Director Kieron J Walsh told David Hennessy how he was fascinated to see the Tour De France come to Ireland in 1998 but how the gloss and glamour was lost when he realised it was ‘working class European guys holed up in cheap hotels taking copious amounts of performance-enhancing drugs’.
Irish writer/ director Kieron J Walsh’s new film The Racer examines the life-threatening pain and physical punishment world-class athletes will endure to rise to the top.
Set during the Tour De France of 1998 when the opening stages came to Ireland, the became notorious for a series of drug scandals the film follows cyclist Dom Chabol (Louis Talpe), a cyclist who is at the end of his career but knows nothing else.
Kieron J Walsh, writer and director, told The Irish World: “What really interested me about the Racer more than anything was the fact that it was a story about a man who had come to a crossroads in his life, was at the tailend ofhis career and was finding it very difficult to accept that he couldn’t carry on and very difficult to figure out what to do next.
“When you get to 39 years old you are just too old to cycle and a lot of these guys, particularly in the 90s, made no provision at all for anything after the world of cycling. In professional football I guess the most extreme example would be Gazza who ended up unfortunately an alcoholic and had mental health issues and all that but there’s a thousand stories like that. It’s just that Gazza was very, very famous.
“I also found the idea of telling the story of these sports guys who play second fiddle to the champions. That’s what also appealed to me. We’ve all seen stories and films and books about the the champions, the guys who win the stuff but never about teh supporters. You never read a book about the full-back, it’s always about the striker.”
Kieron’s previous work includes the films When Brendan Met Trudy, Jump, BBC’s Vexed and the more recent series Finding Joy.
In 1998, Kieron had just moved back to Dublin after many years in London and remembers the tour coming to Ireland and the effect it had.
“I was really fascinated by this really cool, sexy sport coming to Ireland which the eyes of the world was going to be on. The Irish government had paid quite a lot of money to bring the sport to Ireland and they had spent a lot of money retarmacking all the roads for the cyclists. They didn’t retarmac the roads for the people of Ireland, they did it for the French cyclists. There’s an Irish government for you.
“Then the scandal of the Festina drug bust came about. When you scratch the surface you realise basically the Tour De France that year, which became known as the Tour De Dopage or the Tour of Shame, was really just a bunch of working class European guys holed up in cheap hotels taking copious amounts of performance enhancing drugs. That was the reality. It was a grubby time in the sport and actually they thought that was going to be the end of the Tour De France that year.
“The organisers thought, ‘There’s too much drugs, there’s too much scandal’. Then as a last ditch attempt to sort it out, they put all kind of structures in to stamp the drugs out and for the next seven years Lance Armstrong won the Tour De France.”
Lance Armstrong would sensationally admit to cheating after many years of vehemently denying it.
Kieron spoke to many people inside the sport to ensure his scenes were realistic but found people unwilling to speak about that subject.
“I spoke to a Belgian guy who won a stage in Ireland in 1998. He still works in cycling. He’s quite high up.
“He read the script and said, ‘I can see it in my head. I’ve never read a script in my life before but I can see it in my head. It’s amazing’.
“And I said, ‘So can you tell me does it feel realistic, do the drug transfusions and the drug-taking seem realistic to you?’ He kind of went silent and shrugged his shoulders, ‘I don’t know’. He didn’t say they were or they weren’t. He just said, ‘I don’t know. I can’t answer that question’. Either way he’s going to incriminate himself. If he said they were, he was there. If he said they weren’t, he was there so he couldn’t say a word.
The supporting cast includes Iain Glen of Game of Thrones who provides the team’s regular injections and laced blood transfusions which are part of their strict regime just like the training and gym sessions.
“It’s very sophisticated. Lance Armstrong had his own personal doctor/scientist/ drug dealer Michele Ferrari- He’s completely banished out of the sport now but It is very sophisticated the programmes they were on. They were scientific programmes. Kind of frightening.
“In the wrong hands, without the supervision and without someone like Ferrari, you’ll die. There are at least 20 cases of cyclists in the 90s who went to bed and never woke up. That’s a fact. People may dispute it was solely the EPO but these were young guys going to bed and never waking up.
Kieron spent a decade in London and it was where he finished studying film.
“I used to live in London. I lived there for ten years. I lived in Cricklewood for a little while. It was in the late 80’s/ early 90’s actually. It was full of Irish. The Crown was swinging in those days.
“I loved it. I came over when Dublin was just an awful place to be honest. It was really, really miserable. I was in college here in Dublin and it was ’86 or something like that. Every summer we would go to London. We used to squat. We would work and we would sign on. It was a way of getting money for the year for college.
“Squatting was great fun, really enjoyed that. I don’t think you can do that anymore in London but everybody was doing it back then.
“Finally, when I finished college, it was straight onto the boat to London. I really loved it.”
But Kieron does remember having to keep a low profile and even changing the way he talked when bombs were going off.
“It’s funny. When you’re younger, and back in those days, you wouldn’t take offence to quite overtly racist terminology. I was called a ‘Mick’ and a ‘Paddy’ and a ‘bogwog’ and every other thing but it wasn’t done with vitriol. It was just, ‘Oi, get that Mick to do it over here…’
“But then again I would turn around and call them a stupid English bastard. It would be a bit of banter. That would not happen now. You wouldn’t get away with it.
“When a bomb went off or when there was any trouble you did tend to keep a low profile, not speak too loudly if you could help it. In fact, you kind of even changed the way you spoke a little bit until it blew over.
“I thoroughly enjoyed London. Places like Cricklewood and Kilburn and Neasden, I remember going up to watch the football when Ireland were in the World Cup in 1990. That was a buzz up there at the time.
“Apart from that, you wouldn’t necessarily go up there because it was an Ireland I wasn’t necessarily familiar with. It was very rural and quite sad some of it. In the bar you would see these men who had been there for 25/ 30 years and they wanted to go home. They just couldn’t.
“They came over in the 50s and never left and have never been happy and have always wanted to be back in Ireland but they couldn’t afford to go back or they couldn’t go back with the tail between the legs.
“That was really quite depressing.”
The Racer is in cinemas and on streaming platforms from 18 December.