For anyone who’s ever dreamt about competing in the Tour de France Clean Spirit is one documentary that you have to see. The film brings viewers up close and personal with a team of cyclists as they participate in one of the world’s toughest sports events. Director Dirk Jan Roeleven was given exclusive access to the athletes, trainers, and staff both during the race as well as behind the scenes. The documentary’s title refers to the fact that although the sport has been tarnished by an array of doping scandals (ie. Lance Armstrong) cycling is in the midst of undergoing a transformation with an emphasis on eliminating doping and promoting “clean” drug free competition.
Clean Spirit follows the Argos-Shimano team as they strive to achieve success in the various stages of the 2013 Tour de France. The arduous race takes place over a period of three grueling weeks and takes cyclists through the picturesque French countryside, along some mountainous terrain, and finally into the heart of Paris.
Because of the exclusive access afforded to the camera crew Clean Spirit not only captures the excitement and danger of the race but also the physical and emotional intensity of the individual athletes. Likewise, viewers are also given a sense of the fan frenzy and enormous media coverage which surrounds the annual sporting event. Each stage of the race is lined with throngs of excited onlookers and continuously scrutinized by the watchful eyes of various camera crews. The Tour de France cyclists must not only contend with the rigors of the race but also the extensive public and media attention that goes with it.
The subject of doping is addressed throughout Clean Spirit. At the beginning of the film a number of young cyclists discuss their feelings regarding some recent doping scandals. One athlete likens cheating in sports to crimes such as fraud or robbing a bank. It’s evident that many of the current cyclists harbor a deep sense of disillusionment toward many of the disgraced athletes they once looked up to as idols.
One problem with Clean Spirit, however, is that because the filmmaker documents so many aspects of the race viewers don’t get a real sense of the unique personalities, history, experience, and motivations behind each individual team member. Instead, the film focuses on the dynamics of the Argos-Shimano team as a whole. Each athlete is depicted as part of a team rather than operating as a single athlete. The only exceptions to this are Marcel Kittel, one of the top cyclists in the team, and Tom Veelers, who suffers a dangerous accident early on in the race.
Viewers shouldn’t mistake Clean Spirit as being a vanity piece. The filmmaker includes a number of examples of unflattering behavior by the racers. Roeleven also makes it clear that cheating still exists in the sport even without doping. This is evident when Veelers is deliberately knocked into by another biker and tumbles to the ground.
Clean Spirit is geared to appeal to a niche market consisting of cyclists, cycling enthusiasts, and die hard sports fans. The documentary doesn’t include any new revelations about international cycling or the men who participate in it. Clean Spirit succeeds in depicting the tremendous intensity, determination, strength, and stamina demonstrated by the talented athletes who participate in this demanding competition.
Clean Spirit is out now from First Run Features.