The back roads of West Virginia provide the setting for the most memorable scene in Stephen Auerbach's documentary, "Race Across America." Competitor David Haase — a bike shop owner from Wisconsin and RAAM first-timer — suffers a race-ending crack. Haase's sunken eyes and ethereal figure are testaments to the event's physical demands. But it's Haase's emotional condition that provides a glimpse of the psychological torture dished out by RAAM. Fewer than 200 miles remain in Haase's 3000-mile journey, yet he cannot fathom pushing his bike one more foot. He is mentally broken and utterly defeated, and his misery is caught on camera for all to see.
A handful of grueling, yet distinctly human moments grace Auerbach's film, which chronicles the epic race from San Diego to Atlantic City. Tracy McKay, describes his crotch as "looking like hamburger." Randy Van Zee, a 52-year old Iowan, loses the use of his neck and back muscles, yet continues riding while wearing a jury-rigged back brace to keep his head elevated. Lovable underdog James "Rocket" Rosar endures botched directions, mechanical failures and severe exhaustion.
While painful to watch, these scenes encapsulate the soul of one of the cycling world's toughest and most misunderstood events. RAAM is portrayed as an intense physical and mental challenge contested by a handful of average joes striving for a similar thankless, unrewarded goal — to do the impossible and finish.
"I wanted to honor what these men and women were doing," said Auerbach. "The idea of challenge and endurance and toughness and all the things that matter in life is what this race embodied to me."
The film does cover the highlights from the event, including Slovakian Juré Robic's controversial allegations of cheating against American Mike Trevino in the solo category, and the tight battle between Team Action Sports and Team Vail in the four man competition. But to the average viewer, if not the RAAM junkie, the film could exist without one mention of the results and still succeed — in fact, it might actually enhance the film.
Considering that Auerbach set out to capture the race armed with a piddly $28,000 budget and a ragtag team of cameramen he found on craigslist.com, the film is a success. In. January, NBC aired it as a special feature. In February, it earned top honors at the Boulder International Film Festival.
"Congratulations, you've qualified for the Race Across America!" said John Marino as he shook my hand in Twentynine Palms, CA. Immediately I began to wonder, could I could do RAAM. Could I make the mental, emotional, and physical leap from a 500-mile race to a 3,000 event. Could I actually do it?
When the 23rd Race Across America was about to begin eleven rookies stood next to a handful of veterans. Each asked the same question that I had: Could I do it? Each was committed to finishing the race but also clearly anxious about whether that was possible.
When Stephen Auerbach filmed the epic endurance event, the Race Across America, he put the rookie quest at the center of the feature film that he created. I saw the film at the Boulder International Film Festival and thought that it was one of the best RAAM films ever made, reminiscent of Jim Lampley’s ABC broadcasts.
The Boulder Film Festival agreed: Race Across America won the Grand Jury Prize. Only three of the nearly 100 films in the Festival won awards of this magnitude.
By placing rookies at the center of the film Auerbach comes closer that any other filmmaker to capturing all the pain, fatigue, tension and mental confusion that is RAAM.
At the front of the race Auerbach shows the battle between Jure Robic and Mike Trevino. The camera caught Robic screaming at his crew. One night Trevino talked passionately about the beauty of riding under the stars. And the film portrays all the ugliness of the allegations by Robic's crew that Trevino was cheating.
Covering the team division Auerbach spends considerable time on Team Vail. Brett Malin, racing in RAAM 2003 for Vail, was killed by a truck. A very powerful and elegiac scene evokes what the accident might have been like. And Auerbach skillfully probes and portrays the depths of the Vail racers and crew in 2004.
The fast racing scenes between Team Action Sports and Team Vail, battling for first, are the best cycling action in the movie. Scenes of team racers riding flat out are intercut with the deterioration of the rookies.
I asked Auerbach how he learned so much about RAAM.
"Jim Lampley has stated that for him one of the most memorable of all sporting events that he has been involved in was the Race Across America. Lampley has covered more major sports events than just about any journalist on earth and for him to tip his hat to RAAM in this way took my breath away. Immediately, I had to know more!"
Auerbach continued "Next, I screened the ABC coverage of the first RAAM. I was overwhelmed by the challenge, the characters and the myth of Lon Haldeman. He appeared from nowhere to become a Babe Ruth-ian figure."
"My final inspiration was RAAM Champion Allen Larsen. He and I had dozens of phone conversations until we finally met in Redondo Beach for lunch one afternoon. Through Allen I began to explore the heart of a true cycling warrior."
When a rider calls excitedly "I qualified for RAAM — can I do it?" my answer will always be "I don’t know." But "if you really want to understand the Race Across America, you must watch Stephen Auerbach’s film."