THIS WEEK THE LOSER REVIEWS: THE PROGRAM

(Dedicato a Peanut Vardaros)

Supposedly — I can’t recall where I read this — to prepare for the leading role in Stephen Frears’s The Program (2015), Ben Foster dabbled with illicit pharmaceutical “boosting.” He claimed he needed to experience something of the mania of legendary mono-castrato Lance Armstrong, whom he plays in the pitcher. To the best of my knowledge, Foster has never revealed which banned PED [performance-enhancing drug] he ingested or injected for his experiment in Method Doping. My guess is Nutella, the fatty, sugary, chocolaty, hazelnutty goop* that European endurance athletes have wished they could abuse since its invention in 1964. I say this because Foster, along with the rest of the peloton-impersonators in Frears’s biopic, look fat enough to crush their bicycles.

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Mr Bean, hammering toward Cannes

As a rider I was out of the sport long before the arrival of such super-pharmacology as EPO, Actovegin, and Recombinant Human Growth Hormone. But we did have amphetamine, cortisone, and Chimay; and one heard rumors of a heroin-based “cocktail” that was thought to be popular among French riders. Most of these products — trafficked at training tables by nefarious soigneurs who had, if you were lucky, rudimentary backgrounds in veterinary medicine — were not only useless but uncontrollably dangerous. In 1967, the great English single-day specialist Tom Simpson fatally lapsed into a psychedelic trance on the slopes of Mont Ventoux while stewed on a mixture of cocaine and strychnine. Yes, strychnine! (Come to think of it, Tom looked a bit like a rat.)

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Tom Simpson, c. 1965

What’s most worrying about this pitcher isn’t, however, the extreme lengths to which its leading man went to recreate the volatile stupidity of a disgraced sporting hero. Rather, it’s the conspicuous reappearence of rear-projection footage from a much finer cycling pitcher, Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007). My readers will perhaps recall Rowan Atkinson, tongue in the wind, stomping on the pedals of a purloined shopping bike on his way to Cannes. En route, he overtakes and comprehensively drops an echelon of professional racers in the French countryside. Now, while I’m not sure I could prove this without frame-by-frame analysis, I’m fairly certain that in one scene — in which Armstrong famously berates Filippo Simeoni in medias race for having blurted the-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth in an Italian court — Mr Bean himself can be detected in the background, mumbling.


*This is from Wikipedia’s terrifying entry for Nutella. “Nutella contains 10.5 percent of saturated fat and 58% of processed sugar by weight. A two-tablespoon (37 gram) serving of Nutella contains 200 calories including 99 calories from 11 grams of fat (3.5g of which are saturated) and 80 calories from 21 grams of sugar. The spread also contains 15 mg of sodium and 2g of protein per serving (for reference a Canadian serving size is 1 tablespoon or 19 grams).[28][29]


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