Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by Alex Broadway/ASO
You think you know the story: the pair of outlying athletes from an outlying cycling nation, going head to head into the decisive final time trial, when the kid, the prodigy, dramatically slays his mentor, the champion elect. But they’re pals, so there’s lots of backslapping, high-fiving and congratulatory talk. No hard feelings, eh?
Only it wasn’t really like that, as the new Dutch film Code Yellow in a slow-burn expose of the collapse of Primoz Roglic’s 2020 Tour de France campaign, in which he was usurped by compatriot Tadej Pogacar, reveals.
Recently on La Course en Tete’s podcast, prompted by the release of The Racer, a new film dramatisation of the 1998 Tour, we discussed cycling films, pondering why it was that documentaries so consistently outshone dramas. The difficulty of recreating the grandeur and scale of real bike racing is one issue, but it is also because the levels of intrigue and mistrust in professional cycling are so often even more profound than the most tightly-scripted fiction.
Code Yellow lays those timeless intrigues bare.
The film has the usual scenes of massage tables, team cars, on-bus meetings and sporadic flare-ups that we know are part and parcel of Grand Tour ritual, but as the race goes on, we see more than usual, more perhaps than the Jumbo-Visma team intended. The denouement, in which Roglic and Tom Dumoulin’s open distrust of Pogacar is obvious, enters fresh territory, when compared to most bland reportage.
And this, of course, is racing in the time of Covid, so there are scenes of near-deserted start villages and almost empty climbs, of mask-wearing riders emerging from their team buses untroubled by camera crews, photographers or selfie-seeking fans.
It’s clear from the start that Jumbo-Visma fully expected to win the 2020 Tour. “We all know that we are the strongest,” says sport director, Merijn Zeeman, as the team gathers in Nice. “But stay humble. Don’t be arrogant.”
Roglic also reveals that there is, as suspected, more to him than meets the eye. “I deserve one candy,” he announces after a painful physio session on the eve of the race. “What morons,” he calls Astana’s gung-ho riding on the stage of a thousand crashes in the hinterland of Nice.
Dumoulin meanwhile, oscillates between irate team captain and apologetic teenager.
“We pretend like we have the yellow jersey already!” he says over the radio midway through stage two, before tearing a strip off his team mates. By the next morning, he’s shamefacedly apologising. “Anything negative, we should discuss afterwards,” says Tony Martin sternly.
The race goes on: Roglic and Wout Van Aert take their first stage wins, the team orders in pizza and champagne corks pop, while the only hiccup is Dumoulin’s saddle sore, the pain of which at one point reduces him to tears. Yet with defending champion Egan Bernal slipping out of the picture, Thibaut Pinot, Pogacar and Mikel Landa losing time and Movistar anonymous, it’s all pretty much going to plan.
The duel between Roglic and Pogacar develops in the Pyrenees, but in the Alps looks almost over at the summit of the Col de la Loze when Jumbo-Visma’s leader leaves his younger peer gasping in his wake. “Best team of the Tour, we are getting closer and closer,” team DS Griescha Niermann tells his riders the next day after the stage over the Plateau des Glieres sees Roglic edge nearer to victory in Paris.
By this point, it is the dominant Roglic who’s being asked the now usual questions on trust and credibility that shadow most wearers of the maillot jaune. It’s greeted with disapproval by some in the media and distaste from Wout Van Aert, who describes any such debate as showing “a lack of respect.”
But then the real wobbles begin.
Zeeman, expelled from the race convoy for losing his temper with the UCI’s bike checking team at the Col de la Loze stage finish, apologises to the riders and staff. At the time Roglic described the absence of his sports director simply as “bad news.” But the footage at the start of the film, of a distraught Zeeman watching the Slovenian’s cataclysmic time trial ride from a laptop at the side of the road, suggest just how much he may have been missed at the key moment.
On the eve of the time trial, Roglic goes for his yellow jersey skinsuit fitting with the attentive seamstresses of Le Coq Sportif. Long-sleeves or short-sleeves, he’s asked, with his team advising that he chooses short sleeves. “You know what, I don’t give a f**k. Everything is good,” he responds.
The next morning, out on the time trial course recce, he swerves around locals heading back from the boulangerie and freewheels through cyclo-tourists cluttering up the road.
“The helmet — I’m not sure,” he says, wheeling to a halt as his recconnaissance ride ends.
The conversation doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. “Tadej, he’s not so aerodynamic,” he’s advised.
You’d think, as almost everyone did, that fifty seven seconds in thirty six kilometres should be enough of a secure margin, but from the very beginning of the time trial, Roglic is a man swimming backwards. Pogacar meanwhile, has the homing instinct of a bullet and the lassitude of the final kilometre at the Col de la Loze, when Roglic’s win had seemed assured, is long gone.
The final meltdown is tragic-comic in some ways but also unsettling in others.
As his backroom staff go through agonies, urging their leader on through his earpiece, while turning the air blue in private, Roglic labours up to the finish at La Planche des Belles Filles, sporting the famous helmet, now comically askew and as aerodynamic as a Le Creuset casserole dish.
The Dutch team’s riders, blown away by Pogacar, watch on, stunned and disbelieving. Dumoulin’s face, thunderous as he witnesses Pogacar’s success, was interpreted by many as a mask of barely concealed scepticism at the time. His comments in Code Yellow prove that assessment to be be correct.
“…f**king Tadej Pogacar, who rides his bike like a miner,” Dumoulin says as he is driven back to the team’s hotel. “I don’t understand how this guy ….could have been a minute and a half faster,” he adds.
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” Roglic shrugs, as he too is driven away from the finish, before then closing his eyes, as if trying to banish a bad dream.
In the film’s closing moments, the mask finally slips. Forced to wait outside the Tour’s media centre in a mini van as dusk falls, while Pogacar gives his winner’s press conference, Roglic seems disillusioned.
“It’s a different world of cycling,” he says of Pogacar’s success. “And I cannot understand it. If you can ride so hard, then every stage you have to be with one leg…” Minutes later, however, he steps out of the minivan and the mask is back on. He puts on a brave face, hugging and congratulating Pogacar when they meet at the entrance to the press centre.
In those few moments, cycling’s ongoing disconnect is evident, with Roglic and his team seemingly thinking one thing in private and saying something different in public. Expect this story to rumble on when the 2021 season eventually gets going. In the meantime, do make time to watch this engrossing film.