I’m alone. Safe. The room is dark, almost completely silent, but for the faint rustling and hushed conversations of my fellow adventurers. I can feel my heart beating, my chest rising and falling slowly beneath my most cosy woollen jumper. I’ve loosened my shoes slightly and emptied my pockets. My phone is off. Then a thick beam of light cuts through the space several feet above my head, and as the music begins, the world disappears as my field of vision narrows to a neat rectangle.
Escape is more than stepping beyond your front door on two wheels or two feet, or whatever your preferred means of adventure. Sometimes all you need is to change your perspective, to depart from your comfort zone, to challenge yourself just by spending a couple of hours in a world of someone else’s making.
When I need to get out of my head, I turn to cinema. It’s a safe space – I often think of the iconic scene in the chaos of ‘Taxi Driver’ when Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle is at his most peaceful – and if actually going to the cinema is not an option, I turn to noise-cancelling headphones and closed shutters, subtitles if I really want to get away. A good film, like a good book, can transport you to other lands, headspaces, points of view, or just give you a solid laugh.
Even bad films can provide an escape, rather like a wet-weather winter ride, I suppose, which is just as well. I’ve seen some very very bad movies on my way to writing this piece, but I have to say, having long ago given up on ever finding a decent crossover of my two great passions, this little project has actually yielded some gems that I’d either never heard of or was simply wary of putting myself through.
Here is a selection of cycling or bike-themed films that are actually good – or at least, not terrible – to watch while we have time on our hands this off-season. There are many more besides these, maybe I’ll do a part two …
A quick explainer on the selection criteria: there are films in which a bicycle plays a key role in bringing a scene or character or context to life, perhaps as a means of contemplation where the protagonist is shot from handlebar height, no helmet allowing the wind access to their hair as they look from right to left, absorbing their surroundings as a soaring soundtrack plays, a transition scene between conflict and resolution, or the passage from anguish to decision … But to make it into this list, the bicycle or the sport must be a central theme, crucial to the story. I’ve also steered clear of the Lance Armstrong canon, though honestly I believe ‘The Program‘ is worth a watch, probably the best-made film about something that happened in the real cycling world with a decent cast, a solid writer and fluent pacing.
89 mins, Italian (original title: ‘Ladri di Biciclette’), 1948, Dir. Vittorio De Sica
This Italian classic regularly features on the cinema industry’s best-of-all-time lists for its artistry, its innovation, and most importantly, its encapsulation of a moment in time, capturing the grit and hardship in working class, post-War Italy.
Don’t be put off by its age, nor it being in Italian (if subtitles are an issue, this list will be too, though I would urge you to give foreign films a try!). It’s neither long nor slow – perhaps the only sign of age is the at times overzealous performance from one or two of the actors – but at the centre of the story is a compelling father-son relationship that feels as modern as it is rooted in the era in which it is set.
This is a cycling movie in much the same way as ‘Premium Rush‘ is (not included here, but a fun watch), in that the tie-in is more material than cultural, and frankly, that is usually a good sign; inclusion of the sport is rarely well or accurately portrayed. These are less about cycling and more about bikes, though if you’re watching ‘Bicycle Thieves’ closely, you’ll see newspaper cuttings of Giro d’Italia stories on the wall over the son’s single bed.
How to watch ‘Bicycle Thieves’ wherever you are via JustWatch.
108 mins, Dutch, 2015, Dir. Nicole van Kilsdonk
The name is a good start, right? Mont Ventoux is the axel around which this decent Dutch film rotates, with cycling and bikes representing a means of bonding between a group of friends: first, in the memory of a rose-tinted last summer before adulthood; second in the present tense, three decades later, when the group has fractured somewhat but come together once more with a return to the bike, a conduit to nostalgia.
It’s far from perfect, even frustrating in some ways, but ‘Ventoux’ is probably the best example of what I was looking for, in that cycling converges with an indie movie sensibility without really diluting either. With themes of friendship, nostalgia, the passage of time, memory, hopes and dreams, even grief, ‘Ventoux’ exceeded my expectations, and though the sole female character is a bewilderingly shallow object of all the boys’ affection, and the steady writing sags in the second half, the production quality stays the course.
