Cycling films featuring an embedded journalistic team are getting ever more common, and indeed ever more desirable as teams becoming increasingly closed off from the public eye. A great call for more “openness” from teams as regards their methods of training, as well as methods of preventing doping, has also contributed to the desire to see behind the curtain of professional teams, and it is in this context that the film Clean Spirit, directed by Dutchman Dirk Jan Roeleven, find itself filming. The idea, according to Roeleven, was that he would get access to everything about the (then) Argos-Shimano team during the Tour de France, and would be allowed to film it – aside, he quipped “from the penises.” Charming.
Inevitably, this film will be compared to its siblings in the embedded journalist film in the Columbia-HTC centered Chasing Legends, or the Leopard-Trek centered The Road Uphill (read all about that here), but those concentrate more on the emotional fervour of the Tour and Cycling as a whole than Clean Spirit. Clean Spirit establishes pretty quickly, in it’s opening frames, that it is here to show what goes on inside a top Tour de France team, and what funny business, if any, goes down.
And it seem to do this well, to start with. The film is following Argos-Shimano (now Giant-Alpecin) at the 2013 Tour de France, and so we are introduced to Marcel Kittel, who at the time had merely one Vuelta stage to his credit, and John Degenkolb, then a 5 time Vuelta stage winner. Indeed, the benefit of hindsight on the team, which also includes a 22 year old Tom Dumoulin, adds an extra flavour to the film, but we’ll return to that.
As way of introduction, the film begins with, aptly, the first stage of the 2013 Tour, which, whilst it was meant to show off the joys of Corsica, finally included on the Tour route for the first time, but will ultimately be remembered for the fact Orica-GreenEdge got their bus stuck under the finish line gantry, and the joyful mess that followed where,for a while, a historic stage of the biggest race in the world was going to finish on a one lane roundabout 3km from the actual finish.
Naturally, this is cinema gold, so the film spends 20 minutes letting that narrative pan out whilst introducing us to figures such as DS and team leader Rudi Kemna, himself a confessed doper, who the camera focuses on in the obligatory in-car shot.
Rudi gets a light interrogation as to whether he and his team can be believed, which he shrugs off by saying the camera crew can have access wherever they want and they will see. The main thing you begin to notice during this is the slightly odd use of subtitles, whether they be telling us of “Oreca” or removing some of the more colourful language, such as Herr Degenkolb’s outburst as to the radio messages he received during the stage. Throughout, the subtitles are more a summary of what is said then what is heard, but given most of the spoken words are in English, anyway, it’s not too bad.
Still, once Marcel has taken his yellow jersey, we’re on to the meat of the film: is the team clean, and what moral quandaries might they be putting themselves in?
The film captures a side of the peloton not normally, discussed, namely the taking of pills by the riders. Thus, we see a rider requesting caffeine pills, been given pills he says are actually for cramp, and everyone having a laugh over it. Obviously, the question raised is the morality of this – stories have emerged of supposed tramadol use in the peloton (Albeit alleged by Michael Barry, not exactly in the pantheon of believable souls) The director takes a fairly gentle approach to this, seemingly hoping to leave the revelation of what is taken to the viewer to judge. Indeed, people might be surprised that riders would take 21 pills a day, in the form of…
- Vitamin C
- Fish oil
- Beta Alanine
- Caffeine (they only take “if they have a chance of winning”)
The distinction as to why is it “Not doping” seems to be inferred that it is because they are taken in pill form rather than injections, although that is clarified to point out that needles are the path to worse drugs further along the line.
Still, whether these are things these super athletes need for their health or just as an advantage is never really touched on, which would have helped the argument, although the revelation that Marcel Kittel takes no pills is enlightening. The caffeine pills are a particular grey area, as the physician claims that “some guys wont take them as they dont think they work”, before saying that all the pills are “proven performance enhancers”, so whether you want to equate that to doping is up to you. To blow my own trumpet, my master’s dissertation was on this subject, if anyone’s interested…
After that though, the film starts to become more a behind the scenes look at the race, as though the directors anticipated finding lots of dodgy activity, exhausted all their options in the first half hour, and instead dedicated the remaining time to the race at hand. We are thus subjected (or should that be treated?) too many, many shots of near naked riders being massaged or lazing around chatting to people on phones or giving pretty predictable answers to tame questions about hypothetical doping.
The subject of money is also a novel one – you always assume these guys do the sport out of love, so to hear them talking about how much money the team has taken, and trying to work out the split (Kittel and Degenkolb promise gifts and money as a thank you for stages won at the beginning) is a bit like your best friend introducing you to someone that they say is their “best friend” – it feels slightly like a betrayal. But they have to live I suppose, even if fans would kill just for the opportunity to live their lives.
What the documentary needs to push the action along is a villain, and with German Protagonists (Albeit on a [then] Dutch team), the obvious answer is a Brit – and luckily, they get on, in the shape of the evil that is Mark Cavendish, who is shown giving short answers to the press (booooo!), looking sulky (hissss!!!) and, of course, being involved with knocking Tom Veelers off of his bike.
