Race Across the Sky movie premiere

Pro cyclists play movie stars for a night

Event MC Dave Towle may have summed it up best when he called Levi Leipheimer’s ride at the 2010 Leadville 100 a “world championship of the human condition.”

It was a fitting tribute not only to Leipheimer’s record-breaking effort in the famed 100-mile mountain bike race, but also to all the others who suffered through the grueling out-and-back test of mettle, and the new documentary Race Across the Sky, which chronicles the 2010 race and debuted across North America Thursday night.

Towle and Leipheimer were part of a live pre-movie panel at Denver’s Paramount Theater that also included men’s second and fourth-place finishers Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Dave Wiens, women’s winner Rebecca Rusch, and legally blind endurance athlete Eric Weihenmayer, who completed the 2010 race on the back of a tandem mountain bike.

Roughly 2000 amped-up people watched the proceedings live at the Paramount, while thousand of others in 500 theaters across the U.S. viewed a live simulcast. The ‘live’ element gave the night a Warren Miller feel, but this film digs much deeper than a fall-off-the-chair lift blooper reel.

All the panel members were prominently featured in the film produced by Denver based production house Citizen Pictures, which for the second year in a row took on the daunting task of documenting what’s become arguably the world’s most famous mountain bike race.

Some may contend that the 2010 Race Across the Sky was too close a facsimile to the 2009 version, but that viewpoint misses the nuanced changes Citizen producers invoked to create an exceptional movie-going experience.

Gone was the wall-to-wall Bob Roll narration that occasionally bogged down in 2009. New was former U.S. Olympian Travis Brown, who rode the race a year ago, but had to sit out in 2010 because of a broken arm.

Brown’s misfortune was the movie’s gain, as he deftly stepped into the narrator’s role, giving timely, but not excessive insight into what might have been going through racers’ minds at each step of the long day in the saddle.

The true star of the show, though, is the race itself. And Citizen’s armada of cameras, including one carried by helicopter, did a phenomenal job of capturing the infinite vantage points.

One minute you’re so close to the pain-masked face of a suffering amateur rider that you can see the salt on their helmet strap. The next your stomach gets butterflies as you sail above the sun-splashed Rocky Mountains with a true bird’s-eye view.

It’s a total thrill ride — especially for anyone who’s ridden the race.

“When you’re on your bike your perspective is so narrow and self centered,” said Wiens, who won the race six years in a row, before finally being vanquished by Lance Armstrong in 2009. “Seeing the movie opens things up and gives you a real sense of the true magnitude of the event.”

Indeed, while the front-of-the-race action is compelling, it’s the film’s back-of-the-pack stories that elicit the deepest emotions: two friends riding in honor of a third who’s back home fighting brain cancer; a woman who uses cycling as therapy for a debilitating psychological disorder; a father and husband working his way through the recent passing of his young wife.

All these stories — and numerous others, some serious, some hysterical — serve as well-placed bridges between racing action.

And of course there’s plenty of that, highlighted by the battle between Leipheimer and Horgan-Kobelski. The pair crests the Columbine Mine climb together, then heads toward the endgame on the menacing Powerline ascent.

It’s an uphill slog that proves too tough for one rider — and one of Citizen’s camera-carrying motos, which comes to a dead stop a quarter of the way up and starts spewing a billowing plume of white smoke.

Fortunately another camera is there, and not a minute of action is missed. The same can be said for Race Across the Sky.

There will be an encore showing in theaters on Nov. 9. And the movie will subsequently be released on DVD. Learn more at www.raceacrossthesky.com

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