Film Review: The Race Across America (RAAM) was meant to be the ultimate long-distance bike race but spawned a number of imitators—the Race Around Ireland, the Race Around Austria, the Race Across Europe—which followed the same format. This means individual and team categories with support crews. But that clearly was too easy as we see the emergence of races over insane distance that leave the cyclists unsupported and entirely to their own devices. “Inspired to Ride” is a film about the inaugural TransAm Bicycle Race in 2014, an unsupported race across America for “the crazies,” as one contestant notes with approval. It is quite a story.
The rules of the TransAm Bicycle Race are simple enough. Each rider is equipped with a GPS that shows his or her location, letting the organizers and other competitors know who is where. There is no support allowed; no stages; no checkpoints; no drafting. The path followed is Adventure Cycling’s Trans America Bicycle Trail, a route developed for the American Bicentennial in 1976, that runs from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virgnia. It is 6,800 km (4,200 miles) in length and crosses 10 states.
The film focuses primarily on two riders. British ultracycling legend Mike Hall rode the mountain bike ultradistance Tour Divide, from the Canadian border to the Mexican one in 2011, and finished 11th in spite of a knee injury. He went on to win the inaugural World Cycle Race in 2012, racing around the world in only 91 days, and going on to win the 2013 Tour Divide. That same year he organized the Transcontinental Race, another unsupported event that crosses year with a different route each year and quickly attracts its 350 rider limit. In 2016 Hall won the Tour Divide again.
The other rider highlighted is Juliana Buhring, who owns the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the world by a female cyclist. She accomplished this in 2012, two years after learning to ride a bicycle at the age of 30. She had a bruising childhood, growing up in a cult environment, and is proud of her self-sufficiency. Crashing on the second day of the TransAm, she shrugs off her bruised knee and painful ribs and heads east at a remarkable pace. She casually explains that she really needs five days to get warmed up properly. She typically rides 14-16 hours each day of the event.
There is a funny subplot featuring two Italians who Juliana Buhrling is obsessed with beating to the finish. One of them cannot believe that a woman who has only ridden for such a short time cannot possibly be going faster than him, a racer with years of experience, and he accuses her of cheating somehow. Needless to say, she has the personality that thrives on this kind of outrage.
The 45 starters in Oregon are a mixed group of riders, with people who could not afford the steep expense of RAAM, or wanted to accomplish something special. The greatest challenger to Mike Hall is Canadian Jason Lane, who is delighted that he can do this and travel around the world, “pretending to be an athlete and not having to grow up.” Lane appears to ride with minimal sleep, stopping at post offices where he has mailed the ingredients for his liquid diet. Jovial actor Brian Steele is 6 foot 7 inches tall and specializes in playing monster roles for Hollywood.
The Trans America Trail does not appear to go through towns of any significance for the entire stretch. The cyclists face rain as they ride along the Pacific Coast, then turn inland to cross mountains. There is sleet and snow although the race is in June. Horrific winds greet the riders as they come into the Great Plains and make their snail-like progress across Kansas. Unlike RAAM, the cyclists need to arrange their own accommodations and find supplies or mechanical help. This often means sleeping at the side of the road and eating, well, pretty much anything they can get. Considering the scale of the enterprise, nobody is carrying all that much on their bike. Jason Lane says that the time for arranging food and shelter is much more time-consuming than he had expected. As the race unfolds the cyclists become gaunt and a lot less coherent than in Oregon. Mike Hall cannot recall what day it is—but then the organizers in their van can’t either.
The filmmakers give us little vignettes of others on the road—a Vietnam war veteran on his bike; an Australian lady riding the Trans America Trail to honour the memory of Martin Luther King; two friends, one from Oregon, the other from Virginia, just riding the Trail for fun, with no plan; a bartender proud of his smoking and drinking and honest approach to life.
There is much of the kindness of strangers. A little bike shop in tiny Newton, Kansas, is open at all hours to help the riders; a lady forces money on Juliana Buhrling to buy food; a pair of enthusiasts in a small town offer Brian Steele a free dinner, which he is happy to accept. But even help from friendly people is not enough to overcome health or mechanical issues or just total exhaustion. In the end 25 of the starters make it to Yorktown. Mike Hall, unsurprisingly, has led almost from the first day and rolls up to the monument that marks the end of the race a full day ahead of his closest competitor. It has taken him 17 days and 16 hours. The 25th rider comes in at 116 days.
Sadly, the road can take its toll. The Australian lady doing her tour never reached the end, becoming another traffic fatality in America. And Mike Hall himself died in a collision in March 2017 after having completed 5,000 kms of the 5,500 km Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia and holding second place at the time.
“Inspired to Ride” shows what determined people can accomplish and the joy of each finisher as they come into Yorktown, no matter when, is infectious. The filmmakers have chosen to feature not only the scenic delights of the route but also the rather grim flatlands, with their endless winds and straight roads, to show the diversity of the race landscape. The riders are in their world during the TransAm and it is worth joining them through this well-made documentary.
“Inspired to Ride” is 128 minutes in length and may be purchased as a digital download at https://watch.inspiredtoride.it/. The website also has information about how to host a screening of the film, along with a selection of merchandise.
Learn more about the TransAm Bicycle Race at: https://transambikerace.com/
When not enjoying watching someone else ride the climb to Vesuvius in Virginia, Leslie Reissner may be found being a kindly stranger at www.tindonkey.com.