Pass the Remote: Great cycling movies, fact and fiction   

"Tour de France: Unchained" on Netflix spotlights the 2022 race. (Courtesy A.S.O./Charly Lopez)

One of the most arduous endurance athletic events, the Tour de France, will test its participants to the limits July 1-23. Plagued by doping scandals, the more than century-old bike race begins this year in Balboa, Spain and concludes at the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Many from the Bay Area’s thriving biking community will be watching the action.  

This week, Pass the Remote shines some light on the good (and bad) aspects of cycling, with a discussion of the new movie “The Last Rider,” the Netflix series “Tour de France: Unchained” and a look at other favorite bike-themed flicks.  

“The Last Rider” takes viewers through the early, sometimes traumatic, years in competitive cyclist Greg LeMond’s life and career. (Courtesy of Greg LeMond)

A nostalgic sentiment prevails throughout director Alex Holmes’ “The Last Rider,” a portrait of American rider Greg LeMond and the demons he chased on the saddle and off. The three-time Tour winner’s story is a testament to his personal and professional resiliency. A fierce cycling competitor, he also survived sex-abuse and a near-fatal hunting accident.

Holmes does a bang-up job of telling LeMond’s inspirational story and introducing colorful people who surrounded him, including the late French cyclist Laurent Fignon. LeMond’s nail-biting attempt to overpower Fignon and the favored cyclist Pedro Delgado in the 1989 Tour makes up the final third of Holmes’ rousing documentary. As the film suggests, that Tour represented the beginning of what came to be known as the doping era; LeMond, who won in 1986, 1989 and 1990, is one of the few riders who have spoken out against hard-to-detect performance enhancing drugs, which were commonly used by Tour participants. “The Last Rider” opens Friday at the Smith Rafael Center. 

For a more contemporary view of the Tour, Netflix’s eight-parter “Tour de France: Unchained” depicts the exciting 2022 competition. Pumped with action, it counters critics’ claims that watching the Tour is boring. 

For a full view of one of the sport’s most notorious figures, Lance Armstong, who fended off questions that he was doping throughout his career and retaliated against his accusers, ESPN’s nearly three-and-a-half-hour documentary “Lance” fascinates from beginning to end, featuring director Marina Zenovich’s shrewd interviews with the disgraced athlete. As most know, he staunchly denied he was using performance-enhancing drugs until he finally fessed up on TV with Oprah Winfrey. While much has been written and said about the fallen idol and inspirational cancer survivor, there’s much in the film that probes Armstrong’s mindset, showing a man still at war with himself. In addition,  Zenovich provides a crisp, clear overview of the Tour, demystifying the competition in a way others haven’t been able to do. “Lance” is currently available on Disney+.

Uninterested in the Tour? Check out these cycling films, four of my favorites. Most can be rented to stream on Amazon Prime.  

“The Triplets of Belleville”: Sylvain Chomet’s amusing and spirited 2003 animated confection is about the kidnapping of a cyclist and a grandmother’s determined efforts to save him. It’s a classic.  

“Breaking Away”: Need a little pick me up? Director Peter Yates and screenwriter Steve Tesich’s 1979 coming-of-age delight is an uplifting charmer. Dennis Christopher plays a cycling-obsessed young man who hangs out with his friends (a young Dennis Quaid portrays one of them) and dreams big about being a competitor while spinning his wheels over a potential relationship.  

“Premium Rush”: For a jolt of goofy energy and some mad urban cycling moves, check out David Koepp’s highly efficient thriller starring a game Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a Manhattan bike messenger who tangles with one bad cop (Michael Shannon, chewing up every bit of scenery around him.) Turn off your brain and just have fun. (On Hulu and free on Tubi) 

“Wadjda”: Could riding a bike be considered an act of liberation? It’s partly that and more – as a mode of transportation – for the Saudi girl at the center of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s crowd pleaser from 2012.  

“American Flyers”: As predictable as they come, John Badham’s guilty pleasure finds two at-odds brothers (Kevin Costner and David Marshall Grant) connecting over a Colorado road race dubbed “The Hell of the West.” But in true weeper fashion, the journey to get there takes another turn.

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