Thursday 28 January 2010

Movie Night: “Race Across the Sky–the Leadville Trail 100"

The documentary about the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race that premiered in November finally reached the Great White North for two showings, January 27 and February 7. Although I don’t know much about mountain biking, I thought it would be interesting to attend since there are not a lot of films about cycling of any kind and reviews I had read sounded pretty positive.

I have been to Leadville, Colorado, and recall its Wild West ambiance and the fact that I had a splitting headache. The town is 10,152 feet (3094 m) above sea level, so the air is pretty thin. The town once had a population of 40,000 during the great silver boom of the 1880s but as the mines closed, the community withered.

One of those miners, Ken Chlouber, thought that Leadville had more to offer than underground tunnels and pits and in 1983 he organized the first Leadville Trail 100 race, which starts in the town and proceeds on asphalt, dirt roads, fire roads, and singletrack trails out for 50 miles, where the racers turn around and head back in the opposite direction. In that first race, there were 45 cyclists, of whom 10 actually finished. In 2009, there were 1400 starters.

In 2008, Lance Armstrong, coming out of retirement, participated in the race and came second to Dave Wiens, who was clocking his sixth consecutive win and who set a record time that year. This film, “Race Across the Sky,” is the account of the 2009 race, in which Armstrong, fresh from his third place position at the Tour de France, comes back looking for something better than second place.

The race, from the briefing session in the big gymnasium, to the volunteers on the course, has the feel of a big folk festival. But the coverage by the filmmakers is anything but amateur as they use footage from motorbikes and a helicopter, as well as little interviews with participants, to tell the story. The Main Event, of course, is the race between Dave, the local hero, and Lance, but the other stories are great. There is a woman participating just over a year after a car going 60 mph hit her on a training ride. She had terrible injuries, including a broken back, torn gluteus maximus, and a destroyed ACL in her knee. Her husband, still upset at the memory of the crash, talked about her getting onto the trainer wearing a body cast and brace, and here she was, riding one of the toughest marathon bike races in the United States. Another racer was a woman who had been diagnosed with MS twenty years ago. A lighter note was provided by the cyclist who had ridden all 15 prior editions of the race on the same mountain bike, with the same first-generation helmet, and even with the same front tire!

The filmmakers used a great piece of animation to show the course and illustrate the difficult areas. Then it was off to the races as everyone assembled at 5:50 a.m. for what must have been an ice-cold start. Very quickly, a small group of elite riders formed at the front and these seven would animate the race for the rest of the day.

I had always thought that a mountain bike race would be extremely technical but looking at this race I could see how a road racer would do well. There are some long, flat sections, both paved and unpaved, and if you could work it properly you could gain a lot of time. One of the riders, an Olympic mountain biker, was using drop handlebars to obviously take advantage of these sections of road and get aero. Lance Armstrong quickly showed his tactical sense and worked with another rider to set a blistering pace at the front. Since many of the climbs were fairly open, given Lance’s ascending skills it was obvious to me that he would continue to gain time on the pure mountain bike racers and this was the case. He even rode through the feed zone like a Tour de France champ, grabbing a musette and eating on the fly. And for comic relief, we had the opportunity to see him attempt to fix a flat.  I do have to point out that he rides the entire muddy, rainy, slippery course wearing white shoes.

In spite of knowing what the outcome of the race would be, I found it exciting to watch this impressive event, rolling through wonderful scenery. Parts of the course are simply brutal–one section called the Pipeline follows a right-of-way and seems to be made of rocks and dirt stacked vertically. Remember, cyclists have to descend this on the way out, and climb it on the way back. To add to the fun, the slower participants had the opportunity to enjoy a hail storm as they climbed the highest mountain, which gets you to almost 13,000 feet. At no point is the course under 9,000 feet.

The Leadville Trail 100 is just one of a series of races, including running events as well as cycling ones, that are now taking place in this little Colorado town. I enjoyed the film and would recommend it as an entertaining and, yes, perhaps inspirational, addition to the bike film genre.


Lily on the Road said...

Too bad the cinema is so far for me, I'll wait until the DVD comes out and I'll watch it while spinning on the new Trek!! I picked it up last night during the storm, so I've named it "Blizzard".

Sprocketboy said...

Have fun with the new bike! Athough I don't think there will be much riding in Ottawa today or tomorrow. It was definitely Jens Factor HC on the ride in to work this morning.