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Review: Race Across the Sky

It's the race that got Lance Armstrong back into professional cycling. The one that taught him a lesson you'd never think you'd hear the seven-time Tour de France champion say -- that it's OK not to win a race.

Wait. That's Lance Armstrong saying it's OK not to win?

You bet.

And it was the Leadville Trail 100 which taught him that lesson while rekindling his passion to race bikes again.

Lance was only part of the story in the documentary "Race Across the Sky" which had a one-time nation-wide viewing last night. (Although there were hints there may be future nation-wide showings.) The documentary takes viewers through the 100-mile mountain bike race in Leadville, Colo. -- from the founders to the town to the elite races to the everyday stories. This is one of the toughest endurance challenges a person can enter. And the film does an amazing job of capturing the event.

It was 2008 when Lance asked his coach Chris Carmichael about the mountain bike race, infamous in those cycling circles. He decided to try it, though wading deep in retirement and keeping his fitness through marathon running. Lance finished second to six-time champion Dave Wiens and actually felt OK with second. The difficulty and uncertainty of the course led to (a) want to return in 2009 and (b) got those competitive cycling juices flowing again. The rest is a continuation of Tour de France and pro cycling history.

The movie describes the race itself, begun in 1994 by Ken Chlouber after the mine that employed the majority of the town closed. Looking for something to help the economy, he began this mountain bike race. There already was a Leadville 100 mile trail run. He added the mountain bike. And the endurance franchise if you will in Leadville, Colo., 10,200 feet above sea level, has grown ever since.

Dave Wiens is the star of the race, regardless of if he wins, comes in second, comes in lasts or DNFs. A native of Colorado and six-time winner, he gets a bit teary eyed when addressing the thousands gathered for the pre-race briefing. The race, he says, is not about him, or about Lance Armstrong or any of the other professional and elite riders. It's about that group of regular, amateur athletes trying to conquer their own demons on a brutal course.

And the course is brutal. Already beginning in low altitude, the trail includes 14,000 feet of climbing and all kinds of surfaces. 

Perhaps the most unique feature of the race, the one that keeps it common, is the out-and-back course design. After the turnaround, which is at the top of a climb that ends at 12,600 feet above sea-level, riders begin their descent and 50-mile journey back to Leadville, passing others who are just beginning their climb. Riders aren't just on the same course as Lance and Dave and the best of the best -- they actually get to see them, albeit for a brief second. 

The August race brings all kinds of weather to the Colorado mountain area and riders start in 39-degree temperatures, race through sun, rain and sleet.

While showing how the pro race develops and cutting into interviews with the elite riders, the documentary also does a great job of weaving in the stories of the rest of the pack, without getting too sappy of sentimental. You don't need to create drama when you talk to a woman pushing her bike up a climb, describing how she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the 1980s and how she hasn't let that disease stop her, smiling even as she makes quips about the altitude. The film also goes into detail about one woman who in 2008 was hit by a car while out for a bike ride and suffered a broken back, concussion and a litany of other injuries. But there she was, back on her bike while recovering and she and her husband were tackling the Leadville 100 because, well, they could.

There is a 12-hour time limit to finish the race and a four-hour time limit to get to the first check point. It's emotional to watch race personnel jump in front of riders and pull them from the course. Some are ready to hang it up, especially if they've endured a series of flat tires. Others break down in tears, seeing their dreams click away on the clock but determined to return next year.

The documentary itself was sandwiched with a panel discussion featuring Ken Clouber, Dave Wiens and Lance Armstrong. As entertaining as the movie was, the discussions were equally inspiring, informative and entertaining, particularly the exchange about Lance's flat tire with seven miles to go in the race. Lance of course decided to ride on the flat into town, and won the race anyway.

Race founder Ken Chlouber said the race is about digging deep and offered his basic motto about the event:

"You're better than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can."

The Leadville 100 is about more than conquering mountain passes, but about discovering who you are, how strong you are, and what possibilities lie inside you.

Whether you want to mountain bike the toughest course possible or tackle some other challenge, the movie leaves you inspired to get down to the hard work it takes not just to achieve dreams but to discover who you are.

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