Stephen Auerbach's documentary follows participants in the 2005 Race Across America (RAAM), and although the race is also open to 2, 4 and 8-Person teams, he concentrates on the efforts of a handful of cyclists from the solo field whose efforts are on such an epic scale that they make our sportive heroics look like a pootle to the shops.
The race runs from San Diego on the Pacific coast to Atlantic City on the continent's eastern seaboard and has been called the world's toughest sporting event, the boggling statistics that appear along the bottom of the screen at the start of the film certainly seem to support that; the worlds longest human-powered race, 3051.7 miles, 110,000 ft of elevation (that's about 4 Mount Everests), the winner riding an average of 375 miles a day, typically finishing in 8 or 9 days with sleep an unnecessary luxury. As of 2005, 288 cyclists had attempted the solo RAAM, tellingly almost half of those failed. This film adds the human meat to those figurative bones.
Commentary is not from an overall narrator but via snippets of pre-race musings with a selection of competitors (a broad range of riders and experience from rookies through multi-RAAM finishers to previous winners), organisers, coaches and journalists and as the film progresses from on-road footage of riders and their support-crew. The various insights into the endurance, pain, effort and psychology needed to compete in the event, and the inspirations, desires and dreams voiced by the competitors manage not to come across as cheesy, or of the "motivational poster" kind, but instead offers a brief but real understanding as to why these riders want to push and punish themselves across the country.
Initially the task to face the enormity of the land as the whole continent stretches out in front of the racers, and the film responds with artistic shots of cyclists looking very small in the landscape on a very very long straight road, or grinding up an unending hill. As the riders forge across the country the miles ridden in relation to the lack of sleep are truly staggering and highlights the difference between the front-runners and the rest, the first rider to quit does so after only 40 hours when the 107 degree heat of the desert exhausts him, a time where the leaders haven't even stopped for their first sleep. Frightening.
About halfway through the film the landscape becomes less of a backdrop as the focus shifts towards the personal. This is prompted by an event, and I don't want to give the story away here, that happens on Day 5 which completely changes the aspect of the race. The film flips to record the introspective as riders have to come to terms with the incident and its soul-searching aftermath on top of having to deal with the fatigue and stress of sleep-deprevation and being on the bike solidly for days on end.
At this point the skills of the support crews come to the fore as riders stretch their physical and psychological limits and they become increasingly dependant on their helpers in the following van. An essential part of surviving RAAM the support-crew has to know when to shout at their rider to keep pedalling, playing inspirational music through the loudspeakers strapped to the roof (east-european folk music anyone?), or when to use gentle coercion to get them to the various time-stations on time to avoid disqualification, having the foresight to make them rest, or simply dragging them off the bike for their own safety. Exercising diplomacy to deal with their tiredness and hissy-fits, bringing riders back from their hallucinations to reality, adapting bikes and equipment to make life more comfortable, such as gaffer-taping a neck-pillow to a rider to hold their head up, and in some cases making sure they stay alive by seeking much needed professional medical attention.
This is a truly gripping film, with more drama in 8 days than an entire Tour De France. Simply letting the participants and the pictures tell the story puts the viewer right there by the side of the road, sometimes in the gutter, riding the rollercoaster of emotional and physical ups and downs with the riders. I'm not normally a fan of cycling films, my attention tends to waver part way through as I'd rather be riding than watching, but Bicycle Dreams is riveting, possibly because it's less about bikes and more about people. It's a dramatic human drama with bikes simply and literally being the vehicles for hope, pain, disillusionment, despair, happiness, effort, and as the title suggests, dreams. It's an impressive, inspirational, and yet also deeply sad film, and I'd happily sit a non-cyclist in front of this, although it might enforce the impression that we're all completely mad.
Running time: 107 mins
Price: $19.99 + $8.99 p&p (price shown at top of review appx at current exchange rate)
Exhausting and rewarding to watch, although not as exhausting or rewarding as riding across America
road.cc test report
Make and model: AuerFilms Bicycle Dreams DVD
Size tested: n/a
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
"They are seekers, madmen and angels hell bent on riding across America on a bicycle in less than ten days"
Hmmmm, that's not how I'd put it, a bit too much rhetoric for such a film.
I didn't get bored at any point, in fact I watched it three times.
Uncomfortable viewing at times.
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
Had us glued to the screen.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
The sense of being right there in the midst of it all, the human emotion, the nice views.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes, although 'enjoy' may not be the right word.
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
About the tester
Age: 42 Height: 180cm Weight: 74Kg
I usually ride: a variety My best bike is: My best bike is: Enigma steel road bike
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: As much as I can I would class myself as: Experienced
I regularly do the following types of riding: road, cyclo-cross and mountainbike just riding around, sometimes fast, sometimes with lots of stops for cake. Mountainbike and cyclo-cross racing, the odd evening road crit. Far too much singlespeed for my own good