Movie review: “The Program”

Chances are, if there is one person you will be able to connect to cycling in the last 20 years, it’s Lance Armstrong. For better or worse, his name is indelibly linked to road cycling.

The (in)famous Texan was, at one point, a seven-time winner of that most prestigious of Grand Tours, the Tour de France, and popularized a never-say-die attitude and a high-cadence pedaling style as he climbed up the formidable French cols (mountain roads). He was also busted for blood doping, finally coming clean on public television in 2013, losing his seven wins along with many of his sponsors.

Back in 2015, I was pretty excited to hear from road.cc of a biographical drama film about the events leading up to Armstrong’s rise, cheating, and eventual downfall. Having joined the sport well after the scandal died down, I was eager to see just how British filmmaker Stephen Frears would treat this subject matter.

“The Program” stars Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong and Chris O’Dowd as whistle-blowing journalist David Walsh, whose book “The Seven Deadly Sins” became the source material for the film. Beginning in 1993 and chronicling until 2011, Armstrong meets such pivotal characters as Johan Bruyneel, a retiring competitor cyclist that later becomes the US Postal Service cycling team’s sporting director; Dr. Michele Ferrari, the sports scientist and architect of Armstrong’s training/doping program; and Floyd Landis, the super-domestique teammate who later testifies to the US Anti-Doping Agency against Armstrong and Bruyneel.

Walsh interviewing soigneur Emma O’Reilly. O’Reilly gave first-hand account of how methodical the US Postal Service team was in its doping.

I remember O’Dowd as one of the regulars on the British sitcom “The IT Crowd;” I was pretty curious how he’d handle the role of Walsh, whom I’ve seen on some old GCN videos is a rather stern-mannered fellow. On the whole, he comes off respectable as Walsh, although the script doesn’t give him much to do, other than become the object of ire for Armstrong once he delves into the many fishy circumstances and actions of the US Postal Service cycling team.

Armstrong talking down another cyclist for speaking out against doping to the media.

Ben Foster’s performance as Lance Armstrong, though, is quite good. He practically carries the whole movie on his well-defined shoulders. The facial likeness isn’t perfect, but the demeanor, physical presence, and manipulative big-bad-bully tendencies all shine through. There is always a tiny hint that you’re never really sure of the sincerity of his actions.

Armstrong being helped by a nurse to a wheelchair while in hospital.

Armstrong being overtaken uphill by a casual cyclist.

Even at Armstrong’s physical weakest, while battling testicular cancer, Foster delivers. Weakened by repeated chemotherapy, he doggedly tries to regain his pro cyclist form despite clearly not being up to it.

Dr. Michele Ferrari holding a syringe of EPO.

Armstrong and a retired Bruyneel shake hands.

The supporting cast has star turns as well. It’s hard to imagine anybody else but Guillaume Canet portraying the controversial Dr. Michele Ferrari, and Denis Menochet does good as Johan Bruyneel. Jesse Plemons has to take top honors as Floyd Landis, however. “The Program” reveals Landis’ strict religious Mennonite childhood and how it served as a stumbling block for him to pursue a professional road cycling career. Yet, at the eleventh hour, it is his upbringing that leads to his redemption. Plemons shows Landis’ internal conflicts as a professional cyclist all over his tired, weathered visage, never completely comfortable in his place as a cog in the US Postal Service team machine and its shenanigans.

Floyd Landis, Lance Armstrong, and Johan Bruyneel in a room while blood doping.

A disgraced, crestfallen Floyd Landis answering doping allegations at a press conference in 2006.

This being a film about professional road cycling as a sport, “The Program” delivers in that regard. It recycles a lot of existing news and sports footage, in documentary style, but Frears also shoots a lot of his own bike race footage for the film, coordinated by retired cyclist and repentant doper David Millar. Foster and Plemons are largely believable in their roles as Armstrong and Landis on the saddle, and the cinematography of the Tour de France mountain stages is very well done.

Jesse Plemons as Floyd Landis, drafting for Ben Foster’s Lance Armstrong.

 

Some of the film’s most powerful moments involve Foster’s Armstrong in solitude: pondering post-retirement emptiness while walking in his Texas ranch; mentally reaching out to a beleaguered Floyd Landis as he deals with his own doping scandal on live television; and finally dropping himself into the lake at Dead Man’s Hole after making his own confessions to talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

For all of the mediocre critical reception this film got upon release, I don’t think we can fault Frears and his dedication to making this as good of a cycling-related “crime film” as he can. It’s not meant to be definitively factual, as some accounts are fictionalized, but “The Program” is a pretty damn good cycling film.

Advertisements

Tour de France 2017: That’s all she wrote

Well, Chris Froome did it again. He is now a four-time winner of the Tour de France.

Exactly how he went about winning this year was the main talking point, though. Notably, Froome did not win a single stage, nor did he look as imperiously dominant at climbing as he was before. Many times it looked like he was at his most fragile, cracking at the Stage 12 Port de Bales climb. His margin of victory was a relatively scant 54 seconds ahead of Rigoberto Uran of Cannondale-Drapac. Finally, there were times when it seemed like his Team Sky teammate, Spaniard Mikel Landa, was keen on taking the yellow jersey himself. Landa eventually finished fourth in the general classification, 2:21 in arrears and one second behind Romain Bardet.

