The much-anticipateed 2021 Paris-Roubaix (“the Hell of the North”) bicycle race will take place on October the 3rd and the first women’s version the previous day. It has been suggested that if someone was to propose establishing a race like this today the idea would be ridiculed and dismissed. It remains some kind of unique and brutal 19th Century holdover (it was first run in 1896) and its attraction might be summed up in the famous words of Dutch pro cyclist Theo de Rooij as he abandoned in 1985: “It’s a bollocks, this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping… it’s a pile of shit.” (When then asked if he would start the race again, de Rooij replied:) “Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!” And if you watch the iconic 1976 documentary film “A Sunday in Hell,” the story of which is told in William Fotheringham’s excellent book “Sunday in Hell”, you might actually believe him.
William Fotheringham is a well-known British author who has written biographies of some of cycling’s biggest stars, including Tom Simpson, Eddy Merckx, and Fausto Coppi, as well as serving as the launch editor of two noted cycing magazines and having reported on some 30 Tours de France. “Sunday in Hell” is a very different kind of book from the usual variety of sports reporting. It is an in-depth examination of what may be the best sports documentary ever made. It provides background on how “A Sunday in Hell” came to be, the creative forces behind it, and a detailed account of what you actually see on the screen.
William Fotheringham and Jørgen Leth
Jørgen Leth is a Danish filmmaker who specializes in avant-garde and experimental work but had become fascinated by professional bicycle racing, influenced by his friend and countryman Ole Ritter, a rider for the Bianchi team and holder of the Hour Record from 1968 until 1972. Leth made a film about the 1972 Giro d’Italia (“Stars and Watercarriers”) and Ritter’s 1974 attempt to retake the Hour Record in Mexico City (“The Impossible Hour”), both modest reportage. After shooting some footage of the 1975 Tour de France Leth became convinced that the epic qualities of bike racing deserved an appropriate dramatic telling and submitted a proposal to the Danish Film Institute for funding.
It is worth quoting from Leth’s proposal to understand his motivation and to comprehend the success (or shortcomings) of the finished film:
“I am attracted by the idea of making a full-length film about a bike race which will be settled on a single day… to truly capture the decisive phases and the most dramatic situations in such a race; to dodge around the course and engage with the multiplicity of scenes akin to Dante’s Inferno, a recurring ritual event, played out as soon as the field reaches the critical zone, the pavé, the small lanes of deformed cobblestones. Here the field is stretched, here the merciless weeding out takes place, here is the great manslaughter…. And it takes shape in a coherent suspenseful narrative, an authentic fiction, a Living Theatre which takes shape in brilliant, moving real-life images. It has the generosity of the greatest competition as well as its value as ritual theatre.”
One cannot imagine a television producer at, say, Eurosport or NBC, thinking in these terms. In addition to his film work, Leth is also a fine poet and certainly there is an overlap. He is driven by “heroism” in sport and the film is structured to focus on four noted riders: Eddy Merckx, Roger de Vlaeminck, Freddy Maertens and Francesco Moser. De Vlaeminck was aiming for a record fourth win of the race: Merckx (who had also won three times previously) was on the downward slide of his unparalled career; Maertens and Moser were the young up-and-comers. These were the race favourites but it was also a different kind of race in 1976 compared to today.
Freddy Maertens was a young up-and-comer in 1976
In arranging permission to shoot the film with the owners of the race (also owners of the Tour de France), negotiations were odd as neither side really knew what the market value of such a film enterprise would be. Leth and his associates were thinking in terms of art; Félix Lévitan saw only the commercial aspect, as in “How much will you pay me?” But an agreement was reached impressively quickly, covering things such as the number of motorcycle photographers permitted and other access issues. Leth also arranged for the use of a helicopter carrying an operator of a gryo-stablized camera, a big technological advance discussed in detail in the book but which we today take for granted as indispensible.
Francesco Moser leads the front group
It is amazing that a coherent film was the result as Leth had not worked before with most of the photographers (and one of them did not even end up participating due to an accident). His instructions to go for the longest duration shots possible was not always followed as the photographers had their own ideas and, in 1976, there were no cellphones so the director had no control over what was being filmed for the entire duration of the race! One photographer, assigned to do some shots showing the roadside crowds, submitted film that only showed feet. And in the final decisive segment of the race Leth had no cameramen present so had to get footage from French television to complete the story. And of course in a chaotic one day race there are no opportunities to reshoot anything.
