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