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Just as no rider has come close to eclipsing Eddy Merckx since his remarkable reign, there hasn’t been a modern film about professional cycling quite like La course en tête either.

Joël Santoni’s work documents Eddy Merckx during his 1973 and 1974 seasons. Nowadays, we’d call it remarkable access: it shows the champion’s racing highs and lows, as well as him relaxing with his family in Brussels and the melee around him at races.

Aside from the deft portrait of a complex champion and the little world orbiting around him, La course en tête’s strength also lies in how the film almost accidentally – because, as Santoni says later, it was never his intention – captures the bigger universe of professional cycling, its intense difficulties and how the public interacts with it.

The film is pleasingly economical: there is no narrator, while captions and voiceovers are sparing. Santoni allows the glorious images to evoke the emotion and events of the sport.

It is refreshing to hear the sounds of a bike race ring out too, be it the whirring wheels of the bunch, Merckx hammering the pedals on the rollers, or clinking beer bottles during mid-race bar raids.

Occasionally, the action is overlaid with wild baroque music, rising to a crescendo at times, such as when Merckx hammers on the pedals. Perhaps this combination – and the cinema verité approach – shouldn’t work; but for me, La course en tête is a tour de force.

Recently, I caught up with Santoni (below) and discussed his iconic film in depth.

Rouleur: When did you have the idea for La course en tête?
Joël Santoni: I was reading a book by French writer Roland Barthes, called Mythologies, and there was a chapter on the Tour de France. It was a Sunday night and Louis Malle, a French filmmaker, and I were having dinner at one of the first Indian restaurants in Paris at the time.  He said, “I’ve just come back from Brussels, I met an extraordinary person.”

“Who? Is it Eddy Merckx?” I said.

It was. He wanted to do the film himself but he couldn’t do it for some reason. So he said “why don’t you do it?” And I said “well, why not?” I like documentaries, I’ve studied in documentaries, and so it started as this ridiculous “why not?”

I had the Barthes book with me, I was reading it and it was my guide, in a way. In the film, the bicycle is not something you really see. It’s quite difficult, even if you’re lucky enough to have motorcycles and cars to go with people on the roads. But people standing on the roads don’t see much.

It’s like the chanson de Roland [a famous 8th century French epic poem]: nobody saw it but it’s a very popular troubadour story and everyone listens to it. In a way, cycling is the same. It’s not popular because you see a small part of it, but because the rest is left to your imagination. And that’s what the film was about.

I was trying to catch this myth all the time, this moment of building a mythology and how people relate to this.

To make the film, you had to win the trust of Merckx, his inner circle – confidant Guillaume and wife Claudine?
Trial, error and also humour. I had never filmed a bicycle race, so I was not familiar with what technique to use. I remember the first race we attended was the 1973 Vuelta. We almost killed ourselves on one descent. It was very fast and the car couldn’t handle it.

The manager of the Vuelta called and said “you can’t do that again, it’s dangerous.” And Merckx didn’t like it, of course, because I was part of his group at the time; he was like “who is this guy?”

At the beginning, it was quite awkward. He said yes to the project because his agent pushed him, but I don’t think he was that much for the picture at the beginning.

He realised I was serious about doing something serious so he came to me and said, “you should use a friend of mine, who is a motorcycle driver. He’s fantastic, he was the champion of Belgium. Call him, he will help.”

Poco a poco, we were like two animals sniffing each other and finally, I knew I was in his good books, a part of his circle.

How was it working with Merckx?
He’s a very impressive person to deal with. I’ve shot with very famous stars: Catherine Deneuve. Monsters too, like Orson Welles, and still Merckx is sort of a block.

From a Roland Barthes point of view, I had the feeling of meeting a myth. I probably didn’t see the man. I was looking at the myth more.

I was expecting somebody like this, strong, quite cold. He knows he’s not a very good orator, he doesn’t like to speak much, only when he’s very comfortable with people. He’s a very sweet person as long as you know him. I think he’s very shy deep inside.

I had the feeling that when he became famous, he was like a hunted animal. So he was not really so open. He had been disappointed or used so many times.

I remember meeting a famous mainstream Swiss journalist who was interviewing him. I knew it would be something strange. He asked him: “Don’t you want to express yourself?” And Eddy said, “now I know you’ve never seen me on this bicycle. I express myself on the bicycle.” Ha! That was the most fantastic answer, for what I was filming. I always remember that sentence.

That’s why for me he’s a myth: the bike was his language, it was everything to him. He was different, I think, in that respect from other bicycle racers.

