Time Trial: a film reviewed

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Cycling has long held a symbiotic relationship with art. The poetry and pain of the sport inspires artists working with almost any media. From the early days of flighty prose to sell newspapers, through books endeavouring to describe its suffering and salvation, to the cinematic art of Jørgan Leth, cycling has few rivals, in the sporting world at least, as a source of inspiration; even musicians are inspired by the humble bike race - none more so than Kraftwerk.

Finlay Pretsell joins this long tradition with Time Trial, his exploration of David Millar’s life in cycling, and his final season in particular.

As the trailers finally finish, the first thing that confronts the viewer is the BBFC certificate... 18. What? For a film about cycling... why? Seconds later, it becomes obvious why this is an adult film. Millar, and those around him, don’t censor themselves. Why would they? This is a brutal sport, and the film contains many brutal moments. Races and riders are fucks, shits, and, on one memorable occasion, glove-stealing cunts.

That’s not to say that there is no beauty in this brutal world. Pretsell obviously has a wonderful eye for the tiny moments of wonder, and shot after shot, whether capturing suffering or glory, is beautifully produced and edited. Although the influence of other artistically-minded sports documentaries is at times apparent - films like Zidane and Senna, not to mention Leth’s oeuvre - Time Trial is a unique, modern film that feels as though it could only have been made now, with a rider like Millar in total cooperation.

Time Trial is more than just a pretty face, however. Nothing this beautiful has any right to be so informative... I have consumed cycling media in all its forms for many years. I’ve watched, read, listened, and streamed, not to mention raced, but I’ve rarely felt this immersed in the world of professional cycling. From tiny vignettes within the peloton, to bare-all hotel room footage, and warts and all interviews with the man himself, Pretsell gets deep under the skin of his fellow Scot, at times even to Millar’s evident discomfort.

Parts of the film make genuinely uncomfortable watching. A lot of this is down to the sound design and score, which use atonality and dissonance to unsettle the viewer and underscore Millar going deeper and deeper within himself. In particular, a wickedly tough climb at Tirreno Adriatico, and the frozen and washed out 2015 Milan-San Remo are stark antidotes to any Sunday rider who fancies the life of a pro.

The darkness is both literal and metaphorical - at his lowest ebb, Millar the cyclist is entombed within tunnels as Millar the man, shot against a black backdrop, bares his soul.

There is no easy redemption here and Pretsell won’t allow us the simple ending of Millar punching the air. His is a cleverer and deeper film than that, and is all the better for it. Having been so deeply immersed in the peloton, finally we are allowed to come up for air… and given the narrowest of hints that perhaps there is life, and maybe even happiness, beyond cycling. 

Time Trial is in cinemas now, and is also available on iTunes, Sky Store, Amazon Video, or Google Play.

Why not organise your own club screening at https://www.timetrialfilm.com/clubs

 

Remembering what’s important

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Earlier this week we were invited to take part in an interesting art and design project at Middlesex University.

The project, called I Am A Magazine, invited a group of art, design, photography and fashion students to create something interesting on the theme of magazines. One of the ways the organisers came up with to help the students find inspiration was to line up a number of guests – including us – to give talks about various aspects of magazines and publishing.

We gave the students a guided tour of Simpson’s conception in 2012, its birth in 2013 and its steady growth ever since. We talked about how the magazine is an expression of our passion for cycling, design and print journalism. We told them how Simpson has become a platform for emerging photographic and journalistic talent. We explained how our independence has enabled us to steer clear of the product-pushing clichés of some other publications we could mention. We shared our excitement about the opportunities Simpson has given us – to travel to places we’d never otherwise go to and meet people we’d never otherwise meet. 

We also talked about the growth of something bigger than just the printed magazine. We talked about our online presence, the Simpson team, the kit, T-shirts and other merchandise, the club rides and, perhaps most importantly, the sense of community and shared purpose that’s gradually formed around the Simpson name.

Delivering this talk served to remind us how far we’ve come in the last few years. It encouraged us to step back from the day-to-day plate-juggling exercise of work and family and cycling and everything else, just for a few hours, to reflect on how fulfilling it’s been and how lucky we are to be involved in the wonderful world of Simpson.

Christmas and what it means to a cyclist

 Forget the concept of having a white Christmas: snow rarely graces the UK until at least February

Forget the concept of having a white Christmas: snow rarely graces the UK until at least February

Whether it's the most eagerly awaited public holiday of the year is another topic for debate but the Christmas period for cyclists is a mixed blessing.

Like all public holidays the same amount of work is compacted into fewer days leaving us having to write off a day in order to catch up on sleep. Traditionally a time for family get togethers, of giving, receiving, of sharing and an excuse for overindulgence Christmas is a strange bedfellow. 

