A cycling classic


“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.

Peter Yates

It’s probabaly fair to say that the film helped popularize cycling in the United States when most Americans considered the bicycle as only a clunky toy that they had used as kids.
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.

Greg LeMond

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.

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6 Comments

Filed under Americana, Cool stuff, Cycling across America, History

6 responses to “A cycling classic

  1. You do know that the events in the Little 500 are based on history and that rider plays a cameo as an announcer?

  2. Steve,
    I do know that the Little 500 is a real race. Who plays the cameo as an announcer?
    Jim

  3. John Vandevelde

    One of the most poignant scenes I recall from the film occurs when “Dave” (the son/Italian-wanna-be), having been rejected by his own father, is road-racing against a team of Italian professionals who are visiting town. Dave is living his dream as he passes them, but the Italians catch up and reject him in the cruelest of ways, by jamming their tire pump into his spokes as they overtake him on the road. Poor Dave!
    Thankfully, Dave had the loyalty of his “cutter” friends and the unconditional love of his Mom to help him finally find a way to break away.
    Fabulous movie on many levels!
    –John

  4. Dave Blase, a friend of the screenwriter, played the cameo as announcer. In real life, Blase rode 139 out of the 200 laps in 1962. They changed the rules afterwards to prevent a recurrence. He also had an Italian obsession and rode for the “Cutters” team. It is not coincidence that both Blase and the movie protaganist are both named “Dave.” Go to Google and search for “dave blase little 500.” This is a story almost as rich as the Yates one and I imagine you are a better researcher than I am. I hope you’ll share…

    • Steve,
      Thanks for the tip. I learn something every day doing this blog. I’ve done a bit of research on Dave Blase and his epic 1962 ride in the Little 500. A new blog post is in the works. Hope to post it tomorrow. Thanks again.
      Jim

  5. This would have to be my all-time favourite film. It has everything I need in a film, drama, comedy and of course, bikes. I often think of Dave riding through the forest (before he punctures) when I am riding in the hills where I live. Definitely a classic. One of my favourite moments “Refund! Refund!”

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