What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Goes to the Movies: Until the Wheels Come Off

The Race Across America (RAAM) fascinates and repels at the same time. An epic event launched in 1982, the route currently runs from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland, a distance of roughly 4,800 kms (3,000 miles). The race is not divided into stages but rather it is up to individual racers or team members how far they will ride each day, checking in at 55 stations along the way. It puts extraordinary demands on participants, whether riders or support crew, and this is superbly shown in a recent documentary, “Until the Wheels Come Off.”

John Tarlton is what you would expect a Silicon Valley real estate tycoon to look like and it probably helps to be a dynamic Type A person to take on something as arduous as RAAM. Having completed the race in 2014 before the time cutoff, the film is about his return to the race in 2019, better prepared and aiming for a podium finish in the 50-60 solo male rider class. As someone with a family history of cancer, he will ride to draw attention to the Stanford University Cancer Center’s work and raise funds for it, and his support crew consists of a youthful and enthusiastic group, primarily of friends but including including his daughter, two sons and, in spite of initial skepticism, his wife, Jenny Dearborn. John Tarlton comes across as a very likeable person and it is easy to see why the group comes together for him. But RAAM is hard and the massage therapists laughs when she says her first response on being offered the chance to sit in a van driving cross-country for several weeks was “No.” But she ends up there anyway. To give one the idea of what it takes to assist a solo RAAM rider, the support crew for Team Tarlton consists of 16 people in four vehicles, including media specialists.


John Tarlton and Jenny Dearborn

In his previous RAAM, Tarlton’s crew chief was an ex-military type who was not along in 2019 and it is a bit of foreshadowing when getting ready for the start at Oceanside there is some joking about who the crew chief actually is since RAAM organizers needed a name and it seems that the first available crew member was put down. Given the logistical demands of a long race, from caring for the rider to navigating to organizing crew shifts and ensuring food and sleep arrangements for all, there is a need for clear communication and one senses that, for all the enthusiasm, this might be somewhat lacking. Jenny Dearborn, who is listed also as the producer of the video, is like a Greek chorus throughout, expressing her concern about the problems unfolding but leaving the crew to manage as best as they can.

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John Tarlton in Colorado

After a hectic start in Oceanside, the race begins in earnest, crossing some amazing landscapes. Tarlton is clearly in excellent condition but while the lack of coordination in the backup group starts to tell he makes good time across the mountains that mark the first big obstacle of RAAM. But there is a lack of focus still—at one point John Tarlton discusses diesel fuel availability with the crew for one of the vehicles, something that he should not concern himself about as maintaining concentration on the race is vital. With so many friends around, Jenny Dearborn comments that the crew is being too nice to John, letting him rest longer than he should be allowed as the clocks ticks on. The scenery is striking, albeit daunting, but the next segment is where things get very hard. The race is held in June and summer heat is exhausting for all concerned but beginning to cause particular hardship to the cyclist, who is clearly suffering. This marks a turning point in the video as the crew becomes better organized as the race progresses while John Tarlton starts to disintegrate. Sitting in a van for hours on end as the cyclist ahead of you makes progress across the nation at the rate of 22 km/h can’t be that easy either and it is a tribute to Team Tarlton that nobody packed it in and left.

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John Tarlton and support vehicle

It is noted that he has gone from being a parent figure, an employer, an adult to becoming more like a baby who is not really able to care for himself. Spoon-fed at times by one of the crew while another massages him and another helps him on and off the bike, he begins to show signs of sleep deprivation. Some of these, like imagining he is somehow in the world of Harry Potter from listening to audio books underway, are funny, but others, such as wandering across the lane towards oncoming traffic less so. This was the cause of RAAM’s first fatality in 2003 and Jenny Dearborn reflects on the fact that she thinks of what widowhood would be like. The Tarlton children are impressively well-spoken and supportive but it must be hard for a family to watch so much suffering self-inflicted by a loved one.

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John Tarlton – RAAM

John Tarlton more or less disappears as a person and just becomes a near-comatose guy on a bike coming in for pit stops and the crew has to find ways to keep him going. RAAM solo riders drop out of the race at a high rate but those who persevere are made of harder stuff. Jure Robič, who won the race five times, would get to the point where his crew would lock the doors of their van to avoid being attacked by him. And so Tarlton, who seems more interested in how his crew is managing than himself, keeps on keeping on, through the endless straight demoralizing roads of Kansas and on towards Appalachia and his goal.

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RAAM route

In Oceanside as the participants are introduced it is noted that only some 300 solo riders have completed the race in its history. “Until the Wheels Come Off” is a glimpse into what it takes to undertake a race that makes the Tour de France look like a sybaritic pleasure ride.

“Until the Wheels Come Off,” documentary, 1 hr 37 minutes
Gravitas Productions
Released April 2022
Available on streaming video at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/untilthewheelscomeoff

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