Thanks to the changes in the jet stream the only snow we now see at this time is found on greetings cards. You can safely say that, at least in the UK, Christmas Day will be mild, damp affair with a flat greyness to it. A perfect climate to try out all your new cycling related presents but shouldn't you be at hand to help with reading user manuals, topping up sherry glasses and making sure the children's new toys have there batteries fitted correctly - what do you?

The irony of it all lies, in part, in the temptation to over do things on the food & drink front. With every combination on the menu from gastro finger food to the traditional three bird roast it's difficult to retain any restraint. The same goes with alcohol consumption. The time you've spent finding the lightest frame/saddle/groupset/handlebars etc. those precious gram saving present ideas all go to waste as you pile the pounds on. Any benefits now lie in ruins. 

Our perspective is that you have to earn your freedom to cycle, create an environment where Aunt Vi enquires why you haven't been out for a ride yet. Be a martyr, be seen to abstain, refuse that extra mince pie, sausage roll and can of beer - publicly be seen to suffer for your cycling. 

At the end of the day it's all down to the individual as to how your Christmas pans out with your cycling. You're the one that needs to find the right balance between family and self at this time but from all at Simpson magazine we would like to take this opportunity to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy healthy 2017.

 

Into the heart of darkness

“My undercarriage is ruined, my hands are numb and I can’t remember my own name.” So says one of the riders in the London-Edinburgh-London ultra-Audax from 2013 in a new film about the ride due for release on 1 June.

Why would anyone want to cycle 1400km in five days? It’s a very odd thing to do. The pain, exhaustion and jeopardy these riders put themselves through is pretty extreme. It’s the kind of ride that any cyclist would love to be able to say they’d done but very few would actually want to go through it.

Every cycling breed is represented in this excellent documentary, from Strava segment bashers on their carbon race bikes to innocent newbies who have no idea what they’ve taken on, and wizened old ultra-distance riders with steely eyed determination and trusty tourers.

Every rider has their own reason for attempting this ridiculous distance. Some are raising money for charities close to their heart. Some are negotiating mid-life crises. One was simply celebrating the fact that he was still alive following a quadruple bypass operation.

Together they go off rather too quickly in high spirits under sunny skies. And together they cycle into the heart of darkness, losing their sense of time and place and even self as they push deeper and deeper into their reserves to beat the broom wagon.

They pedal relentlessly on through breath-taking scenery and dreary cityscapes, trying to snatch minutes of sleep before they slip into unconsciousness in the saddle through sheer exhaustion.

It’s a great watch – and made all the more fun because the 2017 event is already fully booked up so there’s no danger of being sucked into the madness, however inspired you might be by it (and you will be inspired, trust us on that one).

You can see a trailer for the London Edinburgh London official documentary here https://vimeo.com/ondemand/londonedinburghlondon/137386687. The kind folk at MadeGood.films, who produced the documentary, have offered Simpson readers a 10% discount code. All you have to do is enter the code 'lelpresale' at checkout, or follow this link https://vimeo.com/r/1HL2/x/QXBFY1ljM3 before 1 June.

 

Chalk lines and village halls

It was all very British. Sat in a village hall car park at an hour when most folk were still in bed sleeping off the excesses of a good Saturday night, two bikes wrapped in blankets on the folded seats behind us as we watched other competitors arrive. Outside the hall stood two men, one with a clipboard the other measuring the distance of a complete crank rotation between two chalked lines. Any bike travelling more than 18 feet 8 1/4 inches was instantly disqualified. We had entered the world of medium geared time trialling. It felt like a mysterious closed society - the stuff of secret handshakes and whispered conversations.

This is the underbelly of British club cycling - an honest down-to-earth, grass roots event that sits a million light years from the glamour of televised Grand Tours. The fundamental principles might have been the same but the execution was very different.

Having passed the measurement requirement we signed on. Now we had passed the point of no return. We were committed. Our countdown with destiny (and the stopwatch) had begun.

However well you prepare, there's always those unknown factors, those niggly little things that float around in your head before the off. We lined up in a narrow lane leading to a farmer's field, everyone in sequence with the numbers pinned to our backs. No digital LED countdown, no start ramp just a line chalked on the road and man with a clipboard and stopwatch. A 25 mile TT had seemed a good idea at the time of entering. It didn't anymore. Having refused the starter's push in favour of a self-propelled start, the race of truth had begun.

You soon reach top speed on a single speed bike; the secret, as in any time trial, is maintaining it. It took eight painful miles to regulate breathing, settle down and find a rhythm. As soon as the halfway roundabout came into view we knew we were homeward bound. This elation was immediately soured by a sequence of repeated mechanical failures - on three separate occasions the chain jumped the rear sprocket. Without a team car in sight (dream on punter!) it was time to get our hands dirty. The ignoble sight of a cyclist, bike upturned by the side of the road wrestling a jammed chain signified us kissing goodbye to any semblance of a decent finishing time.

Needless to say we completed the event way down the field but we weren't last and our appetite to give it another go is keen. We have unfinished business.