Three days before the start of the 1998 Tour de France, Festina soigneur Willy Voet was stopped by customs officers at the Belgian-French border with a mobile pharmacy of banned substances in the boot of his car. Festina headquarters were subsequently searched in Lyon and police seized other performance-enhancing drugs as well as documents outlining a systematic drug programme for the team's riders, which included the previous year's runner-up Richard Virenque.

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24/12/2020 AT 11:54

As the Festina team of bleached blonde riders nevertheless took to the start of the Tour in Dublin, the French police decided to bide their time and wait for the first stage in France before pouncing. And so the race embarked on the three-day Irish grand départ with scandal simmering away in the background, with fans, riders and much of the media largely oblivious to the faecal hurricane about to engulf the sport in controversy….

Louis Talpe (Dom) in The Racer (Vertigo Releasing)

Image credit: Eurosport

In The Racer director Keiron J. Walsh picks up his (and co-writer Ciaran Cassidy's) alternative take on the 1998 Tour as an airplane of professional cyclists touch down at Dublin airport to the apposite tune of Primal Scream's Rocks: "Dealers keep dealin', Thieves keep thievin', Whores keep whorin', Junkies keep scorin'…"

The message is hardly subtle, but nothing in The Racer is – not that that's a bad thing one jot (after all, The Times has described it as "possibly one of the best films of the year".)

On board is the Austrange team of our central protagonist, the 38-year-old Flemish domestique Dominique Chabol. Played by the Belgian actor Louis Talle, a keen cyclist and Ironman competitor, Dom is the spitting image of an older Oli Naesen of AG2R-Citroën. Aged 19, he won the white jersey in his first Tour back in 1979 and has since become part of the furniture in the pro peloton.

But things are not looking good for Dom. Single, getting on, and a domestique to the core, he has no career wins to show for his years of hard work and he's still forced to vomit up his dinners in a bid to keep his weight below 80 kilos. Soon out of contract, he has no clue what he'll do once the Tour is over. The prospect of becoming a coach or driving a taxi doesn't appeal, and he feels he still has something to offer as a racer.

Louis Talpe (Dom) in The Racer (Vertigo Releasing)

Image credit: Eurosport

Despite pestering the team's mirthless manager (known only as Viking in a veiled bow to Bjarne Riis, perhaps?) for an extension, he instead discovers that he's been replaced on the eve of the race by his "younger, faster, better, stronger" teammate, Erik Schultz.

"He's not a lead-out man," blasts Dom. "Does he know that I have to put Tartare to sleep like a little f***ing baby every night?"

A playboy Italian located somewhere between Mario Cippolini and Danilo Di Luca on the mamma mia spectrum, Tartare Marino is the team's main sprinter. Or GC rider. It's unclear. He seems to be both. Anyway, let's just say that he's top dog at a team whose jersey is a nice call-back to the pink Telekom kit of the same era.

An early scene with Team Austrange shows a pre-snubbed Dom, Tartare and two of their teammates hooked up to blood bags dangling from coat-hangers in the hotel room of Sonny, the chain-smoking masseur and coach (played by the Game of Thrones actor, Iain Glen). The bags are named after dogs – although two riders (Tartare and a chap called Enzo) opted for the same name (Milou: the name of Tintin's dog, Snowy, in Hergé's original comics) which could prove problematic…

And so it proves: Enzo is taken ill on the morning of the Tour and, suddenly, Dom is given a lifeline by a grovelling Viking in the form of a number 18 dossard. He's back in the Tour.

Iain Glen (Sonny) and Louis Talpe (Dom) in The Racer (Vertigo Releasing)

Image credit: Eurosport

Only there's a slight problem. Now Dom is ill. Not bad blood. Just a stonking hangover and a sleepless night. His non-selection and contract woes were not the only issues, you see. Moments before the showdown with his manager, he'd received a call from his sister back in Belgium: his estranged father has died, and the funeral is in one week.

Cue a massive bender as Dom sinks not Guinness but four small bottles of Shiraz in an Irish pub as Boyzone's No Matter What plays on a loop in the background. He follows this up with an ill-advised ride to bow off some steam, only to crash and then throw his bike into a stream in a rage. From a nearby phonebox he calls the only person he knows who knows the area: a young Irish doctor seconded to the UCI for the duration of the Tour's visit.

