Wind whistling through your hair. A dreamy haze of colourful buildings flashing by. The only audible sound, a pulsing heartbeat and steady whir of a bicycle as you careen through a bustling city. Cars and people, simply nothing but tiny, insignificant obstacles in your path. Flying. You are alive.
Within the first two minutes of Finlay Pretsell’s first feature-length documentary, TIME TRIAL, the award-winning director gifts his viewers with an unparalleled feeling of flight on the back of a bicycle. Told from a masterful perspective using point-of-view shots, TIME TRIAL takes the viewer along on the world’s most competitive cycling races, and reveals a personal depth to a gruelling sport most would not guess exists. This is a real, human tale, one that Pretsell describes as, “a tragic story…of the pursuit of life.” Armed with a tireless crew and a cyclist-turned-director who’s deep passion for the sport radiates throughout, the film tells the story of David Millar. Millar is an infamous British cyclist known for his rise to success, subsequent downfall, and eventual climb back to the top. TIME TRIAL follows Millar’s comeback to the competitive world of cycling, chronicling the last races of his career leading up to a final Tour de France.
Unique in many ways, Pretsell provides us with an uncanny knack for moulding a harsh truth into a story of viable human resilience. He shines an unforgiving but complimentary spotlight on a man who has been beaten down by his own sport, but has refused to fall. David Millar is this very man and his story is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Once revered and applauded by the cycling world, he was the first British cyclist to ever wear all Tour de France jerseys. His glory as a youth was snuffed out when he was banned from competing after being caught doping in 2004. In 2006 his ban was lifted and David returned, ready to prove himself a reformed man and worthy cyclist. A clean rider from that point forward, he went on to become one of Britain’s most successful cyclists in history. TIME TRIAL follows Millar in his early 40’s as he battles with the physical and emotional turmoil of a lifelong career inevitably coming to a close.
“Roger – I dreamt I killed you.” David stumbles through a dark forest, as he voices a disturbing dream where he kills his best friend. Accompanied by an utterly haunting score crafted by U.S. composer Dan Deacon, it both chills and provides you with a moment of divine clarity. This is David at his best, vulnerable and open to us. This is when we realize that in spite of all his successes, David at his core is like the rest of us: just human. His dream recollection comes at a turning point in his journey, with David beginning to question if he is still consumed with the same drive for something he has always loved. These rare moments of cinematic artistry and subject vulnerability are a staple of Pretsell’s directorial style throughout. The closing scene further emphasises this by engrossing the viewer in a mesmerising close-up of David dancing in a crowded club, set to a backdrop of muted technicolor.
With strikingly raw moments such as these, Pretsell conveys the pulsing fear, emotional conflict and eventual relief our rider undergoes. David is exhausted of his own addiction to racing but unwilling to stop his pursuit. Moreover, he is unable to force himself to put the brakes on a life he has always known. In an industry dominated by perfect protagonists, this portrait of David Millar shines through as refreshingly genuine. Millar is abrasive and weary in his approach, yet still manages to win the viewer over thanks to sheer honesty and tenacity of will. We the audience are connected to David and he to us. Perhaps the real beauty here is in the empathy he evokes in those watching – after all, haven’t we all been caught in the struggle between what we want and what we can actually do?
The key to TIME TRIAL is a number of things. Hurtling us forward on a nearly 3D ride of what it means to be a professional cyclist, both in and out of the race, each lap pulls the viewer deeper into a beautifully simple storyline. Will David win his last Tour de France? Will he fully redeem his personal and professional image as a cyclist? Against all odds, will one man’s pursuit of passion end in tragedy, or success? Set to a moving score, with superb scenery and jaw-dropping cinematography that soars you along terrains of impossible climbs, TIME TRIAL navigates the ascent and descent of one man who simply refuses to stop.
© Ayurella Horn-Müller. February 4, 2018.