This seemingly became the go to topic of conversation for the Argos boys at dinner, as the battle to get Cavendish to apologise rages for the rest of the film. It does give a fascinatingly hilarious view into how team press relations work though (or, more accurately, dont)
Choice comment of the episode has to be that “[Cavendish] can keep his childish Twitter shit to himself” (Cavendish, of course, did not believe he had done anything wrong). The one thing end up not being party to is Veelers conversation with Cavendish on the phone – quite a good record for a film with supposedly unlimited access.
From here, the narrative begins to shift to the struggle though the mountains, with Veelers in particular a focal point as his injuries begin to take their steady toll. The moonscape of Mont Ventoux provides an excellent setting for this, and also helps to show that Degenkolb, rather than Kittel is the man who is perhaps the more caring of his fellow teammates.
These sections perhaps highlight one of the weaknesses of Clean Spirit in comparison to other cycling films. Having already seemingly abandoned its mopus operandi, it never seems to settle into any particular narrative structure. Whilst Chasing Legends was about evoking the simples joys and pleasures of cyclists as well as the glorious highs and crushing lows of cycling, and The Road Uphill had brotherly struggle and the attempt to win the Tour by the Schlecks as its focus, Clean Spirit seems to rather meander it’s way around, never really settling on anything.
This is arguably an advantage – it means they can jump to little moments that wouldn’t usually fit into a sport film, but it never really feels that emotional – we see through a lens on the team, but it is never tinted in such a way to toy with our feelings. Again, arguably this is a nice idea – it allows the viewer to make their own judgement – but the whole thing feels like a series of observations tacked onto one another than anything planned (rather like this review, I suppose). Still, it introduces everyone to Marcel Kittel’s flirting technique, centred around his fabulous hair, so it must be given credit for that.
Not that it goes particularly well thanks to the team of course, although he does refer to them as his family…
Eventually, the doc settles towards an endgame, first around Tom Veeler’s abandon, and some slightly awkward conversations with his parents who struggle to put a positive spin on their son’s problems, and finally, the showdown final stage on the Champs Elysees.
This mostly seems to revolve taking the piss out of Cavendish, as the team spy on him from out of their bus, mocking his neuroses, and trying to think of ways to demoralise him, which ends up with John Degenkolb trying to suggest to Cavendish that his new shoes are the cause of his problems.
Obviously, as you know, Kittel took the win there, the first man to dethrone Cavendish on that stage in four years and the first other then Gert Steegmans to win since 2008, and we get to go backstage with the celebrations of both the team and Kittel’s family.
The film rounds off without any of the opening titles or thematic musings of the opening, and it feels strangely disconnected from the start of the film. Even the quasi-narrative questioning of the man behind the camera fades away after a third of the film, and as a result, the whole thing just feels…strange. For a film that promised to show “Clean Spirit”, it seems oddly shallow in its exploration of that subject, but it is still an interesting and enlightening vision of young men together at a world class sporting event. It just would have been nicer to see a bit more to be honest.
However, that’s not to say it wasn’t good. It is the personalities of the riders that shine through, with the backstage machinations much more interesting then the PR press releases we are usually left to try and decipher our heroes from. One can’t help thinking that these sort of films would be better off as a TV series, with an episode for every one or two stages, rather than a one off film though – they would get much closer to their aims.
So, worth a watch? Yes – just don’t expect to be particularly blown away. Unless it’s by Marcel Kittel’s hair.
What do we learn about the riders?
Kittel comes across as not entirely comfortable with his leadership role, which is interesting given the falling out he evidently had with the team in 2015, which led to his move to Etixx, passive-aggressive leaving message et al from Giant (“Kittel wishes to…achieve new goals in new surroundings, rather than in the improvement-driven elite sports environment of Giant-Alpecin.”)
Seemingly shier than his looks would suggest, Kittel seems to not be too natural in the role of instructor, and there is tension over a stage he loses to Andre Greipel over how the finish was described to him by the team, with the team privately stating he shouldn’t have had problems after appeasing him with the opposite reaction. Still, his teammates clearly looked up to him, with the German visiting each to thank them for their efforts and hear about their days after each stage, even if Degenkolb seems to be more of the social hub for the team.
This has probably all read a little like a character assassination on Marcel, but he genuinely comes across as a charming, softly spoken man trying to get to grips with suddenly being thrust into the position of the best sprinter of the Tour, and all that involves, whether it be calls home, press, or the leadership roles within the team.
Degenkolb, actually a year younger than Kittel, comes over as older and wiser of the two young German sprinters. He is certainly the more outgoing and confident of the two, happy joking continually about the number of Rolexs he will have as gifts from Kittel for helping to win stages.
For a man who at the time had the better palmares than Kittel, Degenkolb is certainly very modest and recognises his imitations, happy to allow Kittel to supercede him and shoulder the pressure, which is perhaps why he comes over more mellow than the higher strung Kittel. In hindsight, with Kittel leaving for pastures new, Degenkolb looks like the ideal fulcrum for Giant Alpecin.
Now perhaps the hottest young talent in cycling for his oh-so-close Vuelta performance (even though he ended up, er, 6th), it was interesting to get a brief introduction to the 22 year old Dumoulin, whom we see as a lead out man riding “like a motor bike” who just seems happy to be there.
We don’t see much of Dumoulin (well, except for on the massage table, where we see alot of everrrry rider), but it is nice to see future talents in their rawer states.