Lynn (played by Tara Lee, the EastEnders actress) is staying in the same hotel as Austrange and, earlier in the day, carried out some tests on Dom when he was feeling a bit wobbly (with echoes of Lance Armstrong, he denies, when asked, that he's ever taken any performance-enhancing drugs). She meets Dom in the pub to patch him up and commiserate on the apparent end of his career in a scene clearly written for the benefit of the non-informed viewer (Dom explains to the locals just exactly what his role as a domestique is).

Although he has to nip out at one point to comfort Tartare in his latest crisis of confidence, Dom and Lynn spend the night together with Dom showing signs that he is perhaps ready to move on from the circus and accept civilian life. You can see him even contemplating a return home to attend his father's funeral and, perhaps, even a shared life with Lynn (although she's not much older than he was when he made his Tour debut).

Tara Lee (Lynn) in The Racer (Vertigo Releasing)

Image credit: Eurosport

Enzo's sudden illness, however, thrusts Dom back into the saddle with an eleventh-hour Tour reprieve. Still half-cut and exhausted from a night of passion, he rushes to the start of the opening stage which, unlike the actual 1998 Tour, is not the 5.6km prologue around the Irish capital (won by Chris Boardman) but a sprint stage to-and-from Dublin (a sensible choice bypassing the arduous challenge of explaining the difference between a prologue and a time trial to the uninitiated).

At the start line, Dom finds himself next to Luxembourg's Stefano Drago, who rides for Dom's previous team, Settosa – kicked off the previous Tour for throwing a water bottle at Dom after being boxed in by his rival during a sprint. Once again, echoes of real-life events shine through – in this case, of Tom Steels, who indeed was disqualified for doing just that in 1997 before coming back to win, incidentally, the first road stage of the Irish grand départ.

As with Stephen Frears's mildly entertaining but ultimately flawed 2015 biopic on Lance Armstrong, The Program, the scenes involving actual racing are, perhaps to be expected, the least convincing of a film which otherwise keeps you gripped with its fast pace and colourful, nostalgia-infused palette.

Director Walsh just about manages to get the hustle-and-bustle of the peloton right, but it all seems too slow and too staged, with Dom (after vomiting his previous night's excess onto a grass verge) leading out Tartare for the win and yellow jersey at a speed you associate more with a sportive than the world's biggest bike race, and in front of crowds that seem thin even in a pandemic-affected 2020 season.

Louis Talpe (Dom) with his Austrange teammates alongside rivals at Team Settosa in The Racer (Vertigo Releasing)

Image credit: Eurosport

On the bus, the victorious Tartare thanks his teammates and, in a barb to the manager, singles out Dom, "the best lead-out man in the business, back where he belongs." Capping a fine day for Austrange, their spunky Pierre Rolland-esque debutant Lionel Dardonne takes the white jersey.

The understandably reductive script has Frenchman Dardonne full of expectation and hope at the dawn of his career, yet completely wet-behind-the-ears. Over dinner before the race (plain pasta for the riders, as Sonny tucks into a cheeseburger and a bitter Tartare weighs out his portion of, um, steak tartare…), Dardonne asks for tips from his mentor. As he proudly tells Dom that he will never be tempted to dope during his career, you can almost imagine the rest of his career – including the inevitable hiatus after he's no doubt snared in Operación Puerto

It's Dardonne who delivers with relish the news to Dom ahead of the second stage: Stefano Drago's soigneur (filling the unseen Willy Voet role) has been arrested at the border with a car filled with enough EPO to fuel every team on the Tour. This sparks panic at Austrange as rumours of extra drug tests ahead of the second stage gather speed.

"We need to get you watered down," Sonny tells Dom. It's an understatement. For hours earlier, Dom comes within an inch of his life after spending a second night with Lynn. If their first liaison was rather dreamy, the impressionable doctor quickly realises she's bitten off more than she can chew with her second chomp of the cherry.

