Filmmaker Finlay Pretsell has been an ardent cycling fan since he was a kid. He competed for Scotland in a mountain bike race and dreamt of racing in the big tours. “But I soon realised that I didn’t have what it takes,” Pretsell says. “The whole thing is in your mind. You have to dedicate everything to the sport. You have to rest properly; you have to train.”
Pretsell may not have competed in the Tour de France but his remarkable new documentary Time Trial sees him get as close to the race as any non-competitor can. The film follows the final races of Scottish cyclist David Millar’s career, leading up to his last tilt at Le Tour aged 37.
Millar was once suspended for doping. When he returned to the sport, he became an authoritative voice in the anti-doping movement. However, Pretsell’s documentary isn’t another of that spate of recent films and books (like Stephen Frears’ The Program or Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie) looking at cheating in the sport. Instead, Pretsell set out to capture the “meditative” side of cycling. “After a couple of hours on a bike, if you’re on your own, you go into another world almost. You just naturally concentrate on pedalling and looking around. You hear yourself breathing.”
The film also shows what it’s like being in the middle of the Peloton. There is a poignant moment early on when Millar tells another rider this is his last Tour. He’s 37 and getting old. It’s a frank and intimate exchange. What makes it startling is that it is taking place in the middle of a race.
Pretsell equipped Millar with a very sensitive microphone. He also shot Millar and the other riders from the crew’s “own, bespoke” motorbike. Its driver had done 30 Tours and knew exactly where to place himself to film. The filmmakers persuaded cycling’s governing body UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) to allow them to equip riders with cameras.
“We took a bit of a risky position of just filming David the whole time,” Pretsell says. By focusing so intensely on Millar, he was able to capture every conversation the rider had during the races. Pretsell first met Millar ten years ago and they’ve been planning a documentary ever since. “So many years went past, and I just couldn’t work out a way to do it.”
Time Trial is being sold internationally by Autlook. It also has an illustrious executive producer: Iain Smith, the Scottish industry veteran whose credits range from Bill Forsyth’s comedies to Mad Max: Fury Road and Cold Mountain. Smith, Chair of the British Film Commission, is an ardent supporter of new Scottish filmmaking talent – and also used to race bikes himself.
Pretsell and his team shot well over 500 hours of footage. Winnowing that down to feature-film length was a painstaking business. “It was a nightmare to edit, a nightmare to shoot,” he exclaims. “It’s not like we had a team of 200 researchers. The editor had the patience of a saint!” In his darker moments, the director was consoled to hear from Iain Smith that when he was producing Mad Max: Fury Road, they too shot over 500 hours.