Producers: Yvonne Donohoe and Katie Holly   Director: Kieron J. Walsh   Screenplay: Ciaran Cassidy and Kieron J. Walsh   Cast: Louis Talpe, Matteo Simoni. Tara Lee, Iain Glen, Karel Roden, Timo Wagner, Diogo Cid, Ward Kerremans, Paul Robert, Anthony Mairs and Eoin Byrne   Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Grade: C+

The Tour de France is one of the world’s most grueling sports competitions, and the 1998 edition of it—the eighty-fifth—was a particularly fraught one, made notorious by a doping scandal in which teams, and individuals, were compelled to leave the race.  Later investigations implicated the three top finishers in the Tour.

Kieron J. Walsh’s film is a fictional story set against the 1998 race—or, more precisely, the initial stages of it that occurred in Ireland before the French leg.  It focuses on Dominique Chabol (Louis Talpe), a domestique or support rider on a team called Austrange, whose function is to serve the needs of the team (and in particular its lead cyclist) in the race rather than to win himself. 

Dominique has been on the team for years, and is very good at his job, but he’s in his late thirties, and there’s doubt whether his contract will be renewed by Viking (Karel Roden), the coach, for the following year—a possibility that haunts him.   Like others on the team, Chabol’s receiving blood boosters from the team’s trainer Sonny McElhone (Iain Glen), a gruff former rider who’s especially close to him.

The chance that Dominique might be dropped from the squad is in fact realized in the course of the race, but he’s restored to the team after another cyclist is forced out as a result of blood tests.  That’s only one of the crises Chabol faces, though.  He becomes involved with the team’s pretty doctor Lynn Brennan (Tara Lee), and when he’s randomly selected for a blood test, must depend on her to ensure that that his doping won’t be discovered.  He has to bolster a young member of the squad who refuses to agree to the doping regimen and has an emotional meltdown when he finds his energy failing and comes under pressure to join the program. 

Chabol also has to put up with the behavior of his excitable star teammate Lupo “Tartare” Marino (Matteo Simoni), while dealing with physical issues that leave him exhausted at night. His friend Scotty, moreover, will suffer a medical emergency.  And as if all that weren’t enough, he gets a call from his estranged sister telling him that his father—whom he hasn’t seen in years—has died, and demanding tearfully that he return for the funeral, though doing so would disrupt his schedule.  And at one point in the race, he finds himself with the chance to win a leg against the Austrange team leader, and has to decide whether to seize it, giving him the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, even though it’s against his principles as a mere domestique.

That’s a lot of cycling melodrama to pack into a single screenplay, and at times “The Racer” is on the verge of collapsing beneath the weight.  That it remains watchable nonetheless is due not only to Walsh’s efficient direction but to the performances.  Talpe, who played Eliab in “Of Kings and Prophets,” the 2016 TV miniseries about Saul and David, makes a stern but determined protagonist; Dominique’s laconic, steely personality might not be immediately sympathetic, but Talpe manages to make him intriguing over the long haul, and he certainly shows the physical chops needed for the role, even if stunt doubles must have been needed at points.  The other actors playing cyclists, including Simoni, are fine, and veterans Glen and Roden do predictably good work.

Of equal importance, of course, is the race footage, well shot by cinematographer James Mather and edited skillfully by Mathieu Depuydt and Nico Poedts.  Ray Ball’s production design is pretty ordinary, but Uli Simon’s costumes—especially the various team outfits—are eye-catching. Hannes De Maeyer’s music is unobtrusive. 

Cycling, and the Tour de France in particular, have suffered a lot of bad press in recent decades, and this film won’t efface it.  But while overly encumbered with melodramatic plot turns, the movie recreates a troubled time in one of the world’s preeminent sports events reasonably well.