How to watch ‘Ventoux’. If you’re in the UK or parts of Europe, it’s available to stream on Netflix.
Breaking Away and American Flyers
Breaking Away: 101 mins, English, 1979, Dir. Peter Yates
American Flyers: 113 mins, English, 1985, Dir. John Badham
“Hey, are you really gonna shave your legs?”
This is asked of the protagonist early in ‘Breaking Away’ and sets the tone for the rest of the film. Dave Stohler (played by Dennis Christopher whose career peaked with this film, unlike co-star Dennis Quaid who might as well be auditioning for ‘The Outsiders’ in his portrayal of restless, Marlboro-smoking Mike) has aspirations of otherness, a life less ordinary, a little romance, and he has latched himself onto Italian cycling culture, perhaps without really knowing what that means. There’s a similar infatuation in ‘American Flyers’, the focal characters going all-in without caring what others might think, or even the consequences for themselves.
Despite some clear links to European culture, these are both classically American projects calling for labels including ‘coming-of-age’, inspiring ‘sports’ movies – oh boy, are they cheesy/corny too.
There’s a fair bit of nonsense in real cycling terms though, like the chief antagonist in ‘American Flyers’ (the cheesier and sillier of the two, imho) claiming propriety over *checks notes* a solo attack – “you son of a bitch, I taught you that move” – as the young pretender disappears off the front. In both I would advise a suspension of your expectations when any actual racing is portrayed, but as sports films go they’re decent at the very least, with a dose of real life thrown in to upgrade their value.
How to watch ‘Breaking Away’ and ‘American Flyers’.
93 mins, Danish and German, 2015, Dir. Roni Ezra
Fascinated by modern European history as I am, ‘April 9th’ is the one film on this list that I most often bring up when asked the question: favourite cycling film?
While it most certainly – I think – sits in the centre of the Venn diagram between cycling and cinema, history too, it’s once again more bike-centric than cycling, and like ‘Bicycle Thieves’, bikes play a relatively small role physically while being vitally important to the story.
‘April 9th’ tells a fascinating story from a less well-known chapter of WWII, taking place on the day of the Nazi invasion of Denmark that turned very quickly to occupation. The film centres around a bicycle-mounted infantry platoon stationed in South Jutland, close to the border, poignantly representing the enormous disparity between the under-equipped Danish forces and the heavily armoured, motorised German units that crossed into Denmark on April 9th, 1940, and rapidly overwhelmed the defenders who were forced into retreat.
Being rather more niche and small, ‘April 9th’ is not as readily available, but there are a number of options for viewers in the UK, Europe or US. If you’re in Australia, I’m afraid you’re out of luck unless you can find a DVD (or a back door).
The Triplets of Belleville (or Belleville Rendez-Vous)
80 mins, French, 2004, Dir. Sylvain Chomet
Last but very definitely not least is the charmingly French ‘The Triplets of Belleville’ (although technically a co-production of companies from France, Belgium, UK and Canada), a striking animated film that’s light on words and heavy on sentiment, but not in the corny Hollywood way that some of the above lean on, rather the more gritty, real-life, bizarrely plotted, last-minute resolution that comes of bold, devil-may-care storytelling. All this chimes, I suppose, with the memorable animation that is a long way from the somewhat homogenous styles of modern Hollywood – it lost out to Pixar’s admittedly brilliant but unfortunately not cycling-related ‘Finding Nemo’ at the 2003 Academy Awards – and that’s what makes it stick out on this list.
It’s weird, it’s wonderful, and it will stick in your brain longer than anything else I could offer from the live-action world.
I’m happy to report that it looks like ‘The Triplets of Belleville’ is the most widely available of this selection.
Looking at this list, there’s something nearly all of them have in common, and that’s the quirk attached to the pursuit of riding a bike or fascination with the sport. They’re nearly all outsiders, but they’re also united by strength of character and determination in spite of the world working against them. I’m alright with that broad-sweeping assumption.
Now we just need to find a cycling film with women in a central role, even on a bike for longer than it takes to pootle to the shops.
What did you think of this story?