An inspiring human Race Across America
This year, 2011, marks the 30th anniversary run of the Race Across America (RAAM), a grueling bicycle endurance race that finds only the toughest and craziest cyclists eager to risk their physical health and their psychological stamina on this 3,000-mile trek from California to a destination somewhere along the East Coast (generally somewhere between Maryland and New York). In 2005, director Stephen Auerbach and a determined crew set out to document the race from San Diego to Atlantic City, riding as hard as the participants in order to tell the stories of the mad men and women willing to submit to this ultimate challenge.
As a four-time marathon finisher, I thought I had some sense of what it takes to push the mind and body past ordinary limits, but after talking with an ultramarathon runner (events in which runners cross distances up to 100 miles at a time), I realized I was doing little more than jogging around the block. RAAM will likely leave most cyclists with the same feeling. Unlike the Tour de France, the event is not broken up into shorter time trials; it is one-long ride with stops determined only by the rider and his team, which usually follows close behind. The aim is to cover the 3,000 miles in less than 10 days, guaranteeing a daily pace of more than 300 miles. That means riders must fight cramps, road conditions, weather and sometimes their own team which, like the riders themselves, struggle with concerns of health versus time constraints.
Auerbach’s film captures the stories of several key performers from 2005, and not all of them were able or willing to finish that year’s race. The drama, or more accurately, the reality on display here exceeds anything the Real Housewives or the Survivor franchises could imagine in their wildest dreams. The personal stakes are higher because the goal or the prize is worth far more than money or instant fame. It is about testing one’s own limits and how participants are able to maintain their humanity in the process.
Bicycle Dreams delves into the international appeal of the sport, spotlighting racers from Slovenia (front runner Jure Robic), France (AIDS researcher Patrick Autissier) and England (road warrior Chris Hopkinson), but spends just as much time digging past nationality, spending time with female cyclist Cat Berge and Bob Breedlove, an inevitable fan favorite. The 50-something Breedlove, a successful surgeon and devoted father of four, becomes the human face of all that an endurance race like this seeks to achieve. All the dedication to training and preparation should not take anything, any of the important moments away from the pursuit of being the best person possible. Winning isn’t everything or the only thing. Ultimately, Bob Breedlove would say that winning just means you lived and enjoyed every moment of the experience.
And the audience gets to see exactly how that plays out over the course of this 3,000-mile journey, multiple journeys in fact. Life and death hang in the balance for each and every rider. After sleepless days and nights, a split-second could send them off the road or into oncoming traffic. Breathing difficulties could be something to ride through or a sign of clots or double pneumonia. Cramps and hallucinations loom the longer one stays out in the fatigue-inducing heat. But, to finish puts riders in an elite grouping; there have been less than 200 finishers, although riders with multiple finishes like five-timer Breedlove.
In the end though, Bicycle Dreams isn’t about a cycling race at all. It is a stirring and inspiring document of the never-ending human race where, much like here, there is only one final destination.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi