A rainy Sunday afternoon. The time when odd thoughts arrive. Bike time is over, the television calls. And thoughts of revisiting some history emerge. Rather than delving into the stack of cycling VHS tapes, however, we remind ourselves that some are best left untouched… or not?
This is a flashback from RIDE #47, a piece by Nick Legan after he spent too many hours with the remote control in hand, reviewing other ‘Classics’ – cycling films from back in the day…
Movies: American Flyer (1985) & Breaking Away (1979)
Cycling classics that you could watch and enjoy but actually never really learn a thing from!
Nicholas Legan discovered how it’s easy to be nostalgic about a couple of cycling movies released in his youth but it’s best to ignore the temptation to view them again. He recounts some of the lessons that are hidden in the dusty archives of his video collection…
(The Back Page, RIDE #47 – published January 2010)
I am Dave Stohler. I am David Sommers. I have lived the cycling movie fairytale. Okay, maybe not, but two of the greatest cycling films of all time, American Flyers and Breaking Away, are dear to me. And don’t dare call them B-grade. I grew up in Indiana and went to university in Bloomington, the setting for Breaking Away. After school I moved to Colorado, in some part due to a romantic notion of racing on the same roads as the Sommers brothers in American Flyers.
The problem was that in the early stages of my riding education there was little coaching or cycling reading material available to me. I learned how to race from these movies! Yet, for some reason, I never got far. I recently decided it was time for another look. So, with a few cold beers at the ready, I set out on a cycling movie marathon. In doing so, not only did I manage to avoid going outside and actually pedalling a bike, I re-learned some valuable cycling lessons. The cycling cinematic world is rife with valuable morsels of advice on all manner of subjects, even if it is light on things like plot and good acting.
American Flyers, 1985, stars a moustached Kevin Costner as Marcus Sommers who, despite a cerebral aneurism, enters the Hell of the West stage race in Colorado. Now that’s bravery! He brings along his brother David who has no race experience. But as they train their way across the country en route to the start, the fraternal relationship they discover is heart melting. The fact that Alexandra Paul of future Baywatch fame arrives on the scene as David’s love interest adds depth to the story, well maybe not depth…
Like all classic movies there is an antagonist to the Sommers brothers’ cycling lovefest – Barry ‘the Cannibal’ Muzzin. Warning: By using the nickname of cycling’s greatest racer this movie is treading on dangerous ground, but the fact that Eddy Merckx himself has a cameo makes up for it.
Muzzin is a former team-mate of Marcus and when they parted ways, Marcus took Barry’s wife as well (Sarah played by Rae Dawn Chong). Marcus even managed to keep the old team van (which, in real life, is an old 7-Eleven team van that can still be seen around Boulder, Colorado). For obvious and cinematic reasons, Muzzin has a massive chip on his shoulder. Add in a few massive, hairy Soviet riders to further complicate the racing, and you’ve got a fantastic film on your hands. And it’s chock full of little pearls of cycling wisdom.
One of my favourites is the Cannibal’s announcement – “Enough of this Sunday stroll, let’s hurt a little bit!” – on what is clearly a downhill section of the course. Now, let me tell you, I tried this in quite a few junior races back in the day and it never worked out for me like it does in the movie.
Soon after Marcus has a puncture. Sarah performs an impressive – by any standard – nine-second wheel change. Marcus then manages to coax some of Muzzin’s team-mates to help get him back into the race. Now that’s brilliant! I don’t know how he does it, maybe it’s the moustache. But the last time I tried to get my competitor’s team members to help me, they laughed. Better get started on the facial hair…
A couple of stages later the race for overall honours comes down to Muzzin and young David. When David refuses to stop attacking the Cannibal, Muzzin lays this on him: “I gave you a chance Sommers. Now all bets are off.” Then he proceeds to try to push David off a cliff. Luckily, the officials are still too preoccupied with how a 90kg Russian, who is behind the leaders at this point, has made it this far up Mount Evans, a 4,300m peak. I must say though, crashing the competition out of the race and into a ravine is a pretty dodgy tactic. But then, “all bets are off!” Amazingly, it’s a method that showed up in the next film I watched. So it must have some value.
My online research revealed that American Flyers “features great views of the Rockies and an insight into the tactics of bicycle races”. Well, I sure learned a few things and it’s true, the views are stunning. Luckily for all of us rabid cycling fans, the producers also put out a book based on the movie. I’m not making this up. I have a copy. American Flyers was written by Steve Tesich, the same fellow who wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for Breaking Away. That makes Tesich the single greatest contributor to the cinematic cycling experience. The next beer is a toast to you Steve-O!
Now, not all the lessons in cycling films are tactical ones. Breaking Away is full of choice scenes. But when I think of the movie, the biggest lesson has to be that leg speed is paramount to cycling success. In my favourite scene Dave Stohler, the Italian cycling wannabe main character, is out training on his gorgeous Masi bike. Fifty miles from home he is passed by a semi-trailer still coming up to speed. He cleverly takes advantage of the huge draft. The truck driver is obviously a cycling fan and he signals Dave as he accelerates to 40, 50, then astonishingly, 60 miles per hour! Scoff all you want, but wait for the punchline. Somewhere between 50 and 60 miles per hour, Dave shifts to the small chainring! In my attempts to recreate the scene, I only ever achieved 28 miles an hour in the little ring behind my high school buddy’s beat-up old Dodge. I clearly wasn’t cut out to be a cycling superstar.
It’s too late for me now, but you can take advantage of the whole cycling movie catalogue to improve your cycling.
For some retro tips from the 1970s, refer to La Course en Tete. Vincent Malle’s profile of Eddy Merckx shows just how important it is to wear a long-sleeved wool jersey when riding the rollers. Belgian great Roger De Vlaemink gives a nutritional tip of rare steak and rice for breakfast in A Sunday in Hell.
The Greatest Show on Earth, confusingly about the Giro, shows domestiques earning their keep by stealing refreshments and stuffing them down their shirts for their team leaders.
In Hell on Wheels, Rolf Aldag takes the time in the middle of the Tour de France to show us how he shaves his legs. I had already seen a similar scene in Breaking Away, but it never hurts to see it from a different angle, especially one as low as they use on Rolf. Lance Armstrong’s training methods are revealed in Road to Paris, but I can’t afford to fly to France for my winter training. The Tour Baby is a cautionary tale about an over-the-top, super annoying, American, Lance-loving freak. I’m an American, but I know better.
The highlight of Overcoming has to be Jens Voigt’s energy. Even after drinking too much coffee he isn’t annoying. He must have watched The Tour Baby.
After viewing The Flying Scotsman, I tried a juvenile saddle on my time trial bike but I didn’t go faster. Training wheels didn’t help either. Quicksilver inspired me to ride a fixie everywhere. But let’s face it, that’s stupid. Finally, I learned why the UCI really banned the use of radios in BMX Bandits.
So after all those hours on the couch, I feel ready to go out and take over the cycling world. If I’m lucky, they’ll make a movie about it all.
– By Nicholas Legan