Breaking Away

Breaking Away

 “Deleted Scenes” are small pieces of historical research that, through no fault of their own, were cut from the published Bike Battles book, or never made it past research notes.  But they live on as blog posts!  


In 1979, a low-budget theatrical film captured many of the contradictions of the American bicycle in the late 20th century. For American cyclists — starved for cultural validation — the film was a delight, and continues to evoke fond memories for recreational riders today. But what can Breaking Away tell us about the history of American cycling?

Well, it’s a mixed bag. Breaking Away finds dramatic tension by pitting young-adult interest in new lightweight bicycles against the mainstream conviction that bicycles are oddities for foreigners or children. For most of the characters in the film, the bicycle conveys a desirable association with recreation, health, masculinity, and class identity. At the very same time, it is also a childish toy with no place on the road. In other words, Breaking Away symbolizes the conflicted nature of the 1970s bicycle boom in America.

Dave, riding home from winning a race.

Dave, riding home from winning a race.

The good-natured film depicts an otherwise aimless 19-year old who is captivated by bicycle racing. Equipped with an imported Italian racing bike he won as a prize, Dave proceeds to remake his working-class world into an idealized simulacra of Italy. He has become an oddity in his middle American town: “He was as normal as pumpkin pie,” declares a neighbor looking on from her front porch, “and now look at him.” She sighs, empathizing: “His poor parents.” Ignoring the neighbors, Dave embarks on an active project of Europeanization: “Buon giorno, Pappa!” he cries, and renames the cat Fellini. The cat, by the way, eats from a Cinzano ashtray, as Dave sings along to opera.

Film criticism tends to focus on the class and ethnicity issues of the film more than the bicycle itself. Director Peter Yates, immersed in the class-conscious filmmaking of postwar Britain, always intended this to be a film about class: “I wanted to make a film about class distinctions in America. Coming from England, I was told they didn’t exist here. But of course they do.”[1] According to one critic, the bicycle and the Italian play-acting are escapes from the realities of middle-American class dynamics, where Dave and his father both have been immersed in a commitment to a working-class ethic but can no longer find employment at the local quarry. For one critic, the title is a play on words that is ostensibly about bikes but ultimately about class: “Breaking away applies rather to speed cycling, a form of play that looks a lot like work, an American sports solution that merely sublimates his problems,” writes John Paul Russo.[2]

Dave's bicycle is partly aspirational - on it, pretending to be an Italian exchange student, he might fit in on the college campus.

Dave’s bicycle is partly aspirational – on it, pretending to be an Italian exchange student, he might fit in on the college campus.

Unlike film critics, bicyclists have focused on the bike. Dedicated individuals have rebuilt period-appropriate replicas, faithfully recreating Dave’s Italian ride. But somewhat predictably, their attention is focused on physical details of the ride itself, obsessing over mechanical and cosmetic recreation of the big-screen bike.

If film critics are thinking about class identity, and cyclists are thinking about Campagnolo shifters, there’s room here to consider Breaking Away as a signpost in the history of the bicycle in America. What does this evidence tell us about what Americans thought of the bicycle in the last quarter of the twentieth century?

For Dave, his Masi bike is from an exotic world far way from his working class roots. The Italian frame builder Falerio Masi opened a California shop in 1972, bringing bespoke European cycles to the United States, and Masi today describes Dave’s bike as a 1978 Gran Criterium that “sealed the legend of the brand permanently.”  It’s this exotic foreignness that makes it possible for him to imagine entrée into the upper class milieu of the nearby university; the campus might not be welcoming to a working-class American, but it might have a place for a foreign exchange student.[3]

Dave studies enough Italian to fake it.

Dave studies enough Italian to fake it.

The bike’s lightweight frame, down-tube shifters, toe clips and ten-speed drivetrain stands out in the Midwest. The Masi Gran Criterium’s components certainly would have been exotic at the time; even after the late-1960s introduction of less-expensive Japanese-made multi-speed components to America, the Italian-made Campagnolo Nuovo Record derailleurs and side-pull brakes on the Masi would only be enjoyed by small groups of club cyclists in America; they were not mainstream.

Dave's bike.

Dave’s bike.

On the other hand, an American bike – a single-speed AMF Roadmaster set up for track racing – is despicable to Dave when he’s forced to ride it for a competition: “It’s a piece of junk.”

According to one account of the film’s production, the Masi was difficult for even the filmmakers to acquire; two Italian bikes were used as props for Dave, and a third (due to be damaged in the script) had to be mocked up from an American-purchased Sears bike with handmade decals, as the actual Masi decals could not be acquired.  In America in 1979, a good bike was a foreign bike, difficult to purchase and rare to ride.

