Director: Finlay Pretsell
Cast: David Millar
Watch Time Trial online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Finlay Pretsell’s visceral, evocative documentary Time Trial is not so much a biopic as a snapshot of a specific point of superstar professional cyclist David Millar’s life in 2014, when, at the age of 37, he is facing the prospect of the end of his career and wanting to give the Tour de France one more shot as a “clean” racer. We learn very briefly through the film’s only talking heads that Millar doped at one point in his career and was banned in 2004 – very little further context or details are given and Millar is not shot in classic interview style. In chiaroscuro, his face half in shadow, Millar baulks at having to rehash his life for the millionth time in some film-friendly soundbites, sometimes reduced to holding his face in his hands. The whole scene is a monument to words failing us, their inability to truly communicate heartbreak, motive, feeling, regret. What he does utter, and his difficulty in doing so, sets up the rest of Time Trial. He downplays his Olympian achievements (“I made money through serendipity”) acknowledges that he “fucked up” by doping (“It’s part of me, but it’s not me”) and begs for “one more” Tour de France. This is a broken, jaded, self-disparaging human, crushed by the cannibalistic nature of sport, who, despite everything, wants to try one last time.
Time Trial assumes either the viewer has an encyclopaedic knowledge of cycling, David Millar and doping, or a complete indifference to it, which is perfect for both the avid fan, those uninterested in or ignorant of the world of competitive cycling, and everyone in between. It’s refreshingly non educational in the traditional sense – non-didatic in its lack of specificity, with the emotions, experiences and recollections of Millar speaking more to the Sisyphean nature of human endeavour. What drives these strange isolated individuals that we call athletes? What drives us?
It comes as no surprise then that the director, Pretsell, was once himself a professional cyclist. He captures his subject in a skilful, impressionistic manner; his passion for movement and speed is obvious. We feel the cold, the rain, the blurred faces of fans as Millar races by, the freedom of acceleration and velocity racing through the bucolic and the urban, that sublime state alongside the quotidian – the generic hotel rooms and the struggle to change clothes while cycling. Pretsell deals with his subject matter as if Lynne Ramsey had turned her hand to documentaries. It’s rich, vivid and expressive, doing away with many tired conceits of cinéma vérité.
For those in the know, the suspense of whether or not Millar will complete his last hurrah in cycling’s most prestigious race is a forgone conclusion. However, with such an in-depth study of this human antidote to the Lance Armstrongs of the world, the suspense of a person pushing themselves to their physical and mental limits will sustain their attention. When we’re not watching Millar, Pretsell provides raw footage of the Pentalon and the time trial that you won’t see on any of the slickly packaged programming of BBC Sport et al. – he renders a familiar world of sport surreal again to both fans and newbies alike. The flag girls, the shouting cyclists jostling for position, the clipped, Anglo Saxon conversations that take place in the team’s cars. As Millar cycles through the mountains, seemingly free, he describes them in voiceover as being in distinct contrast to the images we are seeing – inherently claustrophobic, their terrain and mapped routes difficult and tangling, compared to the natural breezy shorelines of the coast. Millar also tellingly describes his love of breaking away from the group, even if it risks danger to himself through falling; what has made him such a successful athlete is interwoven with those darker, almost death drive urges to test his physicality with an almost cavalier disregard for his own safety.
Time Trial doesn’t get into the systemic problem of doping in cycling and within sports in general. It’s only briefly touched upon in utterance – David’s ire at the sport failing youngsters, the wrath of those who see it as nothing more complex than an unforgivable personal failing, and his despair at not being able to add anything further. In this way, the film hints that simplistic views of individuals being right and wrong ignores the complexities of the function of sport in a capitalist society and the pressures put on athletes to be the best.
For those interested in further exploring this line of thought, Millar himself has penned two books, 2012’s Racing Through The Dark: The Rise and Fall of David Millar and in 2016, The Racer. For those wanting an in-depth academic read, there’s Angela J. Schneider’s ‘Cultural Nuances: Doping, Cycling and the Tour de France’ published in 2006, as the widespread sporting phenomenon of doping in cycling ever increasingly hit the headlines. For those who are looking for an easy but fairly neutral watch on the use of steroids in sporting culture, Chris Bell’s 2008 Bigger, Stronger, Faster is an interesting amateur doc, or try Netflix’s Oscar-winning documentary Icarus (read our review here).