Set during the doping scandal of the 1998 Tour de France, The Racer is a fictional story reflective of cycling culture at the time, in which the use of performance-enhancing drugs was a widespread open secret. But director and co-writer Kieron J. Walsh isn’t interested in social commentary, and there’s very little judgment here of the characters who turn to drugs to give themselves a competitive edge. The movie is a sympathetic portrait of one such character, veteran Belgian cyclist Dom Chabol (Louis Talpe), who relies on various substances to keep himself in racing shape at the advanced age of 38.
Dom is barely hanging on as a support rider, a member of a cycling team whose sole purpose is to boost the winning chances of the team’s leader. As another character puts it during a heated argument, Dom is a professional loser, long past the point of being able to function as a team leader himself. The movie is set during the first stages of the 1998 Tour, which were run in Ireland, not France, although the local culture isn’t particularly relevant, aside from a handful of scenes set in pubs. The members of Dom’s team hail from all over Europe, fluidly shifting among various languages as they communicate with each other.
As the movie begins, Dom is one step away from the end of his cycling career, without a contract or any job prospects for the next season and nearly cut from his team on the eve of the Tour’s start. He keeps going thanks largely to the support of the team’s trainer Sonny (Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen), a former cyclist who understands the demands of the sport. Sonny provides physical and emotional support for Dom, and Dom does the same for Italian team leader Tartare (Matteo Simoni), an arrogant, quick-tempered showboat who nevertheless suffers from deep insecurities. Dom literally puts Tartare to bed every night, talking him down from his fears about the next day’s race and leading him through visualization exercises.
Meanwhile, Dom neglects his own health, and during one brief health scare he connects with young race doctor Lynn Brennan (Tara Lee), who sees him as more than just a piece of meat to be exploited for team sponsorships. Their romance is a bit underdeveloped, but Talpe and Lee have strong chemistry, and the principled Lynn is more than just a shoulder for Dom to cry on. She challenges him and pushes him to do what’s right for himself, not just for the team. The real central relationship of the movie, though, is between Dom and Sonny, and Glen makes Sonny into a charismatic father figure while also hinting at his own inner turmoil and regrets.
Dom keeps most of his emotions bottled up (he barely reacts to a phone call giving him news of his father’s death), and he can sometimes come off as a little too inscrutable to anchor a movie, but Talpe gives him the right amount of vulnerability in key moments. The relatively small-scale production successfully conveys the scope of the Tour de France in the racing scenes, and even viewers who know nothing about cycling shouldn’t have trouble following the action. Walsh focuses the story on Dom’s personal journey rather than on winning a race, and there are no easy inspirational victories here.
That makes the ending a bit anticlimactic, not only competitively but also thematically, but overall The Racer is an affecting character study and a refreshingly low-key look at a topic that has repeatedly been sensationalized (thanks in part to the attention given to disgraced superstar Lance Armstrong). There are no easy answers for Dom, and the movie doesn’t provide him with any. All he can do is get back on his bike and ride another day.