Scene from Bicycle Dreams.
Bicycle Dreams (2009)
Directed by Stephen Auerbach
* * *
Robert Browning is credited with the line that goes “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” As most nostrums go, this is one that’s easier to repeat than to circumscribe. We say it, nod knowingly, and move on to the next topic without asking the logical and crucial follow up: How much should the reach exceed the grasp? Bicycle Dreams is a film that’s about individuals testing their limits. When it’s over it practically demands that we consider our own.
This documentary from Stephen Auerbach takes us inside the most insane of all extreme sports: the Race Across America (RAAM) bicycle endurance test. Extreme sports are all about deprivation, pain, and trail by fire, but RAAM is a special category of madness. The goal is deceptively simple: ride from a West Coast starting point—San Diego in this account of the 2005 contest—and get to Atlantic City in fewer than ten days. To complete the 3,051-mile journey, one must ride more than 300 miles per day, a pace that means you have to average 12.9 mph in the course of a twenty-four-hour day. Sleep for six hours and you have to average 17.2 mph. For sake of comparison, the famed Tour de France covers 2,300 miles, but its riders get three weeks to finish, complete with rest days.
The 2005 winner (who also won in ’04, ’07, and ’08) was Jure Robič of Slovenia, who claims to have slept a total of eight hours in the 9 days, 8 hours, and 48 minutes it took him to finish. When we see him at the end, we believe it. It’s not a sentient human being who claims the prize, rather an automaton wrapped in meat—his other senses have shut down. I give away nothing in revealing the outcome. This film isn’t about who wins; it’s about how we conceptualize humanity, mortality, and the things that have value. Auerbach shows us riders who literally pedal in their sleep, who hallucinate regularly, and whose bodies either fail them or transcend what we think of as human biology. In some ways it’s a philosophy film. What is a human being? Is there a point beyond which an individual devolves into a lower form of life? What does one think about when normal brain functions shut down? Is it still thinking at all? On a more mundane level it makes us think about less-noble things: What’s the difference between me and the sort of person who would attempt this? Are these people heroic or just plain nuts? What could possibly be worth such pain?
It’s not easy to film this most solitary of solitary pursuits, and Auerbach doesn’t always succeed. There are a few too many gratuitous shots with a single rider lost amidst a grandiose landscape with philosophical voice-overs suggestive of Koyaanisqatsi on wheels. In like fashion there are several contrived dramas, and the film’s central tragedy—which I will not reveal—is foreshadowed to the point of predictability. How much you will appreciate the overall cinematography depends largely upon your tolerance for camera lenses aimed through spinning tire spokes. At 104 minutes, it might have made a tighter one-hour film.
These reservations aside, Bicycle Dreams is thought-provoking to the point where you will ask yourself the follow-up question that Browning ignored. Many, but not all, of the RAAM athletes spoke of how the experience was worth it. You will find yourself contemplating the same. Do we want to find our limits? What toll would we pay to experience that? If we do touch the limit, what is left to do? If not our limits, for what would we pay a high price to discover? What are our values? Bicycle Dreams isn’t the finest piece of documentary filmmaking we’ve ever seen, but it’s worth a rental, especially if you view it with a bunch of friends. The discussions that ensue will test your intellect, though we recommend you rest your body in a comfy chair as you do so.