What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ At the Movies: Stars and Watercarriers Film Review

1973 Giro d’Italia: Danish film director (and poet) Jørgen Leth is best known to cycling fans for his iconic “A Sunday in Hell” documentary about the 1976 Paris-Roubaix race but his talent was turned towards racing earlier, one of the results being “Stars and Watercarriers”, a film about the 1973 Giro d’Italia. From today’s perspective, it is truly a trip down Memory Lane.

It is obvious that film technical progress has been huge in nearly 50 years: it is strange to watch a film about racing with no helicopter footage or high definition imagery, and the colour, which puts one into mind of Soviet postcards, is disappointing compared to the beautiful black-and-white still images from classic races with which we are all familiar.

It is also clear that Leth did not really have a particular story in mind for the Giro. He was there thanks to his acquaintainceship with Ole Ritter, a Dane riding for Gimondi’s Bianchi-Camagnolo team and did not have the kind of resources needed to cover the race in all its aspects. Stages are introduced by opening the pages of the tour book (“the Garibaldi”) and having fingers (the director’s?) pointing at the route. The film, which offers no preamble, is divided into ten chapters that are not necessarily related but are nonetheless interesting.

The 1973 Giro began in Belgium and wound its way through several other nations before reaching Italy. The early stages saw the favourites pretty much together and it is a joy to see these big names – Gimondi, Merckx, Moser, Fuente, De Vlaeminck, Battaglin – in their prime. At first it looks like it will be a film about a Merckx vs. Fuente duel but early on climber Fuente is dropped like a brick as Merckx rolls by on one of the first mountain stages.

The story-telling is confusing at times, probably due to the limitations facing Leth. Most of the racing focuses only on the big names, the stars, and their battles but we don’t get a view of the overall shape of the race. Merckx has teammates to help him but the others are generally shown riding alone. Fuente has a mechanical and has to chase up to the lead group with no support at all, heroic but different from the racing we see today.

There is not much of a build-up to each of the battles in the mountains and nothing about team strategy but the more active chapters are balanced with quieter or more light-hearted ones. Scenes of domestiques (well, gregarios here, I guess) delivering water to their team leaders are terrific. It was brutally hot and riders hurry to restaurants and kiosks and grab whatever they can. The narrator speaks of the watercarriers hauling softdrinks and beer (yes, beer) up to the peloton, and one of the riders even has a bottle opener on a chair around his neck. Lots of glassware in sight but not too many flat tires were captured in the filming. The narrator points out that sometimes rules were ignored at the Giro.

In 1973 Merckx wore the Pink Jersey on the first day, and then wore it every day until the end of the race. It is instructive to watch him ride – he is remorseless as he chews up the kilometers but his style is not what you would expect. Not the fluid style of a Coppi but rather like blacksmithing with your legs does Baron Eddy. His tactics also appear to be crude albeit effective—lead the race from the front and destroy everyone else. It is quite a performance, although Fuentes does manage to win the penultimate stage in the mountains and ends up with the King of the Mountains. Eddy, on the other hand, won the overall as well as the points classification.

One of the best chapters is the one focused on Ole Ritter, former One Hour Record holder, as he prepared to ride the Stage 16 individual time trial. His bicycle (a machine always referred to as a “cycle” in the narrative) is painstakingly prepared and the ride itself impressive as Ritter was superb against the clock. Ritter appears often in the film, unsurprisingly, and even is getting what appears to be a rolling medical checkup from the Giro doctor en route.

There is a chapter about the money. We learn, for example, that Merckx was getting 1000 GBP per day to ride, with poor De Vlaeminck having to be content with 18 GBP. There were 140 riders on 14 teams, with an amazingly diverse number of sponsors, although bike makers were prominent still. Compared to today’s big money operations, the Giro in 1973 makes one think that the Giro in 1953 was probably not so different. Nobody had helmets or clipless pedals then either, and a lot of the roads remained unpaved. A crash is shown and after the pile-up, one of the riders has his head wrapped around with a bandage by the doctor and is then put back on his bike because, presumably, concussions are an invention of the 21st Century.

As an afterthought, there is a chapter looking at Marino Basso, a sprinter and the World Road Champion that year, and throwing in some race sprint finishes. The Rainbow Jersey did not look like it was much help to Signore Basso as he appeared to spend most of the race riding alone at the back of the pack, or far off the back of the pack, but manages to redeem himself in the final stage in Trieste with a nice sprint win. Basso ia a somewhat forgotten World Champion although he did have 16 stage wins in the Grand Tours, including six in the 1975 Vuelta. His brother, Alcide, founded the Basso Bikes company in 1977. (These Bassos are unrelated to retired pro Ivan Basso).

The film ends with Ole Ritter packing his bicycle into the car trunk in Trieste and heading off towards another race. A sudden end to this 90 minute film that does not attempt to summarize what we have seen but instead offers us snapshots of a great sporting event. At times the soundtrack music is lugubrious (the same composer as “A Sunday in Hell”, it seems) and the narration veers into hyperbole but at its best “Stars and Watercarriers” is very good. There is excellent footage shot within the peloton and the text often reflects Leth’s skill in poetry. Although not quite up to the standard of “A Sunday in Hell”, “Stars and Watercarriers” is well worth seeking out as a surprisingly rare documentary from an era of great riders.

“Stars and Watercarriers”, (Denmark, 1974)
Written and directed by Jørgen Leth.
All photos taken from the film.

‘Stars and Water Carriers’: The 1973 Giro d’Italia

When not wishing his gregario would ride up with some beer, Leslie Reissner may be found looking good if not going fast at www.tindonkey.com

Like PEZ? Why not subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive updates and reminders on what's cool in road cycling?

Comments are closed.