I like David Millar. He’s always seemed to be one of the more interesting figures in and around road cycling. I appreciate that he can string a sentence together, that he can freely articulate the essential experiences of the sport. So when I saw that his film Time Trial was finally coming to Australia I was quick to drag myself and some friends off to see it. My expectations, whilst warily muted to begin with, were nevertheless let down. I really wanted to like this film more than I did. So where did it go wrong? I’ll share my thoughts here in this short review.
Firstly, there are some undeniably enjoyable moments for any fans of road cycling. Most of the in-race footage used in the film is taken from Millar’s participation in the 2013 Giro d’Italia and the 2014 Milan-San Remo.
It’s a great laugh to watch Millar and co blocking the front of the Giro peloton and swearing in resentment as Luca Paolini decides to have a dig. Or to overhear Millar’s wry ruminations within the bunch, with riders such as Cav or Roman Kreuziger, usually meditating on the theme of having had enough one way or another.
It’s a side of life in the peloton we don’t see through live coverage. It’s human, it’s appealing, and it hints at the film’s potential to build a more nuanced psychological portrait of the rider.
At times these sequences are let down by the quality of unstabilised on-bike footage which can be a little stomach turning to follow. Though a prolonged shot of Millar following Wiggins at a crawl up steep gradients is probably worth it just to hear his heaving cry of ‘Fuck’ once the road eases off. Again, a relatable humanity.
The weather at the 2014 Milan-San Remo might not have been as bad as the previous year when the race was shortened in the face of blizzards, but it wasn’t much better. Anyone who has persisted on a bike in dreadful conditions, let alone raced in them, will relate to Millar as he fights against sodden kit, frozen fingers and failing equipment.
Some of the limitations of the on-bike cameras are used to an intentional artistic effect here as the race approaches it’s culmination. Did this artistic attempt succeed? I liked it, though I think my friends found it grating.
For the most part the film is scored really well too. Rhythmic John Cage-esque chimes and electronic sounds underpin the energy of the racing.
Whilst I enjoyed the inside look at these races, the film fails to reach a certain emotional rigour it grasps for. Perhaps a straight narrative of Millar’s life and tribulations would have been more effective. But instead we’re given interspersed and impressionistic glimpses of the controversies which defined much of his career.
These glimpses never seem to grip. The story, and why the audience should care about it, is never really clear. Millar recounts symbolic dreams which might be filled with significance for him but which don’t serve to advance the film or deepen its impact for us.
Maybe it’s viewer-error and I don’t know these stories intimately enough – I haven’t read his books, for example. More knowledgeable fans might be more rewarded. But when it comes to the moment where I should have cared most about the emotional revelation Millar endures on camera, I was left feeling unmoved. Or at least not sufficiently moved to feel like the film was effective.
After the film we found ourselves talking about cycling on film and in writing. Why are there so few great examples? Books like Tim Krabbé’s The Rider and Jørgen Leth’s cycling films from the 1970s show it can be done.
In fact Leth’s documentation of Moser’s failed hour record attempt might serve as a template for this kind of film. Struggle and failure can be more meaningful than struggle and achievement precisely because in the moment of denouement the suffering which inheres in the human condition is written most starkly. In fact, Krabbé too acknowledged this when he said for his book to succeed it had to be based on a race he didn’t win (I’m recounting from memory – I’ll try to find the reference :).
So Millar is on to something here. It’s a great premise – the ageing racer hanging on valiantly only to have the rug pulled out. For this to work though, a stronger emotional connection between the rider and the audience is necessary, and this is never effectively achieved.
I really wanted to like the film more. Like I said at the outset, I admire the guy. I’ll continue to enjoy hearing his thoughtful commentary and analysis. But I’m left feeling like Time Trial might benefit from a re-cut.