Dave's bike, and an Italian flag, prominently on display in his room.

Dave’s bike, racing trophies and an Italian flag, all prominently on display in his room.

Riding may provide Dave with a readily-appropriated foreign identity, but it does still fit with an American association with physical fitness, a long-term interest that was quickening in the late-1970s era of jogging, aerobics, and jazzercize. While Dave’s leg shaving is un-American, the exercise of cycling itself fits in with the behaviors on display throughout the film; his father is on a diet; his friends talk about sports, swim and sunbathe; and the nearby college campus is filled with athletes. Some of those fit and trim collegians serve as the antagonists in the film, snobbishly looking down on the locals, but throughout, the healthiness of cycling is unquestioned. As his mother observes: “He was very sickly until he started riding around on that bicycle.” His father replies with one of many one-liners: “Yeah . . . well . . . now his body’s fine, but his mind is gone.”

Petrifying his father, Dave shaves his legs.

Petrifying his father, Dave shaves his legs.

More importantly, the American roads are not for Dave and his bike: exhilarated by the promise that an Italian racing team is coming to Indiana for an exhibition race, he is inspired to sheer madness: drafting behind an 18-wheeled semi-truck on a divided highway, he somehow cranks his bike up to a terrifying 60 miles per hour, the rear axle and brake lights of the truck looming close before the state highway patrol pulls the truck over for speeding.

Drafting behind a semi trailer on a divided highway.

Drafting behind a semi trailer on a divided highway.

Dave in the semi driver's rear-view mirror.

Dave in the semi driver’s rear-view mirror.

After nearly a century of mainstream American disinterest in the bike, and even after the bike boom of the 1970s, the bicycle is foreign to this Midwest town; a lightweight racing bike doubly so. This is actually what attracts Dave to the saddle. Identifying with the bicycle brings Dave into conflict both with American identity and his working-class origins, serving as the tool for him to break away from his family and friends to find his own path. In the film, the bicycle is exercise equipment, associated with the fitness goals of a leisure class or the wealth and privilege of the college; the climax of the film is when Dave and his working-class friends party-crash the university’s bike race, improbably winning it.[4] Most importantly, it’s still exceptional – an oddity for fitness buffs, the upwardly-mobile proto-yuppies on the college campus, or the opera-obsessed; certainly not for Americans in their everyday lives. The bike race on the university campus isn’t even really a competitive bicycle event on the lines of amateur racing – instead it’s a part of a multi-event weekend competition, mostly between fraternity groups competing for bragging rights in juvenile competitions like tricycle races.[5]

Even as the coda to the film places the used-car-selling father on his own bicycle (both for his health and as a sign that he has embraced his son’s identity, a denouement that resolves the film’s dramatic tension), he’s still a slightly-ridiculous, unwelcome presence on the city street: honked at, defensive, and riding the wrong way.

Dave's father on his own bike.

Dave’s father on his own bike at the end of the film. This one scene wraps up several threads of the story line — Dave’s mother is now both pregnant, and overseeing work at the car lot, both out of the question at the start of the film. And the lot is now renamed Cutter Cars, showing both pride in Dave’s accomplishments and in their working-class affiliations.

What does Breaking Away tell us about what Americans thought of the bicycle in the last quarter of the twentieth century? Mostly, it says that after decades of disuse, and despite the bike boom of the 1970s, Americans had set their minds that cycling was for children and foreigners. For a film that evokes warm feelings in cyclists today, the message of Breaking Away is one of ostracism, exclusion, and a persistent inability to equate recreational cycling with American identity. The Cutters themselves might be victorious at the end of this feel-good sports movie, but it might be a bit early to declare victory for cycling in America.

Victory for the Cutters

Victory for the Cutters

–James Longhurst, Spring 2015


 

[1] Quoted in Al Auster, “Review: Breaking Away by Peter Yates, Steve Tesich,” Cinéaste 10 (Winter 1979-80), 48-49.
[2] John Paul Russo, “Italian American Filmmakers: No Deal on Madonna Street,” Italian Americana 13 (Winter 1995), 6.
[3] I’ve had to update this paragraph — the more I research, the clearer it is that the hero bike in the film is a California-made 1978 Masi Bicycles Gran Criterium, and *not* a Masi Prestige, as some have said. I’ve have my doubts before — the Prestige replaced the Gran Criterium in Masi’s lineup literally the next year, 1979 — but Masi’s 2014 catalog is unequivocal in its description of that the model that Dave is riding is a Gran Criterium.
[4] John Schwarb, The Little 500: The Story of the World’s Greatest College Weekend, Indiana University Press, 1999.

[5] Ibid.

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