Some of my earliest understanding of the joys and challenges of sports cycling came from watching a movie.
Of course, I knew how to ride a bike, and had been doing so since I was in kindy, but the teenage American on the screen gave me a glimmering of what it meant to take it to the next level.
The scene when he rides behind a truck fanging down the freeway, using the slipstream as a shield while the truckie holds fingers out the window to show what speed he's doing (no Garmin in those days).
A meditative, moody moment in a garage as he trues a bicycle wheel, using arcane tools. His bizarre attempts to pretend he's Italian. His funny, skull-hugging cap with a seemingly useless peak.
That film, of course, was Breaking Away, and when I watched it again three decades later I was surprised by how much of it I remembered. Especially the incident when the real Italian pro cyclists make him crash. No wonder he starts pretending to be French after that.
Since getting back into cycling as an adult, I've had an eye for bicycle-related movies. Some of them have been all about the bike. In others, bicycles are just vehicles used to drive and amplify human drama – a bit like my life, really. Here are a few favourites.
Hell on Wheels
We've all watched the Tour on TV, but this fly-on-the-wall documentary of the Erik Zabel-led Telekom team of 2003 is a distinctly different experience. I love the ambient noise of bikes, without the incessant chatter of helicopter blades (and Paul and Phil). The dramatic use of slow-mo, focusing on the spectacle - Rolf Aldag's mouth in the shape of a supercharger inlet, sucking air as he storms around a time trial course. The heroic servings of pasta, the deep-tissue massages and the hours of languid recovery between batterings on the bike. It drags at times, but the final moments of completion and contemplation on the Champs-Elysees are well worth the journey.
The Flying Scotsman
Some would argue that this film is just a variation of the stereotypical feel-good British movie in which a central character dealing with economic hardship finds redemption in a brass band, or tap shoes, or male striptease. The drama is often overplayed, but what saves it for me is that some of the least believable aspects are true. Graham Obree really did use washing machine parts to build the bicycle he used to challenge the world hour record. And, even crazier, after coming up agonisingly short in his gruelling attempt, he stayed up all night, stretching and rehydrating, and gave it another go the next morning. Chapeau!
The Triplets of Belleville
Seductively surreal, this French-language animated feature is a sometimes macabre blend of cultures and themes culminating in the most bizarre bicycle chase yet imagined. I'm still a bit annoyed that the innocent-eyed hero, Champion, got scooped up by the broom wagon, but the scenes of his training regimen alone are worth the price of admission. Many's the time I've climbed off the bike after a long, cold ride, and wished I had a tiny grandmother to knead my galvanised calves with an egg-beater before taking to my seized-up back with a mechanical lawnmower.
As mentioned in the intro, this American drama is a coming-of-age saga driven by two wheels. The fun part is that the final showdown involves a competition that's still held today – the Little 500 at Indiana University, an event like no other, with standardised bikes that are rented out to teams. I'm guessing the hero would have been penalised for strapping his feet to the pedals in the final showdown, but hey, Hollywood.
The Armstrong Lie
A curious melange – this started out as a documentary of Amstrong's return to racing in 2009 but became something very different when his doping finally caught up with him. The film jumps backwards and forwards over his watershed admission, and when I watched it at a premiere event packed with bike riders, it was like attending a pantomime, with the audience keen to boo the villain. As sports cycling tries to move forward from that era, the film reminds us just how damaging a time it was for all concerned – not only for the riders caught up in it, but for the people they burned and the fans they disappointed.
So, what did I leave out? Which are your favourite cycling-related movies, and why? And are there any films where a bicycle scene has been the most memorable for you?
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