The Irish Mail on Sunday
‘DOPING WAS NORMAL, ALMOST BANAL’
Kenneth Mercken has drawn on his experiences in pro cycling to create a film that lays bare the culture of drug-taking polluting the sport
IN another life, Kenneth Mercken would have spent the 2000s as part of the peloton travelling in Lance Armstrong’s wake as he collected those seven tainted Tour de France titles. At the start of that decade, Mercken seemed set fair for a career as a professional cyclist. A distinguished junior and amateur in Belgium, he joined an Italian team on a semi-pro contract in 2000.
The harsh and unforgiving environment shook Mercken, a bookish and introverted individual, to the core.
‘On my first day with the team, the manager wouldn’t even shake my hand,’ he recalls. ‘All he said to me was that I was too fat. And I was 82 kilos at the time!’
Mercken’s progress was halted because EPO didn’t have the desired effect on his blood levels and he was informed, in no uncertain terms, that there would be no success without doping so he was urged to use human growth hormone. After being told by a doctor of the heightened risk of cancer, he walked away from the sport.
The road he took instead led him to film school. Now, 19 years later, he has channelled the frustration, anger and dismay he felt when he stepped into the murky world of professional cycling to create his first full-length feature film, The Racer.
‘Cycling is in your blood,’ the narrator Felix intones at the start of the movie. ‘It is passed on from father to son. And if it’s in you, you can fight it all you want but you can’t escape it.’
Mercken, now 41, has never fully escaped cycling. He still rides competitively in his native Belgium. But there’s little doubt that he had to face demons in making his compelling movie, not least in his relationship with his own father. In The Racer, Felix Vereccke (played by cyclist Niels Willaert) is forced to realise the dreams of his father Mathieu, who never made it as a professional and projects his own crushed ambitions onto his son.
Early in the film, he tells a doctor to give his son a testosterone injection before a junior race and in one of the more shocking scenes later in the story, Mathieu changes Felix’s bag during a blood transfusion.
‘That never happened,’ Mercken explains of a scene that led to some revulsion in preview screenings in Belgium. ‘But
I do consider it to be quite symbolic. I am sure my father would have done that for me, if he had to.’
Given the complicated, often toxic relationship between father and son that lies at the centre of the movie, it is pertinent to ask Mercken what his own father thought of the movie.
‘He came to the premiere in Ghent. We went out after the screening for some beers. And after a good few drinks, he said to me that I had portrayed him quite well. He then went quiet for a moment and said “I was wrong.” It was pretty moving, but I don’t expect him to ever say that again.’
Despite everything, Mercken remains close to his father. ‘Without him, I would have never had a cycling career. And maybe I wouldn’t have become a film-maker and done this feature.
‘He shaped my personality by pushing me hard. There are negative sides to that, but I appreciate the way he brought me up.’
The movie is at its most powerful when it focuses on the loneliness of being a young cyclist uncertain of their place in such a harsh world. Again, he drew on his own experience.
‘I was the odd one out in the team, they probably saw me as a bit of an oddball, because I read books. I had brought Charles Bukowski and [Ludwig] Wittgenstein books with me and I would leave them on my bedside table. Some of the other riders thought I was crazy. ‘I remember being lifted from my bed by a soigneur (support staff) one time in Italy. I was lying down, reading and downstairs the rest of the team were watching the Giro. I was told that riders should not read, they should be looking at the race.’
However, the mundane way that doping is treated by cyclists and team officials conveyed in the film is jaw-dropping. Even though he joined his team two years after the Festina scandal exposed the level of drug-taking in the sport, Mercken says that is the way it was.
‘Doping was something that was very normal, almost banal. A bottle of EPO would just appear on the table. Half the team would be talking about the weather while they took it. But EPO didn’t work for me. I was what they call a nonresponder, my hormone levels were too low so my blood values dropped instead of rising.
‘My solution was to take more EPO. At the time, I was thinking I cannot let my dream slip away,’ Mercken remembers.
‘It wasn’t working, though and that’s when the team doctor told me that I should use growth hormone. But he laid it out for me. I would have to use every day of my career and all my cells would continue to grow. And if there were cancer cells there, they would grow too.
‘When I heard the word cancer, I thought that this has really gone far. I decided immediately that I was going to stop. I was in the team car, driving away from the doctor, and that’s when I made up my mind to go to film school.’
He explains that he felt the process of writing and directing the movie was a therapeutic process, which allowed him to purge the demons of his brief time as a professional cyclist.
‘Essentially, it is a selfish sport and it can corrupt you. You lose your ideals and morals, you can lose your friends. It is necessary to have a thick hide and even that won’t protect you.
‘If you fall off your bike, you are expected to sit back on it straight away. That is one of the reasons why doping and cycling have been so intertwined.’
The sport insists that it has worked hard to clean itself up in the past few years. Having used semi-professional riders from Italy as extras in the film, Mercken is not so sure if the situation has improved much from when he was starting out.
‘Do I think things have improved? Yes and no. I think there has been a real effort to clean up the sport, possibly because they had to. And they had to be seen to be doing something. But I don’t think we can say that doping belongs in the past.
‘I have heard different stories from young riders, of new products, a different form of EPO that is difficult to detect. And there are still stories of blood transfusions and growth hormones.
‘But I would hope that young riders aren’t told now that they have to dope, or else they won’t get success. I hope we are past that point. But maybe not.’
The movie, as expected, got a mixed reaction from the cycling community. While some friends have been encouraging, there has been a play among some within the sport to suggest that Mercken was revealing a historical problem that has been solved.
‘Hopefully, the film can be seen as a statement. We cannot hide the past if we want to ensure that the future is cleaner. There is still a kind of omerta in the sport,’ Mercken suggests.
Perhaps, The Rider will play a part in ending that silence.
*The Rider is available on digital download on iTunes, Amazon, Sky Store, Google, Sony and Microsoft from November 4
‘A BOTTLE OF EPO WOULD APPEAR ON THE TABLE, THEY’D BE TALKING ABOUT THE WEATHER AS THEY TOOK IT’