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Movie Review: Wired to Win

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Never in its 104-year history has the Tour de France been embroiled in so much controversy. Two major riders were ousted for doping, an entire nation stopped watching and one newspaper even penned a mock obituary.

Doping controversy aside, the Tour is still the most popular annual sporting event in the world: the live feed is broadcast from France TV to 170 countries around the world and every tear tens of millions of some of the world’s most enthusiastic fans line the Tour’s route; all of whom watch 20 teams of nine riders zoom past them over mountains, countryside’s and farmlands for over two thousand miles over three weeks.

If hitting a 95-mile and hour fastball is a monstrous achievement of athletic ability, then competing in the Tour de France is an almost incomprehensible feat of brainpower. When your brain says no, when your muscles ache, and when your body begins to shut down from the pain of riding 100 miles every day for a month, how do you continue to ride up the face of some of the tallest mountains in the world?

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Such queries were asked and answered by Wired to Win: Surviving the Tour de France, the current IMAX show at the California Science Center.

Wired to Win follows two riders during the 2003 tour as they deal with the psychology of defeat, success, pain, and, injury.

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Baden Cooke and Jimmy Casper, both riding for Française des jeux that year, had very different tours. While Cooke received the coveted green jersey, awarded to the best sprinter, Casper was forced to abandon the race due to an injury he received during a crash on Stage 1.

The movie was produced largely by an American crew. Why, then, did they not choose to focus on a sport more familiar to an American audience? “We chose the Tour de France,” said Bayley Silleck, Director, “to show how the human brain works because behind every great athlete is a great mind. [The Tour] has all the elements: a dramatic visual backdrop, and requires an enormous amount of that intangible thing we call willpower. It’s also a great metaphor for the brain’s perpetual power.”

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“Every few thousandths of a second,” Silleck continued, “your brain is making a decision on what to do and then sending out messages to the motor cortex and then to the muscles and nerves. There are a lot of competing influences in the rider’s brains at the Tour de France.”

The film itself is a cinematic feat. Cameras were mounted on steadicam rigs, cranes, trucks, cars, motorcycles and helicopters. All angles contributed to a stunning, and unparalleled depiction of the Tour’s 100th race; riders whiz past a glowing field of sun flowers, a group of riders work as one to scale the Alps. From start to finish, Wired took five years to complete.

Part of the beauty of watching the Tour on television, is feeling like you are a part of the tour. Cameramen hold on for dear life on the back of motorcycles that zip in and out of the action.

For Wired, though, they needed to be a bit more creative. In order to show the pained faces of the riders in stunning detail, the producers of the film installed an IMAX camera on the back of a redesigned BMW motorcycle, which was operated by remote control from inside a helicopter 200 miles above the fray. Six separate radio frequencies were required to operate the camera, as well as an intrepid motorcycle rider who knew not what he would be covering until minutes before the actual shot.

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“It was madness,” said motorcycle driver Patrice Diallo. “Trying to make a real documentary during a high-risk event…was by far the most complicated scenario of my life.”

The über-realistic action-shots, though, was just one part of the film. Wired explores the inner workings of the body by showing computer generated images of the human brain, spinal chord, and most every other part of our innards meant to give the viewer a glimpse into how our body works and reacts to adverse scenarios.

Narrated by Alfred Molina, we learned that the brain is capable of generating new nerve cells throughout our lives, not just in childhood. This plasticity enables the brain to adapt, to learn from the environment and from experience, allowing us to compensate for instances when we feel we are in danger, or in pain.

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In addition, as was the case with Casper’s crash, we learned that pain only exists in the brain. After an initial event, like falling from your bike at 35 MPH with riders and bikes piling on top of you on hard asphalt, your brain will send a signal down your spinal cord at 200 MPH where the rest of your body is alerted. It will then send an instantaneous reaction back to another part of the brain where you will react emotionally. The release of endorphins work to minimize the pain, as Casper experienced, staying in the Tour for another eight days, but will not make the pain go away. Ultimately, he was forced to abandon the race, the pain becoming too much of an obstacle.

Such brain activity was all illustrated by a seven-story computer generated brain that created a few new wrinkles in mine.

Fans of Lance Armstrong might be disappointed by the seven-time winner’s lack of face time. This was purposeful, said JoAnna Baldwin Mallory, Producer of the film. “We wanted to create a cohesive story where celebrity wasn’t what people expected when they walked into the theater.”

Still, Tour enthusiasts will not be disappointed by the film's footage that you might never see on Versus, the Tour’s American TV outlet.

Though the film is based on unwrapping the mystery of the brain, it is not reliant on science to tell the story. In the end, it is a tale of two riders who endure a race that commentator and Tour legend Phil Liggett once called “viciously cruel." Still, as the film unraveled, Wired's achievement may not be in the unprecedented shots of professional bikers performing unimaginable athletic feats, but in its end result: it managed to make science both interesting and relevant to the masses.

The Tour may be embroiled in a controversy that may have set it back years, especially coming off one of its highest points during the reign of Armstrong, but its inherent beauty and grandeur is something drugs can’t touch and something that was beautifully captured by Wired to Win.

Wired to Win: Surviving the Tour de France is now playing through December 31 at the California Science Center. More information here.

All photos courtesy the film makers