For she wakes in the middle of the night with her new beau in the process of having a heart-attack. Dom, blinkered by love and Tartare's success, forgot to link himself up to his heart monitor – the one which reminds him to get on the turbo, if need be, to thin out his haematocrit-high jam-thick blood.

Iain Glen (Sonny) in The Racer (Vertigo Releasing)

Image credit: Eurosport

Thus the conceit of the remainder of the film: as Lynn and Sonny help put a near-dead Dom back on his bike to pedal to save his life (with her protestations to call an ambulance flatly refused by the Scottish soigneur) the trainee doctor becomes complicit in Dom's – the entire team's, and by extension, the sport's – dirty little secret. A secret which is now the talk of the town… and some.

Here the film cleverly uses extracts from original news footage of then Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc speaking about what we, the more knowledgeable viewer two decades on, knows will become the infamous Festina Scandal. There's even an on-point few seconds of Paul Kimmage being interviewed on Irish TV. (It's perhaps worth mentioning that the former cyclist Paul McQuaid, the brother of Brian Cookson's predecessor at the UCI, Pat McQuaid, acted as a consultant on The Racer.)

With three riders to be randomly selected for dope tests, Dom and his cabal of dopers down bottles of water in Sonny's room. As the UCI doctors wait in the hotel lobby, Sonny's mobile centrifuge shows that Dom's red blood cell count is still about 50 per cent.

To cut a long, tense scene short, Dom is singled out for a test carried out by none other than Lynn, the same person who earlier lambasted him for being "a professional loser" for risking his life carrying out a role which purposefully doesn't even allow him to win. "I've realised that all you guys are off your heads on EPO. You might as well be putting glue in your veins," she screams after almost witnessing Dom die, to which he rolls out the clichéd reply: "Everyone does it!"

Louis Talpe (Dom) and Didi the Devil in The Racer (Vertigo Releasing)

Image credit: Eurosport

In any case, Dom's test is compromised – either by a mistake or intentionally by Lynn as a last favour to her (now presumably former) lover. Cleared to ride, the team takes to the start of the second stage to Enniscorthy, where it all goes pear-shaped. Moments after Didi the Devil (another snapshot of real life characters) appears on the stage's main climb, Dom drops back to help pace a struggling Dardonne back into the fold. But this isolates Tartare, who is unable to respond to Drago's seething attack.

After their rival wins the stage and takes the yellow jersey, Tartare loses it – blaming both Dom and Dardonne, who comes last, loses the white jersey and has a breakdown. In another slightly hackneyed scene, Dardonne is told to get "on the program" or leave the team. He storms out and later tells Dom, "You can tell Sonny from me, I prefer losing clean to winning doped-up".

Easier said than done. For as if there's not enough already being shoe-horned into three days of racing (in which the racing seems like a mere sub-plot), Sonny – whose wheezing and coughing get increasingly 2020 as the film progresses – suddenly keels over and dies; a heart-attack – probably down to all those fags, burgers and amphetamines.

After a bar brawl between a grieving Dom and Tartare (sparked when the latter tells Lynn all about her "boyfriends" sexual conquests), our hero has a heart-to-heart with Lynn and tells him about his father. She's taken aback, almost disgusted, that Dom should even contemplate continuing the Tour and not returning for his funeral.

As they part – perhaps for the last time – she infers that she intentionally botched his drug test. This prompts the flawed Dom not to count his lucky stars (as you might expect) but to raid his fridge and inject himself with another vial of EPO. (By now it's all become a bit of a parody. But taken with an entire Dead Sea's worth of salt, it's a highly enjoyable romp and the viewer can easily suspend their disbelief and accept the unfolding narrative as an intentionally condensed, albeit derivative, representation of its era and subject matter.)

And so to Stage 3, which starts with a delicious dig at the kind of misplaced UCI bureaucracy that sees the sport's governing body still to this day waste its time on inconsequential things such as sock length and the garishness of EF Pro Cycling's kit: Dom is told to remove a black armband in memory of his friend Sonny because he hadn't filed for official approval beforehand.

