I saw the international premiere of the Danish documentary Overcoming at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
Billed as a cycling film about Team CSC, the resulting work was far more a behind the scenes look at the people who make up the
team, providing a glimpse at the depth and dimension of men who we seldom ever see except as riders.
Danish director Tomas Gislason was on hand to answer questions after the film and as a self-confessed casual cyclist and only a recent
cycling fan, it is perhaps no surprise that the cycling footage in the film (limited to only 25 percent of screen time) was used to
punctuate the human stories being told rather than as the main event. Gislason followed Team CSC from their 2004 training camp through
the early season and to the Tour de France, but the focus of the film is the 2004 Tour and his time on the road with the team clearly
paid off in terms of the access he had to the riders and staff during the Tour. Some of the footage is truly remarkable: at a turn
hilarious, shocking, intimate and heart-wrenching.
The documentary focuses on three main people: Bjarne Riis, Carlos Sastre, and Ivan Basso but all the members of the 2004 Tour team feature
in it in their own way. From the goofy, good natured humour of Jens Voigt (“Don't joke with my food! I told you before, don't joke with my
food!”) to the unbelievably bad luck of Kurt-Asle Avreson (battered and bruised from four crashes in the 2004 Tour) and the elegant pride
of Bobby Julich (including an incredible crash scene in stage 13 that results in a broken wrist) Gislason finds a way to tell at least a
small part of every rider's story.
The stars, however, are Riis, Sastre and Basso and the relationship between the manager and his two leaders. “It's very important that
there is a good relationship between you and Carlos,” Riis says to Basso during a spring training ride after bringing Basso to Team CSC
as co-leader. Overcoming shows Riis not only as a masterful architect of what would become in 2004 the world's number two cycling team
but also as a man ruled by the pressure of the Tour. Every breakaway, every result is questioned by Riis as to whether it was optimal,
every rider is held to a witeringly high level. After Jakob Piil breaks away on Stage 5 and finishes second, Riis tells him he is
disappointed with his effort. He turns back to say he is joking but you are left to wonder, along with Piil, what Riis' true feelings
are. This sparse praise and high expectations take their toll on everyone and the team masseur even takes on the role of psychologist
to ease Riis' emotional stress while working on his physical stress. Of course the 2004 Tour was highly successful for Team CSC and
there are plenty of lighter moments with Riis including some funny bits: Michele Bartoli comments on Basso's improving English, “I
understand him -- when the British talk I understand nothing” to which Riis comments that “a language is meant to be sung.”
Sastre displays the simplicity and sincerity of his background throughout. The Tour follows just days after the birth of his second child
and the first week is a time when he can still indulge in the joy of her arrival and the bittersweetness of being away. He comments that he
wants 20 children, then quickly revises this to ten, “with me eleven -- that's a football team.” The contrast between Riis and Sastre is
also apparent in the early season training. Riis struggles to convince Sastre to learn to ride with a power meter, “Carlos, not more than
400 (watts), ok?” Carlos doesn't understand Riis' scientific training guidelines and eventually gives up, “I am not like this, Bjarne.
The computer needs to understand me. I don't need to understand it. It is more intelligent than me.” Sastre's acceptance of his place
in an increasingly complex world is also evident when he learns of the death by drug overdose of his brother-in-law Jose Jiminez, “Some of
us are not meant for this world.”
As the Tour progresses it becomes clear that Ivan is the star and on his memorable stage win at La Mongie Carlos sacrifices himself to
help Basso, recognizing him as the leader of Team CSC. After seeing Basso ride into the forefront only to learn, during the Tour, of
his mother's cancer diagnosis, and then make his emotional charge away from Lance Armstrong at the top of La Mongie we see the real
drama of one of the high profile moments of the 2004 Tour. Seeing Riis in the team car as Basso rides the final metres is priceless
and in stark contrast to Basso's exhaustion and relief after the finish. In the hotel we once again see the intimate side of Bjarne
Riis as he congratulates and thanks Sastre for his selfless ride and celebrates with Basso. Of course this only makes Basso's time
trial of Alpe d'Huez all the more heartbreaking both in the disappointment of being caught and passed so easily by Armstrong and in
Riis' almost cruel analysis afterwards. Basso defends his ride, “I expected to ride better but it wasn't *that* bad,” to which Riis
intones simply, “It didn't go well.”
Technically the movie's English subtitles were sometimes hard to read and often combined with the director's use of on-screen titles in
a visually disruptive way, although this was better on the DVD version. Also, the epilogue on Michele Bartoli's decision to retire was
an unnecessary extension to the film after the way the Tour wrapped up. Overall, however, Overcoming is a beautifully honest portrait
of CSC. Gislason captures the personal stories of an incredibly dramatic three weeks in the lives of these men and the result is a
compelling documentary. Some cycling fans will be disappointed with the level of race footage but the trade off is well worth it. This
is a story that could not have been told any other way and the pay off of over 1000 hours of raw footage is something you could never
see on OLN.