The result may have seemed inevitable, but the actual victory was anything but. After all the dust has settled, Froome won the race in the two individual time trials of Stages 1 and 20.

Some will say that Froome is not a “deserving” winner as he did not win a single stage. Others detest his lack of flair and robot-like efficiency, his gaze permanently fixed on his stem as he rides and climbs to a set power output. The man sure has his share of haters, like when he was splashed with a cup full of urine by French fans while competing in the 2015 Tour de France.

At the end of the day, though, he played by the rules of the general classification and won where it mattered: against the cumulative clock. Congratulations, Mr. Froome.

Anime review: “Long Riders!”

The title card for “Long Riders!”

Okay, I see what you’re thinking. Why is a cycling blog reviewing an anime series? Well, I basically grew up with anime, having developed a discerning taste for it, as it frequently delves into more mature themes Western animation is hesitant to explore. If it can combine with my love of bicycle riding, then why the hell not?

A QUICK HISTORY OF CYCLING IN ANIME

Cycling as a subject matter for anime is actually very under-represented. The earliest I remember is a 1998 original video animation (OVA) called “Nasu: Summer in Andalusia.” This one-shot OVA detailed a professional multi-day stage race where Spanish rider Pepe Benengeli tries to win the current stage he is riding, despite the harsh realities of being a professional cyclist and his own personal issues. Since then, there haven’t been a lot of titles…but it’s also seen something of a surging boom beginning in 2013, when Wataru Watanabe’s anime “Yowamushi Pedal” blew the world sideways with its take on high school bicycle racing.

A review of that 500-pound gorilla will have to wait for another time.

SO WHAT IS “LONG RIDERS!” ABOUT?

Refreshingly for viewers like me, who are sick and tired of the current anime fixation on high school, this series follows college freshman Ami Kurata. Clumsy and not very athletic, one day she is smitten by a passing 16″-wheeled folding bike, and decides to buy one to join her friend Aoi Niigaki, who is already a moderately experienced cyclist.

(L-R) Aoi Niigaki, Ami Kurata, Hinako Saijou, Saki Takamiya, and Yayoi Ichinose of Team Fortuna.

Along her growing appreciation of the sport, Ami meets more people, makes cycling friends, and broadens her horizons. Eventually, she forms Team Fortuna with Aoi and her riding buddies Hinako, Yayoi, and Saki. As de facto leader, Hinako sets ever higher goals for Ami to scale, while worrying that she may get frustrated and give up cycling altogether, as there are very few female cyclists their age around. Even when she is faced with failures such as mid-ride bonking and cramping, her optimism and love for the sport prevails, making Ami a good example to follow for new riders — especially new female riders.

Ami discovers just how light Saki’s road bike is – even in bikepacking guise.

It’s an organic kind of growth, and as my friend Arvin mentioned, it parallels my real-life experience of starting from a folding bike and making my way up to a road/cyclocross bike as I became a stronger rider.

NO RACING, JUST RIDING

Another refreshing thing about “Long Riders!” is that unlike “Nasu: Summer in Andalusia” and “Yowamushi Pedal,” nowhere in its twelve-episode run does bicycle racing even get mentioned. True to its hiragana-spelled English title, this anime concentrates on the simple joys of riding longer and longer distances…all for the sake of it. This anime has a randonneuring heart firmly beating inside it.

It so happens that Ami’s cycling adventures all occur around Japan, whose culture is innately, notoriously friendly towards bicycle traffic…despite not having bicycle lanes and cycle paths everywhere. How this series promotes the longer distances and bigger challenges Ami encounters is by providing incentives along the way, and those come in either delicious regional foods and delicacies, or majestic tourist sights, such as the beach of Miura, the climb to Mount Oyama via the Yabitsu Pass, and the famous Shimanami Kaido seaside cycling road. In a sense, “Long Riders!” doubles as a tourist and foodie brochure for Japan.

Hinako and Yayoi enjoying some Hassaku daifuku at a rest stop in Innoshima.

Hinako teaching Ami the pleasures of a post-ride gelato.

Be warned: this anime can make you hungry

FUN, FRIENDSHIP, FITNESS, AND FOOD

I like how this series pokes fun at the less-than-savory aspects of our sport. Good bicycles are seldom cheap, illustrated to hilarity by Ami’s repeated visits to the fictional Alpaca Cycle bike shop, and how everybody works part-time jobs for better equipment. Not only does the expense stop at the bike, but things such as lights and apparel come into it as well. The sickening sweetness of energy gels isn’t spared its ridicule either, as Ami has to take one to recover from a bad mid-ride bonk.

Yes, Hinako, the struggle is real.

Ami’s reaction to her first energy gel. Priceless

 

Visually, this anime looks nice enough. The 3D computer-rendered animated riding sequences and bicycle models are okay, but can be a bit jarring when put next to the 2D characters. Then again, with the more laid-back vibe of the show, the visuals are perfectly serviceable as is. Much of the show is focused on Ami, but the other characters are all given a decent time to develop within the short twelve-episode run. If I were to make parallels to other anime series, I’d say “Long Riders!” is closest to “K-On!” but with bikes instead of a rock band.

“Yowamushi Pedal” and its hot-blooded bike racing action may hog all the headlines, but I think “Long Riders!” is a more inclusive show, and much more relevant to the road cycling beginner.