In 2003, David Millar, one of the greatest British cycling hopes and the only Brit to win all the Tour de France jerseys, was charged for winning under the influence of performance enhancing drugs, a fact that he admitted when the body of evidence against him to too strong for further denial. He was subsequently banned for two years from competitive cycling. Finlay Pretsell’s Time Trial follows Millar as he returns to the sport, attempting to gain a place on his team’s latest Tour de France squad and to personally redeem himself of the demons of his past.
One of the main problems with Time Trial is Millar himself; his impersonal superciliousness and self-philosophising stops any warmth the audience can feel towards him. Many exclusively driven sportspeople have this issue; Lewis Hamilton, Andy Murray, Michael Schumacher all exist within this impenetrable bubble of detachment, which doesn’t help to adhere them to public. Millar feels cold and empathy towards his battle against the stopwatch is difficult to come by. Another irritation is Millar’s response to the interviewer’s questions regarding his doping scandal which he flatly refuses to answer. As he irritably points out, he has explained it many times, but why agree to a documentary about himself when he won’t talk about a primary reason behind the commissioning of it in the first place?
The second issue is that simply that not enough happens, nor do we really get under the skin of the sport or the person. Most of the film is spent watching racing cyclists from interesting angles and eaves-dropping into the competitor’s conversations – which include the weather in the Czech Republic and which races they were at the previous years. Hardly mind-blowing stuff.
The drama does pick up somewhat in the last third as Millar has one last attempt to get on the Tour de France team as he battles against the weather and several technical issues. Dan Deacon’s excellently haunting post-electro soundtrack does its best to edge up the tension here, but it’s never enough to command any authority over the linear narrative.
Although at times feeling somewhat like an advert for Go-Pro, the videography here is great. Using smaller cameras allows the audience to be right in the middle of action, something that brings a realisation of the perils of high speed cycling. The speeds hit on the descents while constantly a couple of centimetres from catastrophe are almost unimaginable. That said, most of the film is spent viewing the action through these cameras, and the effect soon wears a little thin.
Of course, any complaints about Millar’s personality doesn’t retract from the absolute commitment to his trade, nor his incredible athleticism. Pedalling for three hundred kilometres every day in a torrential rainstorm is not most people’s idea of an enjoyable pastime. Most surprising is that Millar – and most of the other riders – doesn’t seem to enjoy the riding whatsoever, being solely concerned with the excellence of performance and success over anything close to pleasure.
If Pretsell set out to make an art-house documentary of cycling – the two wheeled version of Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait say – then it’s not imaginative enough. If he wanted a gripping docudrama – Icarus is the obvious comparison – then there’s simply not enough spectacle nor crisis. The result is that Time Trial sits uncomfortably in the middle. Cycle enthusiasts will no doubt enjoy an alternate view of the races, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone outside of that select group getting excited about anything on show here.
Dir: Finlay Pretsell
Cast: David Millar, Thomas Dekker
Prd: Sonja Henrici
DOP: Martin Radich
Music: Dan Deacon
Run Time: 81 minutes
Time Trial is in cinemas on 29 June.