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An ode to Breaking Away: The film that inspired a generation of young cyclists

Released in 1979 and still poignant to many of us, Breaking Away captivated and inspired many budding cyclists of the era

The passenger in seat 27D was getting a little.... lairy, shall we say... laughing out aloud mid-flight in a way we only do when stacking up long-haul flight jet lag and wearing headphones. More wine was being called in by the tiny bottle load, and he seemed as happy as Larry.

Yes, I was that guy, sat on my third flight of the extended day, and somewhere in the middle of a 32-hour flight schedule and on a Middle Eastern airline. This was around seven years ago, and I’d scored a very crammed seat for this leg of the flight, which is no fun for a six-footer… but then, a miracle happened. I opened up the in-flight movie guide, and there it was: Breaking Away, a film that had so much impact on my life when it came out, and which I’d not seen in years.

> The best cycling films
> Stream Breaking Away from £3.49 on Amazon Prime Video

Somewhere between blinds down and nothingness, we passed through a very strange vortex-like time zone, and suddenly I was teleported Tomorrow People-style back to 1979. I have to admit, I was loving it.

Breaking Away film poster.jpg
The official movie poster

I can still remember going to see one of the first screenings of Breaking Away in the UK, sometime in late 1979, where as a young schoolboy bike racer I crammed into the back of a mate’s dad’s car with the rest of his family. We set off for some university theatre in the Potteries to watch this all-new cycling movie from the great promised land of the USA.

Back then, there was (of course) no internet and no satellite TV, just a few VHS and Betamax video recorders hanging around in the hope of catching bits of something worth watching later.

Dave's house from Breaking Away in Lincoln Street South (public domain)

Dave's house in Lincoln Street South

When it came to cycling, there wasn’t exactly that much to record on these gangly old machines. Just the occasional World of Sport or Grandstand clip from the Tour de France, or of the National cyclo-cross championships each winter, which were all taped (the Kellogg’s crit series made it onto the TV in the ‘80s).

As for cycling movies, we had gone through the same theatrical endeavours in the past. To watch a screening of The Stars and the Water Carriers, which was already an old classic by then, the only way to see such things at the time was to go to the cinema. The thought of an actual cycling movie coming out, not just a documentary or race coverage – well, it seemed bizarre to us and we had to pay homage to it, be it good, bad or ugly.

It's hard to sum up what that film meant to me personally, and to a whole generation of aspiring young bike racers. Although I’d never bought into the American dream (and never have done since) I guess this film set the fires of wild west cycling romanticism a-burning. A whole new world, which was fuelled further when the mighty 7-11 team, took on the established cycling world with their brash American ways, and of course the imminent arrival of Greg Lemond.

Those of us who have seen the film have probably done so countless times. Those who haven’t… you don’t know what you’re missing! It’s all part of the great cycling tapestry, a taste of dreamy Americana in a staunchly mainland Eurocentric sporting arena of the era, much like the first McDonald’s milkshakes were when they first arrived on our island.

Rooftop Quarry from Breaking Away (public domain)

Rooftop Quarry, a famous landmark from the movie

Maybe that was what made it so captivating, in that this was the first time we’d ever seen an American take on European-style bike racing. Maybe it was the timing, and the coming-of-age thing? I’m not sure exactly what it was that tugged at my own imagination and heartstrings, but I have a good hankering that for me personally it was being able to relate so very much to Dave Stohler’s cycling obsession and struggles for acceptance by those closest to him. For me, that hit the nail on the head.

Sure enough, there were some cringeworthy moments scattered throughout the film, but that mattered not to most of us. It was a cycling movie – and an American-made movie at that – something we’d not seen before.

We probably all have our own favourite scenes from the film: Moochers punching in and punching out, Mike’s campus car reversal scene, the Cinzano rider’s pump in the wheel, and the closing clip where Dave greets his dad in French. Personally the latter is the most memorable for me.

Every one of those was scenes totally relatable to me at that period in my life, and even more so in the years that followed. With no access to background info at the time, the whole film may have seemed fictional to us, and yet it was based on very relative truth. The screenwriter, Steve Tesich, came up with his inspiration and characters from his own experience of the Little 500, which he raced as part of the winning Phi Kappa Psi team in the 1962 edition.

The Cutters were based around Tesich’s team, with Dave’s role being inspired by that of the real-life cyclist and his teammate Dave Blase, who was also obsessed with all things Italian and rode 139 of the 200 laps for the team that year. He also appeared in the movie as the race announcer. Dave Stohler got his name from their 1962 team manager Bob Stohler.

Damn, I’ve had a cheap copy of that Cinzano team jersey in my online shopping basket for a few years now. Time to go and see if it’s still there, and then time to go chase some big trucks (in the little ring, that is).

Long live the Cutters and Breaking Away! Below you’ll find all the info on the cast and crew, and a few bonus titbits of information related to this era-defining cycling movie.

