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The images from the Tour de France in the television production Eddy Merckx in the Vincinity of a Cup of Coffee may be seen as a small sketch for the fully unfurled epic cycling drama Stars and Watercarriers. The film follows the 1973 Giro d'Italia and in his commentary Leth explains the fascination exerted by the great cycle races: "The most beautiful, most pathetic images cycling can give us involve extreme performances in classic terrain." The action literally emerges on the move and the riders readily assume the roles tradition and epic necessity allocate to them, with the central conflict between the accustomed winner and greedy Belgian legend Eddy Merckx and the Spanish mountain specialist José Manuel Fuente. Stars and Watercarriers was created by a small film unit that use a vivid, documentary style to describe the race from close up and sometimes quite from within. The film consist of ten sections, each with a title such as "A road of pain" and "A peaceful day"; thus it ... Written by
Brown suits, retro jerseys and Eddy Merkx in full flight.
The first time I watched Stars and Watercarriers I was a little surprised at how dated it looked to tell you the truth, the color is not as crisp as a modern production and much of the film amused me. The film ends with a shot of the Dane Ole Ritter wearing a snappy brown suit and packing his bike into the boot of his Peugeot and as he heads off to another race film maker Jurgen Leth describes "A man with a cycle, and a dream of what he will accomplish with his machine". By the third or fourth viewing I was so into the 1973 Giro D'Italia that I went shopping down Bridge Rd for a 70's style brown suit to rock up to races in like Ole Ritter does, and I've already started working on the side burns.
While the film roughly follows the chronology of the stages of the Giro it gives little indication of the overall classification throughout the film, we know Merkx is winning but its not easy to follow where many of the other riders are positioned on GC. Leth seems less concerned with explaining the make-up of the leader board and merely uses the various stages to explain different facets of the bike racing, the different types of riders and their daily concerns.
The team cars, brand new 73 model Alfas are adorned in black and white lettering displaying simple advertisements for famous cycling teams names like Bianchi, Molteni, Brooklyn. The riders have no helmets, their steel bikes weighing in at around 10 or 11kg (I researched it!) have exposed brake cables and down tube shifters are used to adjust the non-indexed 6-speed cluster. The buzzing noise of the 25mm tyres on the road aurally illustrates the difficulty of riding those machines and also allowed sound technician Gunner Møller Pedersen to bust out his wiggid DJ skills when he sampled the noise for the soundtrack.
The audio is brilliant actually, the choice of music helps set the scene especially the wicked French horn track used to transition from the darkness of the Mont Blanc Tunnel from France into the sunshine of "La Bella Italia" as the riders freewheel down the descent. Rolling into town with hands off the bars, the riders epitomize the style and charisma unique to professional cycling emblazoned with characteristic 1970s color and flair with none of our modern day advertising pretension.
The film of course lacks any of our modern technical wizardry, no helicopter, no Phil Ligget, there's no fly-overs of a digitized topographic model of the country instead Jurgen points to a picture in a magazine to show the route. There's no graphics to list the keys riders, the yellow tinged camera just pans through the race program. In doing so the film captures the essence of a kid pouring over a footy program pre game.
The 1973 Grio D'Italia was won, as it was in 68, 70, 72 and 74, in devastating fashion, by "The Canivbal" Eddy Merkx but this film craftily escapes mentioning all six of Merkx's stage wins from that year (yes more research), this is a story about the Giro not about Eddy. That said, some of the footage of Merkx "torturing his fellow travelers with his unceasing back breaking pull" is exasperating just to watch. Eddy briefly allows a Luxembourg rider to ride ahead on home soil then mows him down, breathing fire into his face as he powers by. On another stage Merkx crushes Fuente's breakaway attempt and blows right by the Spanish climber "that's how Merkx settles that". No wonder we see footage of Ole Ritter hanging his head and staring forlorn at the walls in his hotel bed one afternoon. Watching Merkx setting such a heavy pace that he drops the entire field from his draft makes you realize how insatiable he was. I'm definitely a bigger fan of Eddy Merkx after watching this film.
Yes there's no Phil Ligget in Stars and Watercarriers but Leth's commentary is perhaps some of the most passionate and descriptive commentary on cycling you'll hear anywhere. Failed breakaways are "a beautiful waste of energy" and the imminent attack of climber Jose Manuel Fuente is foreshadowed while still maintaining the element of surprise, so crucial to cycle racing when Leth whispers to the audience "they say he'll attack today". Leth is a great film maker not a former cyclist, his time trial commentary is arguably the most insightful and artistic narrative of athlete and machine yet written on bike racing, indeed "Pain is an Icon".
Midway through the film we learn about the Watercarriers, cyclists who sacrifice themselves for their leaders by fetching the water. This role is more crucial than it is in modern cycling as incredibly the riders are not allowed to take drinks from the team cars. Instead they stop at the pub, grab some bottles and run back onto their bikes. Here the documentary juxtaposes the films most fascinating images with its least impressive simile "the heat smothers the riders like an Ida Down" I mean, I've woken up sweaty under the doona when I've forgotten to turn off the ducted heating and I've also ridden mountains on 40 degree days and I'd take the doona any day let alone being starved of water in the middle of the Giro which I'm sure is no "ida-down" experience. Watching glass bottles and bottle openers getting passed round the peleton is incredible. The contrast between ambition and loyalty, a concept fundamental to cycle racing is made quite clear. This is an awesome film with great commentary and amazing footage of cycling greats such as Francesco Moser and Giovanni Battaglin who in 73 were just neo-pros learning the trade from even bigger stars like Merkx and Gimondi. Watch it a couple of times and you'll want a brown suit, a big collared shirt and a Bianchi top.
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