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William Fotheringham's latest book, Sunday in Hell, tells the story behind the making of the famous film of the 1976 edition of the Paris-Roubaix classic of the same name. Along the way he paints fascinating portraits of the professional racing scene of the era and some of the biggest names in cycling, with the bonus of an education in Danish avant-garde film-making to boot.
Before 1976, Jørgen Leth's films had in the main been highly experimental short pieces, mainly aimed at, he admits, 'turning everything upside down'. They were nearly all short pieces on a diverse range of subjects, but Leth was always fascinated by the story-telling possibilities held by cycle racing, and included in his early films one called 'Eddy Merckx in the Vicinity of a Cup of Coffee...', which included hand-held footage he had shot at the 1970 Tour de France.
In 1973, he made 'Stars and Watercarriers', a feature-length documentary about the Giro d'Italia. The action is shot on a single camera, but filmed over the entire duration of the event. 'A Sunday in Hell' was an altogether more ambitious project – an attempt to capture the entire narrative of a one-day Classic, bringing together the various aspects of the event – the organisation, the support crews, the spectators, the media and, of course, the riders. In the end, more than 30 cameras were used, including some ground-breaking helicopter shots using image-stabilising technology for the first time in the coverage of cycle racing.
I was wondering if I was in for a rather ponderous read – after all, the thought of a book which has to cover the business of making a grant application to the Danish Film Institute hardly sets the pulse racing, even if the subject is cycle racing. In reality, I was soon absorbed in the fascinating back-story to one of cycling's – and possibly sport's – most important documentaries.
Fotheringham has made an excellent job of tracking down and interviewing the surviving main players, including cyclists Ole Ritter, Francesco Moser, Freddy Maertins and Roger de Vlaeminck. Jørgen Leth himself makes a substantial contribution to the book.
In the end, it made me want to watch the film again (and 'Stars and Watercarriers' for good measure), which has to be taken as a sign that Mr Fotheringham has done a great job.
Fascinating both as an insight into the making of 'A Sunday in Hell' and the state of professional cycling of the era
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Sunday in Hell, by William Fotheringham
Size tested: Paperback
Tell us what the product is for
From the back cover:
The Paris-Roubaix Classic. 273 kilometres of torment across the bone-crunching pavé of northern France.
In 1976 the celebrated Danish film director, Jørgen Leth, embarked on an ambitious project to capture the spirit of this spectacular and cruel one-day race. The resulting film, A Sunday in Hell, has become the most admired cycling documentary of all time, and its revolutionary camera and sound techniques have forever changed the way the sport is viewed on screen.
The film centres around legends including Eddie Merkx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Freddie Maertens and Francesco Moser, capturing not just their experiences from the saddle, but also the mood of a nation and its relationship with the most punishing of the Spring Classics.
Sunday in Hell looks at the men, the method and the places behind the film. It observes the creativity of Leth and his collaborators, explores the lives of riders such as unlikely winner Marc Demeyer and revisits locations which have changed little to this day.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Published 29th March 2018, Hardcover.
£16.99 about par for the course for a hardback book.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
An engaging insight into the making of the film 'A Sunday in Hell'; well researched and interesting to read.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your overall score
There was no guarantee that a book about the funding and shooting of a film was going to be an exciting read, just because it happened to involve a bicycle race, but actually, Sunday in Hell is rather wonderful.
About the tester
I usually ride: Cannondale CAAD10 My best bike is: Tomassini Prestige
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: A few times a week I would class myself as: Experienced
I regularly do the following types of riding: touring, sportives, general fitness riding, mountain biking