By Mike Newberry — An old friend of mine, one that I used to spend hours on the bike with, and I were discussing bike racing … again. Among the usual topics, he asked if I’d ever watched the movie “Hell on Wheels”. “No … never saw it,” I responded. He told me a little about it, that it was a documentary about the European professional bicycle Team Telekom team, and since I love watching cycling documentaries, I gave it a shot.
Directed by German filmmaker Pepe Danquart, the movie is set during the 2003 Tour de France (its 100th anniversary edition) and follows Team Telekom through their daily regimen for the 3-week race. The 2003 edition of the race marked the 5th consecutive win by Lance Armstrong, but the camera is not trained on that, but focuses mainly on the German superstar sprinter, Eric Zabel, and his trusted domestique and roommate of 11 years, Rolf Aldag.
If you’ve ever thought you’d want to make a go of being a bike racer, you know that bike racing is hard. Professional bike racing is really hard as exhibited by what is shown in this movie.
Some of the back stories of the movie: the first stage brings a crash in the sprint and takes down Andreas Klöden (Team Telekom) and another rider, Tyler Hamilton (CSC). Hamilton breaks his collar bone and goes on, infamously, to continue the race (actually winning a mountain stage!) while Klöden’s tour spirals down and he eventually pulls out of the race. Zabel comments on that win that he’s “never seen anything like that,” meaning someone riding away from the group and not being reeled back in. Our knowledge, now, of Hamilton’s’ (and most of the other Pro riders of that era) use of EPO make for an interesting retrospective.
The ups and downs for the veterans Zabel and Aldag spotlighted are telling. Zabel was an unbeatable sprinter (in his day) and this movie shows his decline as he is continually beaten to the line by the up-and-coming Alessandro Petacchi (“Ale-jet”). Zabel’s’ realization that his star might be dimming can be witnessed throughout the film as he confides in his soigneur, “Ulle”, about his fears of not being able to come around the new sprinter. Aldag succeeds in winning the mountain climbers “polka dot” jersey during a courageous stage and the trash talking (all in good fun) between the two roommates is very interesting to witness.
There are plenty of racing highlights to keep you glued to the screen and well-placed scenes of the history of the race by one of the French journalists/historians. The movie rates right alongside “Hell of the North”, the 1976 documentary of the Paris-Roubaix, for pure watching pleasure for the bicycle enthusiast and bike racer.