Breaking Away is the best film about cycling – ever

Breaking Away is a 1979 film, written by Steve Tesich (who won the Oscar for best screenplay) and directed by Peter Yates, the British director best known for Bullitt – iconic, San Francisco set crime thriller with the second best car chase sequence ever. (The best? The French Connection).

Breaking Away is sent in Bloomington, Indiana and tells the story of four teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, focussing on their growing pains and camaraderie. They are ‘cutters’ so called because their families were stone-cutters, working class folk employed in the local quarry (now a swimming hole where the boys go to play). They are pitted against the middle class kids and students from the local college, which of course was built from the stone their parents cut.

So far, so small town America and so predictable.

But what sets the film apart and turns it into a true work of art is cycling, and specifically the efforts of Dave, the lead character played by Dennis Christopher, to embrace all things cycling and by extension Italian culture as the boys build up to entering the local cycle race – held on a track looking very similar to Herne Hill (if it was in Indiana). Dave is bike obsessed and has taken to speaking Italian, cycling everywhere, obsessively cleaning his bike and wearing his Campagnolo cap on backwards all the time which enrages his father, a used car salesman who hopes that Dave will join the business. His mother, meanwhile, just loves her son and wants to see him fulfil his dreams; in his passion her sad unfulfilled, loveless marriage is cruelly exposed. Dave’s friend, played by the great Dennis Quaid (the only one of the actors to find later fame) is the local tough boy, hoping to stay true to his working class roots while Dave’s other passion is an unattainable girl whose boyfriend is (of course) the star football jock.

There are some superb cycling sequences – at one point Dave drafts behind an articulated lorry on the highway, in another a group of Italian pro cyclists come to town and he races against them with (un) predictable results. And in the key final sequence the 4 friends enter the race wearing T shirts bearing the word ‘Cutters’- as finally they hold true to everything they once stood for and take pride in their roots.

Do they win? Does Dave become a used car salesman like his Dad? Does he get the girl? Do his parents find their missing marital spark? Does he turn pro and succumb to EPO? You’ll have to watch the film.

This is not a film specifically about cycling (and all the better for not being so). Rather, it is a film about growing up, about friendship, about love and unrequited love, about having a dream and chasing it, about Campagnolo and all things Italian (there is no sight nor mention of Shimano or, whisper it, SRAM). But it is about the joy that cycling and the love of cycling brings.

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