The best cycling film ever

admin   July 26, 2015   Comments Off on The best cycling film ever

A couple of months ago Bernard McCloskey and Richard Hanna sent me a link to the British Film Institute’s top 10 cycling films. There are some great films on the list, including several that have been shown at club film nights over the years. But which one is best…? Here’s one proposal from Alastair Martin. Let us know if you’ve a different idea – we’ll post the best suggestions, and maybe the club can arrange a showing this winter!

So in the style of a school essay, here goes…. My favourite cycling film of all time is Breaking Away. I love this film for 4 reasons.

BreakingAway0First up, it’s a great film about an underdog who has some initial success, then is hit by set backs, and finally comes back fighting against better resourced rivals. Just like the Rocky films. Other commentators have called it a coming of age film. Whatever, it was good enough to be nominated for 5 Academy Awards in 1979 and won the gong for Best Original Screen Play.

Ron Martin’s bike from 1980. It was fourth hand and painted a tasteful shade of gun metal grey courtesy of the Halfords spray paint range. The relaxed 45 inch wheel base may have been comfortable and stable, but was actually due to an earlier owner’s penchant for wheelies, and a poor landing technique. And yet – this bike made it to John O’Groats…

Second, there is cycling’s social history. In the 1970s, cycling was a middle class sport in America and the star of the film was a blue collar worker fighting against the establishment. Our heroes in Europe at the time – Kelly, Hinault and later Indurain – all came from poor rural backgrounds, so it was easy for us to identify with the rider in the film. We weren’t exactly poor, but no-one had money for a stable of fancy bikes, and we spent a lot of time in the Aladdin’s Cave that was Mike the Bike’s shop on Movilla Street, looking for second hand parts to keep our winter training steeds on the road. Just like in the film.

It is fascinating to see how things have changed since the film came out. Cycling in Europe has also evolved into a middle-class sport, with the emergence of Middle Aged Men in Lycra. As William Fotheringham says in his recent biography of Hinault, our heroes no longer come from poor rural backgrounds, partly because this portion of the population has dwindled significantly in the last 30 years.

Our hero jumps an Italian lorry while out training. When the lorry reached 60mph and he was still in the small chain ring we scoffed, but it is easy to forgive the occasional minor technical faux pas! Attitudes to safety have also moved on – we’d frown at the lack of a helmet now, never mind pacing behind traffic….

Third, the film hints at a darker side to cycling. Our hero is fixated by Italian cyclists, and immerses himself in Italian culture and cuisine. Finally he gets to meet his idols when an Italian team comes to visit. Unfortunately they see him as a potential rival, and work him over, leaving him lying in the ditch.

This hints at the future problems that will hit cycling with the emergency of performance enhancing drugs in the 1990s. Many cyclists became disillusioned with the sport and its stars.

But our hero doesn’t remain down for long. He bounces back as a wiser, less naive, cyclist. He focuses on the many great aspects of our sport, he trains harder than ever, and his drug of choice is adrenaline. Inspirational! And a role model for us all.


The team were known as “cutters” because they worked in stone quarries. Here they relax at an old, flooded mine. We stayed with the America owners of a quarry like this. Awesome!

Finally, I first saw this film with a group of friends from Ards CC. As we left the old cinema in Comber, we met Mike “the Bike'” McConaghy, who was club chairman at the time. He told us about the Discovering America cycling expedition. A few months later, five of us were cycling across America and got the chance to visit Bloomington, Indiana where the film was made.

So there you have it – Breaking Away – in my opinion the greatest cycling film ever made. Let us know if you’ve got a different opinion!