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A Master At The Tour
With his thick waves of hair and bold glasses, Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth still cuts an imposing image. And at the age of 78, he remains one of the quiet giants of the Tour de France.
Cycling fans, of course know Leth for his historic cycling films such as Stars and Watercarriers, or his epic film of the Paris-Roubaix classic, A Sunday in Hell. After all, what self-respecting aficionado has not discussed that awe-inspiring move, when Italy’s Francesco Moser suddenly enters the camera frame and elbows past French riders, Raymond Poulidor and Jean-Pierre Danguillaume, with a grace that defies the rugged cobbles that they are on?
Words & images: James Startt
From: Huy, Belgium
Leth’s experimentary documentary style, however, stretches far beyond the sport of cycling. He is championed around the world in film festivals and museums. And his stripped-down, minimal style is frequently cited as a major influence on established directors like Lars Van Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Leth even jokes, “Thomas (director of Festen) still says to me, ‘Well master, we are still working in your way!'”
Music fans also know Leth, for his writings and photographs of jazz giants such as Bud Powell or Duke Ellington that he produced when he was a jazz critic in Copenhagen in the 1950’s and 1960’s. And still others know Leth for the books of poetry that he has written.
Leth defines the Renaissance Man. Yet, for more than 30 years, he has been enamored with the Tour de France, and has covered it as an expert commentator for Danish television.
“He’s the reason why I am in cycling,” says Brian Nygaard, the manager of the Leopard-Trek team in 2011 and press officer of the Orica-Green Edge team at this year’s Tour. “I was a film buff as a student, and every Friday afternoon I would go the film archives where I was studying, and make them put on an old 35mm film of his. I just went through them all until I stumbled on his cycling documentaries. Then I heard him commentating the World Championships in 1995 and I was hooked. His aesthetic perspective on the sport is unique. He sees things that other people don’t see. He sees the poetry in cycling.”
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“Cycling is very special,” Leth says, after commentating on stage two. “When I was a kid, my uncle was head of the Aarhus velodrome, the second-largest city in Denmark. Every week, I went to watch the races. I saw all of the races. I saw the greats of the time. I saw Reginold Harris. I saw Arie Van Vliet. I saw all of the mythical names of the sprint. I was just a little boy with my autograph book.”
Evidently, those early images of cycling resonated a lifetime, as the sport remained a recurring motif over Leth’s career. “What attracts me to cycling is the same thing that attracts me to jazz, the pursuit of excellence,” says Leth. “It’s (i.e. cycling) very much like jazz in that way. I like excellence. I am attracted to people that are willing to pay with their lives to give us greatness. I’ve written about other arts as well. I’ve written about dance as well. I am just very attracted to the pursuit of excellence.”
Now covering his 34th Tour, Leth has lost no enthusiasm for La Grande Boucle, as the great French race is often called. “The Tour still speaks to me very much. Otherwise I wouldn’t come. I’m a very busy man,” says Leth. “I’m still writing books and making films. I just did a book on my heroes. It focuses on 48 of my heroes from ballet, jazz, poetry and sports. Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk are in there. Andy Warhol is there. And Reginold Harris, Fausto Coppi and Luis Ocaña are there too.”
Leth says that he has followed this year’s Tour with great enthusiasm. “There have been so many races within the race. Stage 2 (to Zeeland) was amazing. So much drama! And did you see the faces at the finish?”
And it goes without saying that Leth is looking forward to stage four, where the Tour cyclists will attack six sections of cobblestones, some which are used in Paris-Roubaix race that he so loves. “I think it’s great that there are cobbles in the Tour. The cobbles always provide surprises!”
Check in daily as Startt brings a different personality to Aérogramme.