“It’s like pumping glue into your veins,” says Lynn (Tara Lee), a field doctor on the cycling team for Dominique (Louis Talpe). Dominique is a lifelong Domestique, a support rider in competitive cycling who is riding at the 1998 Tour de France. He’s on the last legs of his career. Doping is, of course, rampant, and Dominique is no exception — certainly not if he wants to keep up with the younger riders who threaten his future in the sport.

A future Dominique has paid for in blood, sweat and a lifestyle that eschews family and friends in search of athletic glory.

Kieron J. Walsh’s The Racer is an ingeniously intimate sports drama, where everything stems from questions of Dominique’s heart — physically and spiritually, with the former a ticking time bomb that hangs over the first few legs of the race (which were held in Ireland that year). Walsh films the heart problems that stem from doping with great terror. It’s indescribable. There’s the sense Dominique could go at any point in time — while he’s flirting with Lynn, working out with his longtime trainer, Sonny (Iain Glen) or even when he’s riding. Riding scenes are accompanied by an electronic score that beats, beats beats, never letting you forget that the tension isn’t necessarily in who will win but rather whether Dominique will even make it through alive.

Talpe is phenomenal as Dominique. He’s obsessive, difficult and ailing at a crossroads at which all athletes arrive. A younger, cockier Dominique was probably intolerable; he’s haunted by the understanding that everything he’s done might have been for naught and that his future is bleak. It’s a familiar archetype in sports movies. Talpe makes the character quiet, cool and sympathetic. The rest of the cast is similarly great.

Whether you like or have any knowledge of competitive cycling, a niche sport, is not a barrier to entry. Many only know about cycling through the filter of various scandals and famous figures. Although The Racer dips into the dark side of the sport for drama, it’s never about that. This isn’t a message film about doping or EPO. The controversies are taken on the level which they impact the characters, and not in an exploitative way. Truly and appropriately, the sequences where Dominique’s heart is having difficulty functioning are horrifying — as is his desire to push through it and the question of whether he can stop, even if he wants to. The Racer is a beautifully shot and superbly acted sports drama.