable – takes viewers right inside the cyclist’s Tour de France effort.”