I wasn’t sure what to expect when I dragged my friend Shannon to see see Race Across the Sky, the documentary about the Leadville Trail 100 race (okay not dragged- she volunteered). I knew next to nothing about the Race, just that Levi Leipheimer (I’m sure I’m never going to learn how to spell his name) had won it this year and that it was a mountain bike race! But all I really needed to know was that it was a documentary about cycling, two of my favorite things! And it didn’t disappoint.
To start with, the scenery was beautiful and the cinematography was stunning. Then, the KILLER course makes for awesome race drama. The fact that it’s a round trip course makes it even more brutal, as anything that was “easy” on the way out gets them on the way back.
Then, I was really struck by how much it resembled a road race. I don’t know much about mountain bike racing and was surprised how much the tactics were similar to road racing (at least in this race)- the breakaways, working together to draft, attacking to develop gaps, etc. In addition, I had always thought of mountain biking as a solitary thing. And I guess by the time many reach the finish line, it’s down to small groups. But for much of the race, it seemed like the majority of the racers were riding as one big group.
However, the best part of the documentary, no question, were the two different plot lines playing out during the documentary. One plot line was the race- those racing for first place. The other was the racer vs. the race, the racer vs. himself, the racer vs. the clock – the human, individual stories of the ordinary people who ride this race to prove something, to heal, to overcome. For most who did this race, it wasn’t about anything other than how cycling can heal and change lives.
My friend remarked at how many of the riders trained to heal – how the intense suffering of training helped to calm the mind, sort the mind, free the mind. I think many riders, even in the pro circuit, use cycling for healing and, once they got into cycling and realized how it helped them mentally, got addicted to the effects intense cycling has and weren’t able to/interested in stopping! This is why I think so many cyclists do what they do. Pro cyclists have to be passionate about what cycling stands for, what it means to them, or how it helps them, because they sure aren’t doing it for the money or job security! When I read interviews with cyclists, the one thing that stands out to me is how much many of them marvel at the fact that they get *paid to do something they love. And that’s one thing that makes cycling, for me, so great to watch and follow. It’s the passion that is necessary to succeed as a cyclist that keeps drawing me back in.
There is one scene in the movie which illustrates this point brilliantly. As one rider is inching his way painfully up the Powerline climb, pushing his bike as though it weighs 100 pounds, he suddenly veers over to the side, lays his bike down, and sits down on the side of the trail with his head in his hands. I was embarrassed that we were witnesses to his defeat and saddened that his journey was over. But then, he gets back on his feet and starts pushing his bike up the hill again! And I thought, wow, this is cycling. This is why this sport is so compelling for me. You can just feel his exhaustion and the strength and determination it took to get back on the bike again is what gives cycling its heart.
In the end, what sticks with you is the stories. Sure, the trail is epic, the struggling never-ending, the day LONG, but because the documentary focuses just as much attention on those who finish the race in 12+ hours as those who finish it in 6, those stories of how and why ordinary people push themselves to the brink of collapse just to finish a mountain bike race are what get carried home.