California filmmaker Stephen Auerbach had his work cut out for him when he decided to make a documentary about the Race Across America four years ago. Although well-known in elite biking circles, RAAM may be the most undercovered and punishing sporting event around -- a 3,000-mile race from the Pacific to the Atlantic, on minimal sleep and in conditions ranging from brain-frying desert heat to bone-chilling mountain passes.
Although it's been around for almost thirty years, fewer than 200 riders have ever completed the solo event. Half drop out every year, exhausted and broken from the demands of trying to cover a third more distance than the Tour de France in half the time. The survivors report a tendency to hallucinate, a result of sleep deprivation. Just the logistics of trying to tag along with cyclists strung out along the 3,000-mile course, some trailing the leaders by days and entire states, would drive most camera crews around the bend.
Add to that the challenges of getting funding to complete the project -- and the tragic death of one of the film's principal figures five days into the race, in a bizarre accident on a lonely road in southern Colorado. Yet somehow Auerbach, like the RAAM finishers, managed to get the job done. He shot 450 hours of film and took years to edit it into Bicycle Dreams, which is now making the festival circuit, including the Breckenridge Festival of Film, June 11-14.
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The result captures a good deal of the grit and poetry of RAAM, wedding images of ultracyclists laboring across vast stretches of American byroads while blathering about why they push their bodies into uncharted territories of pain. They're not always coherent, given the nature of the race, yet the scenes of mad Slovenian Jure Robic (four-time RAAM winner and apparently impervious to sleep) and his challengers trying to fight off mental and physical breakdowns make for an intriguing drama.
The film's most haunting scenes, though, feature Dr. Bob Breedlove -- at 53, the race's oldest solo competitor, whose graciousness and love of the sport shines through. An orthopedic surgeon from Iowa, Breedlove was killed on June 23, 2005, when he collided with a pickup truck driven by a fifteen-year-old unlicensed driver on State Highway 12 west of Trinidad. The rough cut of the film I saw suggests that Breedlove had a heart attack and veered into oncoming traffic, but the known facts surrounding the incident are not quite so conclusive.
Breedlove was the second fatality in RAAM's history. The race was almost canceled at that point; instead, the others finished, with some not even being told about the accident until several days later. And Auerbach ended up with a pretty interesting study of athletes at the edge of endurance -- and sometimes beyond.