THE STORY – The incredible story of the greatest cycling race in history, the 1989 Tour de France, and how American Greg LeMond faced down betrayal, childhood sexual abuse and death, completing one of the most inspiring comebacks in history.
THE CAST – Greg LeMond, Kathy LeMond, Perico Delgado & Cyrille Guimard
THE TEAM – Alex Holmes (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
Let’s face it: most of us haven’t paid attention to the prestigious cycling Tour de France competition since Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, which ultimately stripped him of all his titles. Director Alex Holmes seems to know that, but he manages to grab people’s attention with a tale of success, hardship, and redemption from the first and only American to win the sporting event in “The Last Rider.”
What starts as a conventional athlete profile on Greg LeMond leads to uncovering sexual abuse trauma, surviving a harrowing accident, and beating all the odds to get back on top of the sport. Many of the same notes you see other sports documentaries hit are here as well, leading to a lack of creativity in its telling, but compelling interviews and archive footage give us a fuller understanding of several players in the 1980s Tour de France landscape.
Like many other athletes, LeMond fell in love with cycling at a young age and excelled early on. After winning several junior competitions, he set his eyes on European events until he was eventually signed onto a team. Talking head interviews with racer and coach Cyrille Guimard quickly and efficiently give us an onslaught of information about the sport and how LeMond’s career took off, making it far easier to follow for those unfamiliar with it.
However, once he entered the big leagues, exciting and shocking moments are aplenty in the documentary. Cycling is as much of a team sport as an individual one, and LeMond explains how he sacrificed what could have been his first Tour de France victory for celebrated rider Bernard Hinault one year. But, when it was time for Hinault to pay it forward the following year, his tune changed, and LeMond felt the sharp twangs of betrayal. It’s here that audiences learn about LeMond’s past as a sexual abuse survivor. And the documentary no longer ends up being just about the highs of his career. Cycling was his path to feeling good about himself, he said, and when Hinault betrayed him, it was the first time he let himself go back to those dark times, which resulted in poor cycling times. LeMond gives us a truly intimate look at a horrifying time in his life, letting us in more than some other athletes might be willing when it comes to trauma. His vulnerability, as well as heart-wrenching interviews with his wife, Kathy, pulls people in and gets them to root even more for him, which makes his earning the 1986 title even sweeter.
The film’s most dramatic and contentious moments come following a 1987 hunting accident in which he was shot and seriously injured. Once again, the cyclist had to prove himself and get back to form to compete in the 1989 race. However, Holmes ups the drama with two other competitors to make this a classic who-is-going-to-win race until the final minute. There’s Laurent Fignon, himself a celebrated rider, who is painted as a classic villain in the documentary with a fiery personality; and then there’s Pedro Delgado, the 1988 defending champion who tried to make a comeback of his own, despite a less-than-stellar start to the race. These three keep the drama high during the documentary’s finale, with well-edited archive footage showing LeMond and Fignon going head-to-head to wear the yellow shirt synonymous with the race and Delgado attempting to come out on top with a surprise win.
Interestingly enough, the documentary analyzes all of Fignon’s antics and constantly paints him in such a bad light, even though he was playing fairly and competing to win (although he did have many nasty comments about his competitors in the press). It makes the dedication to Fignon at the end of the film seem not as sincere after all the attacks that were made against the two-time Tour de France winner. But, when it comes to LeMond’s setbacks in the 1989 race, during which the American took several steps back any time Fignon overtook him in a race, the film gives him a pass and doesn’t press him on those moments. In one instance, Fignon overtook LeMond’s position in a race, and Delgado and another rider slowed down so LeMond could push ahead to regain his spot. But LeMond doesn’t do anything with the advantage he was given. Why didn’t he go after Fignon and give him a taste of his own medicine? Why did he just accept these defeats? Those are just some of the questions the filmmakers should have asked him to gain a deeper perspective from LeMond, but it seemed like they didn’t want to ruffle any feathers with their champion rider.
“The Last Rider” might not make anyone get out and start training for the Tour de France, but it will get them invested in a series of competitions that stand out in the cycling world. Even though the film skirts away from asking hard-hitting questions or delivering the story in a more creative way, LeMond is a worthy athlete to get his own documentary as he battled hell and back to get to the first-place podium three times in France.