“I know I-tai food when I hear it! It’s all them ‘eenie’ foods… zucchini… and linguine… and fettuccine. I want some American food, dammit! I want French fries!”
— The Dad, played by Paul Dooley, in the film Breaking Away
As one who grew up in the Midwest with a blue-collar dad who didn’t always agree with my aspirations in life, I’ve long appreciated the 1979 film Breaking Away as a coming-of-age story that ends with a reconciliation between father and son.
Later in life, as I became involved with bicycling, I appreciated the comedy film as a classic of the sport, one in which the derided underdogs triumph in the end.
Set in Bloomington, Ind., Breaking Away is the tale of four aimless local teenagers, disparaging called “cutters” because many Bloomington residents worked as stone cutters in the limestone quarries of south-central Indiana.
The four — prodded by a 19-year-old local cyclist who aspires to race in Italy and comically takes on the mannerisms and idiom of an Italian racer, much to the chagrin of his exasperated father — decide to enter a bicycle relay race called the Little 500 against teams of privileged out-of-towners who attend Indiana University.
The director and producer of that film, British-born Peter Yates, died on Sunday in London of heart failure at age 81.
Yates was probably best known for the 1968 film Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen, and its high-speed car chase through San Francisco with McQueen behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang.
But Breaking Away has captured the affections of cyclists.
In 1976, an organization called Bike Centennial — now called the Adventure Cycling Association — celebrated the 200th birthday of the United States by mapping out a backroads bicycle route between Reedsport, Ore., and Yorktown, Va., and urged people to use the route to see America by bike. More than 2,000 cyclists rode the entire length of that cross-country route in 1976.
The year in which Breaking Away came out, 1979, was also the year that American cyclist Greg LeMond was starting to make a name for himself on the international racing circuit. He rode that year for the U.S. Cycling Federation’s national team in the Junior World Championships in Argentina, where he won gold, silver and bronze medals. LeMond went on to win the Tour de France in 1986, 1989 and 1990. He was the first American ever to win Le Tour.
So as a small tribute to Peter Yates, I offer a couple of Breaking Away videos. The first is a trailer for the film, and the second is of actor Daniel Stern, who played Cyril, one of the Bloomington “townies,” reflecting on the significance of the film.