In the days before index shifting and carbon fiber bike frames, the experimental Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth turned his camera to cycling. Atypical to film making today, Leth films with wide angle, long duration shots that let the story come to you. In 1973, Leth made two transcendent cycling movies. Stars and Watercarriers captures the perfectionism of the professional peloton from the Giro d’Italia in a simpler time. There’s a history and a certain beauty to the Grand Tours, three week affairs of attrition and resolve that trade in names like Giro, Vuelta, le Tour de France.
The Classics, though, are where its at. Instead of having to husband one’s finite reserves over two-thousand miles of racing, the Classics come as a one day Dante’s Inferno of martyrdom, as Leth tells it. Here, riding with heightened aggression and caginess are a prerequisite for a chance at the day’s greatest rewards.
After the riders leave the hard early spring racing from Italy and Belgium behind, events that trade in names Fleche Wallonne or Amstel Gold arrive. The crown jewel of them all is the Paris Roubaix. The name denotes the race’s 166 mile route from start to the finish north in Roubaix. This Classic presents a special challenge summed up in its alternate moniker, The Hell of the North. After 100 miles of mostly traditional riding, the roads give way to the Pave du Nord. These cobblestone pathways are so old – some trace back to the Romans – and so poor they are open only to farmers driving cattle, along with a certain bike race. It’s a race exclusive only to the hardest of men. Leth captures a young Eddy Merckx. He looks so dapper driving up the day before the Roubaix in this baby-blue-on-blue travel suit. Then, the next morning you see why Mercx is still known as the Cannibal.
My introduction can only do it so much justice. Here’s Jorgen Leth’s A Sunday In Hell. It’ll send shivers down your spine.
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