The final stage of the Irish leg of the Tour – in reality won by Tom Steels's fellow Mapei teammate Jan Svorada – features a cringeworthy slow-speed crash scene for the man in yellow, Drago, following an increase in tempo by his Settosa team. When a spectator later wanders onto the road near the finish, there's another slightly tame pile-up (again, the speeds are way too slow) which results in Dom finding himself on the front with Tartare and two others, entering the final kilometres.

Louis Talpe (Dom) in The Racer (Vertigo Releasing)

Image credit: Eurosport

Final spoiler alert: Instead of fulfilling his role as domestique and leading out Tartare dutifully for a second win, Dom champs at the bit and, sniffing out that elusive maiden pro win that could see him happily call time on his career (and all the deception), he surges clear to take an unlikely victory – and with it, a yellow jersey beyond his wildest dreams (of which we see many during The Racer).

Underlining the journey that he has made over the past few days, Dom returns to his hotel, flushes all his pills down the loo, disposes of all the vials of EPO, calls his sister. He then decides to quit the sport from the very top, knowing that things will never get any better for him.

Or does he?

For as he's heading to a taxi and a new life, Tartare jumps off the team bus, congratulates his teammate, and apologises for the fight. He says he can't continue without him and begs him to stay. They hug, everyone cheers, and the screen turns black. But it's not over quite yet.

With Primal Scream's Movin' On Up playing out with a hint of irony, we witness, from one of the helicopter camera angles associated with bike racing, the peloton cutting through the sun-drenched Brittany countryside as the Tour returns to mainland France for Stage 4. As the camera zooms in, we see that it's the pink army of Austrange on the front, setting the tempo, with Tartare doing domestique duties for none other than our man Dom, resplendent in yellow with a hint of a smile on his face as he swings onto the front of the peloton…

Eurosport reached out to Louis Talpe, the actor who portrays Dom Chabol, for his interpretation of this open-ended final scene to The Racer. How does he see things panning out for Dom?

"I'm sure he would keep fulfilling his role in the peloton," Talpe says. "Reflecting back on what happened to him in this Tour will soon be a vague memory when he prepares for his next race. Other than the loss of his closest friend, Sonny, I believe that many of the crazy things that happen to him are not that unheard of in pro cycling.

Of course, Dom is no saint, but he truly believes that what he does is just the environment he lives in and is no worse than the rest of the pack. Maybe he's lucky because he's nearing the end of his career and will always be someone who rode without being caught and could live to tell the story afterwards.

But doesn't this miss the point entirely? Dom in yellow with the sun on his back as he leads the peloton towards Lorient on what was Bastille Day: this is surely a bittersweet moment for him, his team, and the race. For not only does his decision to continue the Tour – having come so close to packing his bags and walking away – reflect his addiction, we know only too well how things will pan out.

Over the coming days, in the real 1998 Tour, team hotels were raided and searched by the police, confessions were made by riders past and present, and team personnel were arrested or questioned. Several teams withdrew completely from the race, while some were forced out – most notably the Festina team at the centre of the scandal.

Louis Talpe (Dom) and Iain Glen (Sonny) in The Racer (Vertigo Releasing)

Image credit: Eurosport

The entire Festina team did not take to the start of the individual time trial to Corrèze in Stage 7, with that man Virenque most notably issuing a tearful denial of any wrongdoing from the back room of an otherwise nondescript bar tabac. By December 2000, all nine Festina riders had confessed to using EPO and other substances in the 1998 Tour, with a raft of staff (including Voet) dished out sentences and bans along with the riders.

It's not inconceivable to imagine Dom and his Austrange teammates facing the music, with Sonny spared the humiliation of a public comeuppance by virtue of dying before the s**t hit the fan. Put in Virenque's shoes, Dom will not lie through his teeth and those crocodile tears; he will open up and get it all off his chest. His only pro win will be forever sullied.

Viewed through this prism, the film ends on a rather bleak note. Like Armstrong, Dom should have got out while he had the chance. It's refusing to give up that ultimately seals this racer's downfall.

The Racer is in cinemas and on digital streaming platforms from 18 December from Vertigo Releasing.

Poster for the film The Racer (Vertigo Releasing)

Image credit: Eurosport

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