Movie Review, Title Bicycle Dreams, Studio , Rating 3.0,
Bicycle Dreams is a documentary about the Race Across America (RAAM), an annual beyond-insane bicycle race across the U.S. Few ride it, those who finish do it in less than two weeks, and ride almost the entire time. It is only a matter of time before all participants begin to hallucinate, and some have been injured and killed because of it.
I was riding bikes with some of my fellow San Fernando Valley Bicycle Club denizens last fall, when one of them mentioned a documentary film entitled Bicycle Dreams, about the Race Across America (RAAM), a thirty year old semi-organized bicycle race starting in San Diego, California, and finishing in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Rather than like many endurance bicycle events across the country, where participation is the emphasis, and no prizes are awarded nor recognition given, this is an actual race, spanning approximately 3,000 miles with a 12 day time limit, where the winner has routinely finished in around 9 days. The race is run on open roads with no signage, protection or food and water provided; each rider provides their own support car and volunteers to shepherd them across America.
The event and the documentary both intrigued me, so I sprung for the DVD, and sat down to watch it with some anticipation. As the film wound to its conclusion (so to speak), I had become simply appalled. Having ridden 200 miles in a day a few widely separated times, I thought I would appreciate a race where riders must average around 300 miles a day for 10 consecutive days. But like other extreme sports, this one puts such strains on the body, first in preparing for it, and then during the actual event, that it is monstrously unhealthy.
First for the physical well-being of the participant, as, like marathons and ironman triathlons, the training and racing is so extreme that it breaks down the body rather than making it more healthy, and second in the extreme demands on the time of the individual; while they are training, there is clearly no time in their lives for anything but work and working out. Third, riders typically ride their bicycles for 22 hours a day to make the time limit; heat, head-winds, and hard climbs make much of the ride even more demanding, such that after a few days, all riders become exhausted, sleep-deprived, become more and more mentally unbalanced, and in the later days, hallucinate regularly.
Over the 30 years of the annual Race Across America, there have been many accidents involving moving vehicles and riders, including two fatalities and several maimed or paralyzed riders. Watching this documentary, which featured many scenes of the rider’s support team exhorting them not to give up, while the riders are incoherent and irrational, riders who literally rode off the side of the road in a daze and crashed, made we wonder how I could make myself cheer on someone I cared about to get back on that bike while they were hallucinating, crashing, and an instant away from wandering for that brief mad second to the left and into the path of a vehicle moving at high speed, knowing that it had happened many times before to other riders, always when they were in such a state. This documentary was filmed during one of the years in which a rider was killed. The news of his death was withheld from one of the riders by his support team, as they were worried it might demotivate him. I did not find much to admire in the behavior of any of the featured support teams.
The entire event seems an organized death wish, well beyond the tough endurance event I had imagined, an event I thought would be just that much tougher than my own more limited 200 mile days, imagined as just incrementally more exhausting. RAAM takes its riders well across the line into certain madness, and the certainty of it, that is, all of the participants experience many hours of hallucinatory episodes, where they are not in full possession of their mental faculties, makes me, rather than laudatory of the tremendous physical effort, unutterably appalled that the participants would deliberately seek the certainty of temporary madness, and accept the very high risk of self-destruction and its devastating aftermath for their loved ones, and that their support teams blithely cheer them on, oftentimes talking their riders out of quitting when their riders sense their own near incapacitation, episodically recognizing that they in their current mental states are a danger to themselves.
On a final note, Bicycle Dreams was, as documentaries go, uneven; focusing on several riders helped to bring out some of the problems mentioned above, and the very dilemma of self-destructiveness is not shied away from; each rider had an interesting story, but the documentary did not finish their stories, coming to an abrupt end when the winner completed the race and was crowned the victor.