Writer, director and lead cast of Breaking Away (1979) 

Director: Peter Yates* 
​Writer: Steve Tesich

Dave Stohler: Dennis Christopher
Mike: Dennis Quaid
Cyril: Daniel Stern
Moocher: Jackie Earle Haley
Ray Stohler (Dave’s dad): Paul Dooley
Evelyn Stohler (Dave’s mom): Barbara Barrie
Katherine (Katerina): Robyn Douglass
Rod (the rich guy): Hart Bochner

* Peter Yates was English and also directed Bullitt, The Dresser & The Deep


Breaking Away won its fair share of accolades and awards (rightly so), and is still ranked by many publications and institutions and one of America’s greatest ever sporting films (eighth in AFI’s top sporting films, and also in their list of most inspiring films ever).

At the Academy Awards it won 'Best Screenplay Written Directly for Screen' award, and had three other nominations.

At the BAFTAs, Dennis Christopher won the award for “Most Promising Newcomer to a Leading Film Role'. 

The Golden Globe awards gave Breaking Away the gong for 'Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy', and the film also received three other nominations. There were many awards from other organisations too.

Who were Team Cinzano?

Who were those slinky Italian dudes with their silver tongues, dealing out dastardly pump-in-wheel deeds?

They were Carlos Sintes, Eddy Van Guyse (a former Delta Chi fraternity rider in the Little 500), Pete Lazarra and John Van de Velde. The latter was the father of former US Postal rider Christian Van de Velde. 

The reunion and aftermath

Although many of the cast did indeed continue acting, and with varying degrees of success, it was of course Mike (aka Dennis Quaid), who became the star that did break away and steal the trophy of fame. His filmography list is simply amazing.

Meanwhile Dave (Dennis Christopher) has featured in many great films over the years, including Chariots of Fire and Django Unchained. Cyril (Daniel Stern) would go on to appear in such films as City Slickers ad Home alone, while Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) would continue punching out big time with films like Nightmare on Elm Street (the 2010 remake, starring as Freddy Krueger), All the King’s Men and Watchmen. 

The Little 500 bike race

The Little 500 is still pretty much as we see it in Breaking Away. It’s held in late April every year at the Bill Armstrong Stadium on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington. It’s loosely based on the format for the Indianapolis 500 car race format.  

The race was first staged in 1951, and has only been skipped once for Covid in 2020. There has been a women’s race since 1988.

Teams of four ride relay-style for 200 laps of the track, which is 50 miles altogether. The Cutters have won the race a record 15 times, and are the defending champions at the time of writing.

All teams must use the official bikes given by the organisers, which are single speed 46x16 geared coaster brake machines without toe straps or clipless pedals. 

Breaking Away, the TV series

Although many of us would to have given our right cranks for more Breaking Away goodness, it simply wasn’t to be... at least not if you happened to be living outside of the USA, that is.

In 1980, a TV series based on the film was released by ABC and featured many of the original cast members, although it didn't have the original Dave or Mike in. It didn’t quite hit the spot and lasted for just eight episodes, with the last one remaining unaired.

One For the Cutters

Of course, a tribute song had to be made eventually – and 29 years after its release, it finally happened when the US band The Hold Steady included the song One for the Cutters on their 2008 album titled Stay Positive.  

Breaking Away, Bollywood style

If Bollywood did Breaking Away, what would it be like? Jo Jeeta Wohl Sikandar was a 1992 Bollywood film by Mansoor Khan and staring Aamir Khan, and one which has many similar plots and themes that resemble Breaking Away, including class issues and bike racing. Of course, there’s lots of singing and dancing too. Strangely, though, Khan insists he had not heard of Breaking Away until alter he made the film!

What are your favourite scenes in Breaking Away, and what does the film mean to you? Let us know in the comments as always. 

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David W | 4 months ago

Isnt't there a scene where he pops his front wheel in the forks, without tightening anything, and cycles off?

froze | 4 months ago
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What I found interesting about the movie is how a cowboy hat could stay on while riding fast!

The scene where the rider is doing 60 mph was aided a lot by drafting the semi so the rider had virtually no wind resistance.

But despite the weird stuff, the film was a joy to watch, that was my favorite cycling film, the other was Premium Rush.  The bad thing about all the other cycling films is that they were so poorly done, most of them had to be filmed by amateur cameras, with amateur crew, using poor film quality, and poor acting on top of it, along with low budgets.  Even Breaking Away was not done top-notch by any means.

Rendel Harris | 5 months ago
1 like

Another bit of trivia about the movie: there is/was a real-lfe hostility between Indiana U students and the poorer residents of Bloomington whose families worked the stone quarries, but the former called the latter "stonies", not "cutters". The director changed the name because he thought "stonies" might give the audience the wrong idea...

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