Mirroring director Kenneth Mercken’s own experience, The Racer (Coureur) tells the story of a young Belgian on his journey to becoming a pro cyclist in the late nineties. With autobiographic accuracy, Mercken portrays the complex relationships and pressures that push teenage cyclists to the extremes of drastic weight loss and intravenous drugtaking.
Although the major European doping scandals may seem like yesterday’s news, Mercken insists that the pressure to take performance enhancing drugs is still a troubling issue, especially within youth cycling teams that fall outside of the stricter regulations set on professional teams.
When I interviewed Mercken at the Raindance Film Festival 2019, he candidly discussed his struggle with drugs and violent relationship with his father. I deeply admired his openness. It can only be hoped that this openness inspires further fruitful and frank discussions within the cycling community.
Your film explains how you got into cycling, but how did you get into cinema?
I don’t know, I think I really decided on a whim to go to film school. Like in the story, I was in this Italian team and I went to this doctor. Just like in the film, this doctor told me that I was not responding to the EPO which I was taking because I had had some delayed puberty in the past and problems with my hormones. This doctor then advised me to start using growth hormone as the only therapy, and he told me that I would have a bigger chance of getting cancer. From the moment I heard this word it was like really a wakeup call – a moment of epiphany. One moment I was prepared to go all the way and the next I thought: right this is it, this is over. In the car driving back to the team house, I guess I decided to go to film school.
Do you agree that making films can be a form of therapy? Was this your experience?
I just had this question before, it’s an interesting question. A couple of weeks ago I heard another filmmaker say that making a film is actually very expensive therapy. And I think I kind of understand what he means. This aspect I totally underestimated because I was always very open about my experiences and because I had made a short film [The Letter] on the same theme before. Back then I confessed to everything I did and I felt that I obviously had no problem talking about my past but there’s always a lot of stuff that’s deeper than that, below the surface. I guess that I relived a lot of things during the shoot and especially during the writing of the story and the script. It was cathartic in a way.
I remember there was this moment where I started to lean backwards on the scale. I would also take a lot of caffeine for training and races so I had to go to the loo a lot at night. Each time I really had to jump on the scale to see the number, even though I knew it was not going to change a lot. And then at a certain point I was leaning backwards so I could see the metre drop a little bit and you know you’re doing this yourself but it’s crazy.
You’ve commented on the tunnel vision that competitive cycling can cause in various ways. How important is it then to look up and connect with nature (on and off the bike)?
Well when I still had this dream of becoming a pro cyclist, of really making a career of it, it was not a possibility to connect with nature. I rode through all these beautiful landscapes all over Europe and I don’t remember anything because you’re just looking at your speedometer, your heartrate, the tyre, the wheels in front of you, and that’s it. You’re so consumed by everything, it’s something you can’t turn off, you’re a cyclist 24 hours a day. You wake up with it and go to sleep with it. It’s all about the calories you eat and the training you do. I think with all these endorphins rushing through you, you kind of become like a machine in a way. It was just impossible to connect with nature. And that’s what I noticed after I went to film school. My father bought me a bike again because I always used to receive bikes from the teams I was in and you have to give them back at the end of the year so I didn’t have one. So when I started to ride my bike I was like “Ah this is kind of nice,” you know looking around, seeing the birds and the sky. It was the first time I experienced a bike ride like that.
You’ve said that you hope that the film could start an open debate about these kind of issues. How have the reactions been within the cycling community so far?
I guess with the reaction in Belgium we were quite amazed that people seem to be very closed there. In Rotterdam and a festival in Poland as well, people reacted very openly and started talking. In my own country [Belgium] where the story is about, it’s kind of a closed reaction. But I think that’s also typical for the cycling world because I think they look at it as a problem of the past and that it’s all fixed now, which I don’t think it is. But that’s a way of getting around it.
The film is set in the late 90s, early 2000s. Where are we are now with the protection of youth cyclists? What still needs to be done?
I think that this kind of protection is not present in cycling. Maybe if you get to a top level there will be psychologists, especially the top teams, you’ll be surrounded by good people. But if you’re in these youth teams, I think these situations can still happen. The pressure is enormous and that’s also what I wanted to show – this is a film about a loser who doesn’t actually get to the top but the pressure is not any less. I think that this is still very tricky and it’s not just the team but also the parents and the media and everyone around you that can add to this pressure. And it’s not just the people around you, it’s also yourself. I kind of manipulated people into putting this pressure on me I think. I wanted my father to give me this pressure in a way. It works both ways.
What role does the media play in the pressure put on youth cyclists?
The way that I experienced it was that it’s kind of this microcosm that you’re in and you totally have no perspective. As soon as you do a good race, you see your name in the paper and that’s something very euphoric. That’s something that pushes you and you really don’t have this perspective anymore of “I’m just a nobody.” You start to see yourself as something very much bigger than you are and that can be very dangerous as well I guess. What I mean by microcosm is that all these people around you are pushing you and they put you on a pedestal and that can be very dangerous.
But I don’t know what would be the answer for that. What could people do? I guess the answer is that sports should be a game until a certain level or age. It’s very dangerous once money also gets involved, and it’s not just about the money. In Belgium cycling is really like a national sport and even on an amateur level, you already start to receive money when you’re very young. And this is all black money so you immediately enter into this dark, dirty world and that’s not always healthy.
As a director of a film like this one, did you expect to become a spokesperson for these issues around cycling? Were you prepared for this?
Yeah of course, we had some debates at some screenings and I guess the moment that I really enjoyed the most or felt that I could really add something to this debate was in Holland when I spoke to young people. We had school screenings and an interview and debate and I talked to them – because the non-judgemental way they looked at me and my story and were very open to discuss it, there I felt I really had an impact. Maybe with the adult audiences there’s always this closedness. Maybe in a way, I felt that they were judging me in order to protect themselves and not to be confronted with themselves – to see me as a scapegoat or something, I don’t know. But it was very positive and interesting with the younger audience, that was amazing.
The Racer will be available to stream or download from all major digital platforms from 4th November.
Interview by Ellen Smith