We rarely hear Merckx speak in the film. Most of the spoken insight into him comes from Claudine, his wife at home.
That was not planned at all. I didn’t know who was going to talk during the film. I realised she was the best voice.

Claudine (below, with Merckx) came to Paris, I took her to the theatre, we went to see La Cage aux Folles by Poiret. We became quite good friends.

In a way, I think she had somebody to talk to. She didn’t like to be filmed, so I did long recorded interviews with her talking a lot. It helped me a lot to get to know Eddy. I think she was quite pleased to say what she was living and thinking; she loves him very much.

You spent many hours talking with Merckx and your conversations were not broadcast in the film. What kind of things did you discuss?
At first, the film. Then cars, books – he likes lots of American books, Raymond Chandler, that kind of thing. We talked about life, food. Oh my god, we have a lot in common there. He taught me to appreciate Belgian beer. He had a fantastic collection. He likes wine too. He got very fat when he stopped cycling because he was so voracious, he likes to eat very much.

As this was a journey of discovery for you as well, what opinions of professional cycling did you form?
In a way, I was not there to make a film on professional cycling. I was not a journalist, I wasn’t there to ask questions. I was there to try to captures images of this world and one of its main actors, Eddy Merckx.

I liked the universe, I was part of it for a year. The world is outside, you are inside. I remember in Italy, you’re part of a race caravan with the car, in a way you’re God of the road. You suddenly come out of this [bubble] and go on a normal road, then you have to be careful about this and that. The Tour de France and the Giro are worlds unto themselves.

Though you set out to show Merckx, you also captured the anguish and difficulty of the sport: one rider memorably abandoning and crying, for instance.
It is the most difficult sport of all of them, up there with boxing. I don’t know how they do it. But I was not there to think about that, that’s what I lost, in a way.

He’s not crying because he is cold or tired or exhausted; he is crying because it’s the end of a dream. He has stopped at the end of a road, he can’t go further.

Merckx has so many victories that I wanted to start on a disappointment. I was there at the World Championships in ’73, I know the work he did. He trained, he stopped eating, he dedicated himself to this race completely. And he lost in the closing metres, to Felice Gimondi (below). Why? The lack of concentration more than any physical problems – if he’d been a bit stronger for 10 metres, maybe.

He was so pissed off: it was the end of a dream. He wanted to be alone. Even his wife Claudine and her father Lucien couldn’t get near him. Me, I was smart enough to not even try to get closer. I could see he was like a wounded animal.

Do you think you could make a film like this now?
I made the film because I read a book, I had somebody who incarnated the purpose of Roland Barthes. I wouldn’t be able to do it now, I wouldn’t have the subject to explore. Eddy was a block, you had to turn him around. He’s not an obvious person, he is difficult to understand.

Maybe someone like Usain Bolt, who is so above everyone else, so strong, so loved in their country. I was so interested in Anquetil…and I’d have liked to have met Coppi and made one about him.

We must talk about the baroque music used in the score. How did it work with David Munrow and the London Early Consort?
It was the beginning of filming. I went to a friend’s concert, as I like baroque music. Time went by and I was thinking what kind of music to use.

I was editing, it was nearly finished and nothing worked. I wanted to have the sound of horns, no piano. So I called Munrow in London and asked him if he could help. “Bicycle racing?” he went, he was so surprised. I came to London, took the film and showed the format.

I said: “People shouldn’t cut the race.” We edited in a very bold way, cutting it here and there. I considered playing the film with no music. I had told him before: “I left the music out, don’t be too pissed off, I know it’s tough to hear.” At the last moment, we decided to use the reels with the music.

We had bagpipes; that was my idea, I love them. I have this image of him, this small guy turning blue, as he blows this horn like a devil.

We talked for hours and hours, recording down the telephone at times. Oh, those moments were great.

One morning [May 15 1976], I was taking the dog out for a walk and whistling his song. I came back, listened to France Musique and heard news of his suicide. It was one of those moments in life.

What was Eddy’s reaction to the film?
He liked the film but there were a few scenes he didn’t. For instance, there’s a whole sequence where they pee off the bicycle. He said: “Why did you film this?” Because even myths have to pee!

I think he was very surprised by the reaction to the film. He realised that if his family were so proud of the film, it must be great. I think he’s more proud of it now.

Would you change anything about the film, over 40 years on?
I’d probably have better sound… but probably nothing. Like a race, it’s done. You win, you lose, you do a good race or a bad race, a good film or a bad film.

Joël Santoni shares further memories of Eddy Merckx in our exclusive bookazine. “Merckx: The Greatest” is available to buy here.

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