Following Those Men Into Hell

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Today Lance Armstrong commences his pro cycling comeback in the sunny, laidback Tour Down Under, screening on Sky from 10.30 this morning. Last night half of DeadBall watched a very different kind of race, Jorgen Leth’s semi-legendary cycling documentary A Sunday in Hell, which follows the 1976 Paris-Roubaix from the first stirrings of the mechanics to the showers following the race. In between times it covers the race with a slow, poetic sensibility, focussing less on the indivduals than on the hardships they endure.

The Paris-Roubaix is the most notoriously inhuman of the spring classics, run north from the French capital to Roubaix near the Belgian border. Its first 100 miles are relatively harmless tarmac cycling, but the final 60 or so are run over a cobblestone cattle track, bone-jarring and dusty n the dry, lethally slippery in the wet and never less than ferociously difficult. By the mid-’70s the race had become a Belgian benefit, with no Frenchman getting a look-in for 20 years, and the bullying power of Merckx and De Vlaeminck very much to the fore.It was a fantastic era for cycling, beyond the aforementioned pair (one of whom just happens to be the greatest there can ever be), the field included future T-Mobile directeur sportif Walter Godefroot, glamour boy and future double world champion Freddy Maertens, Italian and the famously genial Frenchman Raymond Polidor, along with Francesco Moser who adored the race like no other.

It’s very ’70s, with a dry, occasionally sneering narration, and long, almost pornographic shots of the peleton and its related carnival of team cars, press and other official vehicles, and captures something of the strident, irritating politicisation of France at the time. Here’s a clip of the film, just as it starts to really dissect the riders, but you should really track down and watch all 92 minutes and 280 brutal kilometres of it.

– Duncan

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