Joop Zoetemelk was maybe more suited to the mountains
Taking his pieces of film, Leth spent several months editing them at his home. Initially depressed by what he saw as the lack of a story, it gradually came together brilliantly. The resulting images are often strikingly beautiful (an early morning warm-up ride past the chateau in Chantilly; the peloton emerging from clouds of dust) and powerful (an injured rider with a bleeding forehead; Moser accelerating as if he can crush the cobbles). The story builds from a quiet opening (a mechanic cleaning a bike) to a slowly unfolding look at mundane preparations (De Vlaeminck eating breakfast, Merckx constantly fiddling with his bike). The start in Chantilly in 1976 compared to today’s bike races looks like the beginning of a local kermesse rather than one of the world’s greatest sporting events, wildly informal, almost primitive.
Puncture for Eddy Merckx
Once the peloton has passed through a strike by newspaper printers which threatens to derail everything, the film gradually but imperceptibly gains speed. There is a breakaway of three riders but nothing much of significance until the race comes to the first sections of pavé. We are now entering Hello, according to the British narrator, David Saunders, whose calm and precise speech is only heard occasionally. Compared to the non-stop chatter of a typical sports broadcast, the power of these few words is quite striking, as is the rather unusual music by Gunnar Møller Pedersen which features, among other things, a solo tuba but for some the mass peloton scenes a startling choral sequence. The words to this appear to be “L’Enfer du Nord/L’Enfer du Nord/Paris-Roubaix/Paris Roubaix.” It is a bit weird but works.
Bad luck for Raymond Poulidor
Leth, who was interviewed for the book, speaks about a “contract with chance” and it is a strength that there are moments in the film that could not have been planned but arise spontaneously. There are interesting characters, such as the plump commissaire in the back of the team car, or the drunken Bobet fan in the bar, or the girl in the same bar who is so enthusiastic and so wrong about everything.
‘A Spring Day in Hell’
There is a postscript as the author recounts that stories of the participants involved in “A Sunday in Hell” after the film was completed and released (in Denmark as “A Spring Day in Hell”). Fotheringham interviewed many of those who were both behind and in front of the camera that dusty day forty two years ago in Northern France. Sadly, the winner of the 1976 race, an unexpected one, did not live for very long afterward but is remembered in his community and, of course, through the remarkable film that captured his greatest accomplishment. And, surprisingly, the pros do not use the stone showers much at the Roubaix Velodrome anymore—unless they are individuals with a sense of cycling history.
Hennie Kuiper and Michel Pollentier
In spite of the drama and colour of bike racing that we all love so much, it is only recently that we are seeing documentaries on the sport. It has been a long drought between Leth’s films and the emergence of films, such as “Höllentour,” about Team Telekom or “Clean Spirit”, devoted to Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb, along with some crowd-sourced efforts, in recent times. Few have the poetry of “A Sunday in Hell”.
The grave of Roubaix’76 winner – Marc Demeyer
For those of us who know the history of Paris-Roubaix well, “Sunday in Hell” is very informative about the race and its history. It is also very informative about non-commercial filmmaking and the creative process and is certainly the only cycling-related book reviewed here that quotes from “A Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries 1950-1975.” Rewatching “A Sunday in Hell” with a copy of Willam Fotheringham’s “Sunday in Hell” at hand is highly rewarding. It is arguable that in spite of its mythological aspects, bike racing has only produced a single great novel (“The Rider,” by Tim Krabbé) and one very great film. “A Sunday in Hell” is that one, and “Sunday in Hell” is a masterful and entertaining guide to it.
“Sunday in Hell: Behind the Greatest Cycling Film of All Time”
by William Fotheringham
262 pp., hardcover
Yellow Jersey Press, London, 2018
Recommended Price: UK£16.99/C$33.99
The famous showers in Roubaix
# Not all photos here are from the book. #
‘A Sunday in Hell’ full film: