Summer, 1998 - the Tour de France arrives in Ireland for its opening stages. Dom Chabol (Louis Talpe) is a support cyclist who's entering the final stages of his career, with years of blood doping beginning to take its toll on him. As he faces into what may be his last tour, the course of his journey begins to change as he meets a young doctor (Tara Lee), and the chance of long-eluded victory comes into play...
From the get-go of 'The Racer', it's made clear that the movie is entirely fictional beyond its setting, but as we know from reading sports journalism over the past 10 to 15 years, what transpires in the movie isn't so hard to believe. There's almost a Cronenbergian sense of body horror throughout 'The Racer' when it comes to the doping and the pummeling the titular character takes. He's regularly injecting blood into himself. His heart stops during the night, and he has to shudder himself onto a bike to keep it moving. He stands in front of a mirror as his emaciated frame is picked and prodded.
It's grim stuff, and 'The Racer' makes no qualms about how brutal and how unglamorous the sport of cycling is. If anything, it revels in it. Most of the action takes place not on a bike, though the racing sequences are very well-choreographed and edited, but in dingy hotel rooms and tacky-looking conference rooms. Dom Chabol, played by Belgian actor Louis Talpe, spends much of the movie calling up other cycling teams to try and win himself another contract after he's been cut loose by his own team. Indeed, he spends almost all of the movie in a permanent state of fear, desperation, and bitterness.
Kieron J. Walsh knows how to pace and cut sharp action together with an emotional story. You only need to look at 2012's excellent Belfast-set thriller 'Jump', yet here in 'The Racer', it seems like it's pulling against itself. The quieter moments of the movie feel stiff and pained, and pump the brakes just as it's getting going. The cycling sequences really are incredibly well made, blended together with Kraftwerk-inspired beats and synths. You really get a sense of how much adrenaline and friction goes into it, as well as putting the viewer in the saddle and pushing alongside the cyclists. It's rare for a sports movie to put that much emphasis on the actual sport itself, especially one that you'd think doesn't necessarily lend itself to a cinematic adaptation.
The question with 'The Racer', though, is in its ending. As Dom Chabol shuffles through the stages of the tour, racked with anguish over his future and complicated by a burgeoning relationship with a doctor who's there to monitor doping, we're left with few concrete reasons as to why someone would put themselves through it all. The script, by Walsh, Ciaran Cassidy and Sean Cook, explores the toll it takes on these people, their egos, their power structures in a cycling team, but the motivations seem unclear, and the ending offers no understanding of it.
Maybe that's the point? That there is no clear reason why any of them do it, other than they know nothing else but this life.