Iowa may not seem like the most logical destination for a film premiere, but when the movie in question is about one of the Hawkeye State’s longest-running sociocultural landmarks, it’s a good fit. Such was the reason and case that I found myself in Sioux City a bit over a month ago, just a couple miles from the Nebraska border, for the debut of A Million Spokes, an engaging independent documentary charting the annual RAGBRAI marathon.
RAGBRAI is an acronym for the Register’s Great Annual Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, since the event is sponsored by the Des Moines Register, and has been ever since it was first thrown together in late August of 1973, as part of a friendly challenge between feature writer/copy editor John Karras, a biking enthusiast, and Don Kaul, the newspaper’s Washington, D.C. bureau columnist. What began in modest fashion as an invited ride-along for Register readers has evolved into a sprawling seven-day event beginning the last week of July along the western border of the state and ending a week later along the eastern border. (Participants typically dip the back wheel of their bike in the Missouri River upon the event’s kick-off, and then celebrate completion by dipping their front tire in the Mississippi River.) The route changes every year, with overnight camping locations rotating among dozens of small towns, many of which understandably see a good portion of their burgh’s businesses enjoy a big boom in sales, since the event routinely draws over 10,000 week-long riders (some from as far away as Australia) and 1,500 or so “day bikers.”
Directed by Varda Hardy and produced by Talia Rodriguez-Shakur and Ken Gorrell, A Million Spokes focuses on a handful of bicyclists, each of whom has a different motivation for taking part in the ride. Some are first-time participants drawn to the sociability of the event, others are hardcore biking enthusiasts (and even competitors) who enjoy RAGBRAI as a sort of late summer tune-up. The challenges facing independent film — of effectively and economically locating a given niche or submarket, and the audiences that are most likely to respond to that sort of storytelling — are myriad, but A Million Spokes, while playing a bit for the heartstrings, admirably encompasses a more robust humanity than a simple glance at its logline might indicate.
Ostensibly a feel-good tale of community spirit and familial bonding, the film does feature some moving narrative strands, including a young, widowed participant riding for his recently deceased wife, with whom he had enjoyed the trip the previous year. But there is also a subject who suffers from severe alcohol poisoning (visiting all sorts of assorted small town watering holes is a big tradition for many riders), and one of the couples in the movie, who good-naturedly joke about their widening personal differences during filming, have since split up, we come to learn in a coda. The movie, in other words, is by turns touching, funny, poignant and sad (like life, really), as well as just flatly curious about its backdrop.
In a lunchtime conversation with the Santa Monica-based Hardy — who was brought on to the project after Rodriguez-Shakur secured an exclusive term-contract window for film rights, and contacted her — the filmmaker confesses no great passion for cycling, per se. Instead, she comes off as someone for whom curiosity is just second-nature, even turning a little flip-cam on her lunchmates to query them about tangentially related matters. It’s that innate trait that helps power A Million Spokes; the level of thought and care that went into capturing the actual RAGBRAI ride, and conveying its experiential essence, rivals that of a production with a hundred times more means and man hours. For the filmmakers, it was important to be able to give viewers various and sundry engaging personalities with whom to identify along the trip, but also a sense of something a lot of us miss these days, in the hustle and bustle of our ever-connected, digital-era lives — of existing within nature and passing through a space not as a silent, distracted traveler, but someone actively doing, in this case quite literally, the legwork of locomotion. To achieve this tack, they commissioned the construction of a special rig which allowed for them to place a cameraman alongside bikers on the route, and also deployed mounted cameras in choice fashion. Finally, certain participants were also given mini-cameras and asked to record their thoughts along the trek, which are then woven artfully into the chronological narrative.
The film’s Friday evening premiere — at a local commercial theater near the Stoney Creek Inn, where an equally convivial dinner reception was held afterward — was a nice affair, attended by several of the film’s subjects, as well as participants and media covering the impending RAGBRAI 2010 launch. The Sioux City humidity — a throwback to childhood for this Southern-raised writer — dampened the enthusiasm not one bit, but instead just made it a bit thicker. Plans for A Million Spokes‘ distribution are currently up in the air, though several heartland-centric film competitions, in addition to other festivals, remain in the mix as possibilities. Stay tuned for updates. For more information on RAGBRAI, meanwhile, click here.