Cycling fans are blessed with hours of TV coverage these days, especially if you have Eurosport (or Eurosport Player and a subscription as I do), but curiously, there have been few films made about cycling. There’s only one fictional film that I’m aware of, Breaking Away, and then a few documentary films, such as Overcoming, Hell on Wheels, various documentaries on Lance Armstrong, and of course the excellent Chasing Legends, which set the bar high with its combination of combined modern and historical narrative, booming orchestral score by Haik Naltchayan and glorious seemingly sun-kissed images of the slow burn 2009 Tour de France. And now, we have another 90 minute feature to view, from the Duchy of Luxembourg – The Road Uphill.
Directed by Jean-Louis Schuller, whose previous work includes cinematography on a film about a gay boy running away from home in the 80s, The Road Uphill is a film funded by the Film Fund Luxembourg which follows the nations two premier cyclists, Frank and Andy Schleck, as they attempt to capture the 2011 Tour de France. Oddly enough, for a film that has a case that seems to heavily emphasise the Luxembourgian heritage of the brothers, what with the title coloured to match the flag of the country and the blurb being just ‘Luxembourg. One of the world’s smallest countries, a green and peaceful place bordered by Belgium, France and Germany. The birthplace of two brothers, Andy and Frank Schleck, two of the world’s best professional cyclists.’ Anyone who is brought into the film expecting to see much of this green and pleasant land will be disappointed – it features for but 5 minutes of the run time of the show.
Not that that is a bad thing. The playground of the film is of course France, and the actors are the Leopard-Trek team that had been created that year to try and place one of the brothers on top of the podium in Paris. And it’s the brothers that are the star of the show, in contrast to the spectacle driven Chasing Legends – The Road Uphill is instead an intimate portrait of the brothers relationship, highlighting the (perhaps overly, many say) easygoing nature of Andy and the stressed, doe eyed Frank, with a narrative thread of the pressures of the brothers to try to live up to expectations. This is where Luxembourg comes in, if at all, as the unseen burden on the shoulders of the two men, continually highlighted through the many faces staring at the big screens and furiously chanting their names as they battle Contador and co.
Of course, the film suffers slightly from the fact that you know the result: the Schlecks don’t win, and the film is obviously aware of this from the start – there is no tension building or emotional ‘will they do it’ moment where any music builds to indicate a glorious triumph, precisely because their isn’t one, but the film feels slightly lifeless because of it, which isn’t particularly helped by a seemingly washed out palate. There is an emotional punch to the film however, especially in the most touching and surprising moment – an interview with the late Wouter Weylandt, which is cruel in its teleology. Weylandt brightly talks with a roll of the eyes about his bad luck in the classics, bemoaning the crashes and punctures he has suffered with a shy smile, and wishing himself an end to the bad luck that has befallen then. It is cruel for the viewer and obviously cruel for Andy, whom we share the tearful eyes with. The film has dark overtones anyway, and this simple little interview in the middle brings home the nature of the sport.
That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining at all – far from it. Any film that has Jens Voigt in usually has a few laughs in, and even in German (the film is mostly German and French with english subtitles) he conveys his amusing anecdotes as well. Fabian Cancellara is also quite amusing, as is some of the early footage of a 18 year old Frank towering over 13 year old Andy as they ride as juniors, with the braced up Andy talking with a grin about how he only races 40km, whilst the pros ride 180. Andy definitely seems to be very much protected by both Frank and father Jonny, who share many an unspoken but notable family moment with the now 2010 Tour winner, and their relationship is the best part of the film, although some highlights are the insight into the 2011 race – one can see why Leopard might not have seemed such a happy place for some riders when the DS’s snap at a certain German rider, and it is interesting to see that Andy was constantly worried about Contador, even asking the excellent journalist Phillipe Brunel for his opinion on if the Spaniard is bluffing, and the final time trial is very interesting, particularly the reaction of Stuart O’Grady, who it turns out was in the car following Andy, when asked if Schleck should be told the time gap to Cadel Evans.
Ultimately, The Road Uphill isn’t the uplifting thrill ride of Chasing Legends, but is instead a slow burning, more thoughtful piece on relationships and mental states rather then the cycle race itself. Many people seem to dislike Frank and Andy, which I’ve never quite understood, but presumed it was because they were perceived as not always trying hard enough and their slightly grating tic of always looking behind one another. Answers as to why such ideas are produced by the film, although they could be answered simply by realising the riders are human, not robots who can attack when they want, but it’s still a touching and pleasant enough experience to warrant a purchase. It’s not one for people you want to get into cycling, but if you want to understand two of the most talented riders in the peloton a little better, it’s well worth a buy.