Clean Spirit: In the Heart of the Tour
Journalist and author Nando Boers is behind Clean Spirit: In the Heart of the Tour, documenting the Argos-Shimano team’s successful 2013 Tour de France. Boers and director Dirk Jan Roeleven hold a Q&A at a screening of the film at the Barbican on December 9.
Rouleur: The film was your idea, Nando?
Nando: The story began back in 2007 when the magazine I was working for started covering cycling. I said there is only one way to find out exactly what is going on and that is to get as close as possible to your subject. So I asked Rudi Kemna, the boss of Skil-Shimano at that time, if I could team up with them for six weeks in the lead-up to Amstel Gold, the most important race of the season for the team at that point. Funnily enough, he said yes. I wanted to be in the car, in the team meetings, everything. And he still said yes.
That led to travelling with the team for the whole year in 2008, which I wrote a book about. At the end of the season, I said there was one more thing I needed to do: the Tour de France. So I went with them in 2009, the year of [famous lanterne rouge] Kenny van Hummel, and I wrote a book about that.
So the next thing to do was make a film about the Tour. Dirk is a friend of mine who I have made documentaries with before. The team trusted me.
R: That trust and rapport you have with the team is obviously important. You wouldn’t have got that access otherwise.
Nando: They knew that if I brought somebody with me, that they could trust both of us. It’s not easy – they have to put in an effort. The end of 2012 was the Lance Armstrong saga. This was always a team that proclaimed it was doing it safe, doing it clean: a new way. Winning was not everything, they said, but riding clean was everything.
R: The ‘clean team’ thing is a big angle for them. Does that come as a reaction against the Rabobank revelations?
Nando: No, I don’t think so. That came later. Their “1T4i” slogan that they have [team spirit, inspiration, integrity, improvement, innovation] was already running. We were always conscious of the fact that, even though they said they were going to be clean, we didn’t know that. The trust goes both ways, obviously.
R: There’s a bit early on in the film where the team say you can’t win a three-week tour clean, so we are not even going to try; focus on stage wins instead.
Nando: Yes, from my point of view, that is the reality.
R: Do you still think that holds now?
Nando: Personally, yes. I’m not very optimistic. In this Tour de France, 2013, I was also working for a magazine while we were making the film. I was the one who got Rudi Kemna to talk about his EPO use in 2003. All of the people I met and interviewed on that Tour, I asked if there were any signs that things were going to get better. There was nobody who could tell me that. Lots of beliefs and hopes, and things like that…
I think they are trying: some of the teams are doing well, but not all of them. We can see that with the positive tests from the Giro, and the Astana riders who have tested positive. It’s still there. I wouldn’t say it was as organised as the US Postal days. But it’s everywhere: badminton, cricket…
R: Kemna didn’t look too comfortable talking about it.
Nando: No, but in that scene he says we can film whatever we want and that is the truth: that is all we can do. He doesn’t try and pretend, or make out it is something it isn’t.
R: But when you see the doctor handing out 20 pills a day to each rider, doesn’t that make you wonder? It seems a grey area to me. Interestingly, Kittel refuses to take them because he doesn’t believe all those vitamins and whatever are necessary. I have to agree with Kittel. You have still got doctors handing out drugs – legal drugs – but drugs nonetheless.
Nando: We all have aspirin in the cupboard at home. Those guys are being given caffeine pills, anti-cramping pills… Where do you draw the line? It started me thinking about sports in general: is winning so important? Maybe not anymore.
R: It was interesting to see the decline of the riders two weeks into the race. They are like zombies. If we seriously want to get drugs out of cycling, maybe three-week tours are not compatible.
Nando: Or shorter distances. There are lots of things you could do to make it more healthy. Nobody needs to watch bike racing for that many hours a day, do they?
R: The Tom Veelers story was tough for him. You see what the Tour means to the guys when you see him quit.
Nando: You see him unravel, and then it is over. And I think it should be that way.
R: You got lucky with Kittel winning four stages.
Nando: It was in the script, but we didn’t expect four. We had to make choices because he won those stages. It changed the film a little bit, but that’s what documentaries are all about.
R: I rather enjoyed the way the whole team was taking the piss out of Cav after the Veelers crash. It wasn’t nasty: there was respect for him. More like gentle ribbing.
Nando: He’s a nice guy, but on the bike, he is different, but they all are. He was missed in the last Tour after he crashed in Harrogate. Sports need rivalries and this is a good one.
R: And finally, for those female fans of Marcl Kittel, he spends a lot of the film wandering around with just a towel around his waist…
Nando: It shows how close we could get. We could get into the shower with him. Getting close to the guys, and feeling what the Tour de France is like, is what this film is about.