The Racer Movie Review: A Sobering Look Into Cycling's Domestique

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Whether you know a lot about bicycle racing or very little, The Racer, written and directed by Kieron J. Walsh, offers a lot to ponder about the sport.

It offers a lot about the mindset of sporting in general, especially when it comes to team sports.

Team sports, whether cycling, car racing, or gymnastics, among a host of others, always have at least one standout, and it's not unique for the other team members to stand back and allow that athlete's star to shine at the behest of their coach and for the best of the team.

The Starting Line

The Racer shines a light on Dominique Chabol, a domestique for his team in the 1998 Tour de France.

The race that year was special because the first three legs were completed in Ireland, and it's the first time that EPO doping reared its ugly head.

There was a solid history of doping in cycling, but in the '90s, as testing for illegal drugs became easier, those who wanted an advantage took drugs by blood transfusion spiked with erythropoietin, a drug used in anemia sufferers to increase red-cell production. The Racer's Dom and his teammates used it regularly.

While the film depicts that low-point in cycling, it is more effective as a character study that digs into the reasoning behind otherwise stellar athletes who think they need the boost.

The Racher Poster

Louis Talpe stars as Dom, a 39-year-old cyclist who has given up seminal life moments in the name of his sport. As the film begins and before the Tour de France's start, Dom learns his father has died.

The only qualm he has about not going is that he has to dodge his sister's calls as she desperately tries to convince him to return home for the funeral.

Dom isn't to be deterred, though, and it's hard to understand. His age is against him in the sport, for sure, but even more, is his role on the team as the domestique.

Lupo "Tartare" Marino (Matteo Simoni) is destined to win for the team, and the role of all of the other racers is to ensure that happens for him.

Doping with EPO

As the domestique, Dom is Tartare's right hand. He soothes him during his nightly panic attacks, blocks other riders in his path, and helps him relieve himself on the road. It's not a glorious job.

Dom is the best at what he does and has the respect of his teammates and coach, Sonny McElhone (Iain Glen). He's always there in a pinch and can be counted on whether on or off the road.

Nothing in his role stops Dom from putting his life on the line for the job, though. It's frightening the measures cyclists take for the team.

It's never entirely clear in the film if Dom needs a heart monitor due to the effects of EPO on his system or if it's because he is so thin and so in shape that his heart doesn't believe it needs to beat much to keep him alive.

The Strains of Cycling

The heart monitor alerts him to wake in the middle of the night when his heart rate drops below 30, a nightly occurrence even with dreams of racing. The only way he stays alive is by forcing himself out of bed and onto a stationary bike to get his heart racing again.

You'd think knowing you were near the end of your career, doping, wearing a monitor to stay alive, and without a chance to win would be enough to kick some sense into him, but it doesn't. He breathes cycling and all that it means.

It's only when he meets Dr. Lynn Brennan (Tara Lee), a young medical student associated with the Tour, that he begins to recognize what his life has become.

This isn't a joyful movie, but Dom does experience moments of joy.

Coddling From Tara

He relishes in being needed by his team and with his special relationship with Sonny, more of a father figure to him than he had with his deceased father, and he recalls a time when he yearned for more than cycling, such as spending time with a woman.

Glen is always fun to watch, and Sonny is lighthearted and gregarious, which is somewhat deceiving. He is also responsible for the cyclers' health and safety, including regularly doping the athletes under his charge.

The atmosphere and excitement surrounding the race is brilliantly captured, and the cinematography is lovely. Still, Walsh uses The Racer and its star, Talpe (who is featured in every scene), to help us understand the layers of an athlete who, as Tara calls him, is nothing but a professional loser.

As someone who doesn't have that kind of passion, Walsh's story and direction do the sport's realities a great service.

Sonny Lets It Sink In

And while the film isn't a cautionary tale about doping, his exploration of the practice though Dom shows how the brutality of the sport and its lifestyle might make an otherwise intelligent person make such an unwise decision.

The film moves effortlessly between the thrills of the race and the agony suffered to take a team to the winners' circle, never straying from the importance of the domestique, a rider whose purpose is propping up those who get the glory.

The Racer is available on Prime Video to rent or buy.

Review

Editor Rating: 3.0 / 5.0
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Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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