The who, the how and the what of sport are covered with passion and forensic detail as never before; the why of sport remains a more elusive beast, and the question of what motivates people to push themselves beyond their limit lurks at the edge of the frame of so much of what we watch. A superb new drama about cycling, drugs and pressure, out on Monday, has as good a crack as anything at asking why sportspeople do what they do.
Coureur is the debut feature film from Kenneth Mercken, himself a former Belgian amateur national champion who was faced with a pair of stark choices during his attempts to turn professional in Italy. Firstly: would he take the drugs that were being offered to him? This was an easy one: yes, he would, because he wanted to be a competitive proposition. But the second question was harder: was he prepared to bear the high risk of cancer that his unique medical history put him at if he stayed on the drugs? Ultimately, he was not: he quit cycling and went to film school; this movie is a drama based on his experiences.
Mercken’s lead actor Niels Willaerts is himself a semi-pro cyclist, and absolutely looks the part: that unsettling mixture of painfully thin and hugely powerful peculiar to road racing. He gives a tremendous physical performance. The team manager is played by the Italian actor Fortunato Cerlino, who was the Mafia boss in Gomorrah and again shows himself exceptionally able at expressing the most corrupt and venal aspects of human nature. But it is the rider’s father on whom the drama hinges.
“My dad was a cyclist himself, he raced in Belgium, and it was like the Wild West in those days,” Mercken told Telegraph Sport. “It was savage, there was a lot of doping. From the age I could walk I was hanging around the races but I had delayed puberty. My dad wouldn’t let me race until I was 16 or 17, because there was only room for winners in my family.”
The talent of the son eclipsed that of the father, and much of the film is an exploration of the bad feeling that imbalance engendered. Dad is a bitter, brooding presence on screen and, according to Mercken, the real-life relationship has also been fraught.
“At the Ghent Film Festival, where the film premiered, he saw the film and he said that I hadn’t captured him in a brutal enough way! Just a macho reaction, I guess.”
It is indeed an almost entirely male storyworld, capturing a real truth about groups of men together in sports teams or similar: the competition, the camaraderie, the fragility of ego and the pack mentality.
“I never matured in that time that I was on the team in Italy,” said Mercken. “You are kept quite young. All the thinking is done for you, all you have to do is train, eat and race. And drugs are a part of that. I think cycling has changed for the better but it is part of the culture of the sport. A lot of the products we used are traceable now that weren’t back then, but there are always new products, and now genetic doping. Cycling has to be a form of self-destruction: you destroy, you recover. That is how I got better: I killed myself so that the body builds resistance and becomes stronger.”
One memorable scene in the film features the obtaining of some clean urine, a large needle, and an eye-watering route to beat the tester that had a couple of viewers fainting at a Rotterdam screening, or so Mercken cheerfully related. An uncompromising watch about a brutal business, this film dramatises how the sausages are made, but also shines a light on why: a need to measure up, an addiction to adrenaline and pain, and a powerful exploration of how achievement and glory are drowned in the toxic masculinity of winning at all costs.
The Racer (Coureur) is available on Digital Download from Monday via iTunes, Amazon, Sky Store, Google, Sony and Microsoft