10 May 2020
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
‘A Sunday In Hell’ or ‘En Forårsdag i Helvede’ is a classic documentary film by Danish film maker Jørgen Leth about the greatest/toughest annual one-day cycling race: the ‘hell of the north’, Paris Roubaix. The film documents the 1976 edition of the race. Through the study of the team preparations and the race itself of two teams (Molteni and Brooklyn) led each by rivals Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck.
The film starts with a three minute long scene of a bike mechanic servicing and cleaning a bike. Resetting the gears, checking the brakes, cleaning the chain. All without commentary. The only soundtrack being the sounds of the bike’s freewheel ticks and derailleur jockey-wheels. This minimalist fly-on-the-wall style is repeated throughout the film interspersed with more narration driven documentary.
For a fan of this Spring Classics race, watching this film is usually an annual tradition before the actual race in early April. For for a new viewer not well versed in cycling racing and history this film is probably one of the the best introductions to understanding one-day racing and the legends of that golden age of classic cycling. It’s visually stunning due to it being shot in glorious film and because of the slow clarity of the photography, the 1970’s fashion, the colour palets of the clothes and the team cars.
The race itself is thrilling and the imagery of the dusty pavé in slow motion is both so set that time but also timeless.