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Juliet shares the story about one woman's journey through, what is arguably, the toughest cycle race in the world.

Yesterday some of the strongest female endurance athletes in the world set off on one of the most gruelling cycle races on the calendar. I was surprised that it hadn't been more widely publicised. Sure, there's no prize money, but having witnessed from afar the incredible physical and mental strength of these athletes, I found it hard to believe that more people would not be interested in their progress.

In 2011, I attended the London leg of the Bicycle Film Festival to fuel my thirst for all things two wheeled. I noticed that there was a programme of films entitled 'for women, by women' and whilst I subsequently can't figure out why solely women would want to watch these films, suffice to say it was enough to pique my interest..

Eschewing the overpriced popcorn in favour of a sneaky beer, I settled into my comfortable seat, eager to see which women's films had circled the globe on this international tour. The programme included several shorts which were agreeable enough but when the feature length documentary commenced I was immediately glued to the screen, goggle eyed in amazement.

Caroline van den Bulk

 

'Labour Of Love' is a film about Canadian Ultra Cyclist, Caroline van den Bulk's bid to become the first Canadian woman to cross the finish line in the Race Across America, the world's toughest cycling endurance race. The Race Across America, or RAAM for short, is an staggeringly difficult race to complete; unlike the Tour De France, there are no stages at all, it's simply an all out mission to reach the finish line in Annapolis, Maryland. From the start in Oceanside, California, participants pedal over 3000 miles, crossing 12 states, and climbing over 170,000 vertical feet; more than three times the altitude flown by commercial jetliners and almost four times the altitude of Mount Everest. But the most incredible part of all this is the timescale - solo racers have a maximum of 12 days to complete the race, with the fastest finishing in just over eight days. Once the clock starts, it doesn't stop, so riders must pedal between 250 and 350 miles a day, sacrificing sleep in order to make it to checkpoints before the cut off point.

The film shows the incredible hardships suffered by Caroline as she battles to complete the race on time. I was in awe, staggered that this woman in her forties, who just nine years before hadn't even owned a bicycle, was willing to put her body and her mind through such hardships. Caroline pedals up and down mountains, across the desert plains and in the twelve days of the race, clocks up a meagre twelve hours sleep, eventually weaving slowly across the road as she becomes delirious and starts hallucinating.

We are introduced to her fantastic support team, headed up by her tough talking trainer, quite a character himself. A firm believer in keeping things natural, Caroline's race prep saw her performing endless sit ups, pull ups and crunches, hauling logs through snow, chopping trees, running and cycling. Her trainer's belief in her is touching, but during the race he has to dish out some tough love. One particularly heart wrenching scene shows him berating Caroline for being weak; but his aural assault works and Caroline gets back on her bike. It's clear his harsh words are only meant to help but it's still uncomfortable viewing.

Another painful scene both for Caroline and the viewer comes towards the end of the film, when we learn that she has been disqualified for not making a checkpoint on time. Caroline's decision to carry on regardless show's this woman's remarkable commitment and determination.

I was impressed by Caroline's strength and tenacity; it was plain to see that Caroline has a staggeringly high tolerance for pain and a highly competitive nature, but I was still amazed by her desire to participate in such an extreme event. It certainly didn't look like fun when she was dealing with agonising saddle sores, being barked at by her trainer and existing on minuscule amounts of sleep. I asked Caroline how she remembered the race; was it in a positive light? She told me:

“Actually, I have very mixed feelings about the race; generally positive, but not so positive when it comes to the race organizers.... It was very hard on body and mind. But my spirit was always there! Mind over body!”

Caroline van den Bulk

 

These days Caroline is taking a sabbatical from racing. But it doesn't sound like this 'superwoman' has slowed down much:

“I'm taking a break from racing. RAAM is very, very expensive and serious training takes more time than a full time job! But I'm still training, not only cycling, but also running, swimming, white water canoeing and climbing. Also I'm coaching and I'm a volunteer firefighter here in Huntsville. And of course I work in my Muskoka Bicycle Pro Shop. My new website is coming soon too.”

Now in it's 31st year, this years Race Across America has just commenced in full, the women having set off yesterday, and the men setting off from Oceanside today (13th June, 2012). Follow the all the riders' progress at on the official Race Across America site and show them some love!

Labour Of Love is available on DVD from director, Virginia Hastings.

All photographs, courtesy of Bill Beck


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