The bicycle is one of the world’s great inventions: You can use it for transport, exercise, entertainment, and work. And thanks to the silver screen, the bicycle serves yet another purpose – as a character. Bicycles make frequent cameos in Hollywood pictures, saving the day, changing the hero’s life, or propelling a nobody to greatness. Sometimes the bike is a symbol, other times it has more personality than the human that rides it.
Here are some favorite bicycle-enhanced movies to keep you on track.
Funny, sweet, and beautifully written, the 1979 dramedy Breaking Away is one of the greatest coming of age stories ever put on film. Dave Stoller is so obsessed with European bike racing that he is teaching himself Italian, even though not one person in Bloomington, Indiana shares any of these interests – especially his befuddled father. Breaking Away follows the usual arc of sports movies, but it’s also a quiet parable about following lofty dreams in a sleepy small town. The highway scene alone – in which Dave races a semi truck – is worth the price of rental.
Take the SATs, or compete in a BMX tournament? If you’re Cru Jones, you listen to your heart and hit the track. Released in 1986, Rad has all the makings of a perfect 80s sports film: a rebellious teen, a nondescript girl who admires him, and some preppy blond antagonists. If you’re looking for a movie that plumbs the depths of the human soul, this is not that movie. But if you’re looking for endless action sequences of bikers flying over jumps and occasional dialogue, Rad perfectly matches its name.
It’s 1986, and when an ace stockbroker (Kevin Bacon) loses everything, he becomes a bike messenger in San Francisco. Like so many Reagan-era movies, Quicksilver shows the stark contrast between douchey rich people and street-smart thugs with hearts of gold. But unlike those other flicks, Quicksilver shows cyclists doing acrobatic tricks on racing fixies. Can Jack reconcile the freedom of the road with the blue-chip life he left behind?
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
To what lengths would you go to recover your stolen bicycle? If you’re Pee-wee Herman, you would travel the country, anger a motorcycle gang, race through a Hollywood studio, do a weird dance on a bar, and tempt the fury of Large Marge. Released in 1985, Tim Burton’s first feature film is pure surrealist joy, and Pee-wee’s famous red bicycle was coveted by pretty much every child of the time.
The Bicycle Thief
Long hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, The Bicycle Thief tells the story of a poor neighborhood in Italy, a stolen bicycle, and one man’s desolation at the hands of a callous society. Aside from being a masterpiece, the 1948 film is a cautionary tale: If you don’t invest in a proper bike lock, someone may steal your bike, and then you’ll lose your job, you’ll go hungry, you’ll be humiliated by an angry mob, and your son will lose all faith in humanity. And we mean a U-lock, not that cable crap.
The Chinese answer to The Bicycle Thief is Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle, about a poor country kid entrusted with a shiny new mountain bike, which is immediately stolen. In this 2001 version, the kid ends up finding the bike again, but his problems don’t end there. In a country that has long relied on pedal-power, the bicycle becomes a metaphor for income disparity in an allegedly classless system. Naturally, the Chinese government banned it.
Ride the Divide
It’s self-supported. It’s 2,700 miles. And it’s a race. The Tour Divide is one of the most grueling bike races in the world, not just because competitors pedal from Banff, Canada to the Mexican border, but because the route is made up of mountain trails, logging routes, and lonely back roads. Hunter Weeks directs this inspiring 2010 documentary about a treacherous tour and the athletes who take it on. It might have been titled Blood, Sweat, and Gears.
NotBad is only about 30 minutes long, but it will leave you exhausted. The 2013 film is a nearly uninterrupted stream of breakneck bike stunts. The seven world-class mountain bikers of NotBad put the “extreme” in extreme cycling, flipping, leaping, swerving, and flying their way through the New Zealand outback. NotBad doesn’t have much of a story or point, and it’s part of a growing canon of hyper-staged sports porn posing as documentary. But when athletes look this amazing in slow motion, sports porn is pretty awesome.
To Live and Ride in L.A.
David Rowe’s nail-biting 2010 documentary illustrates just how crazy (and crazy fun) it is to ride a bike in Los Angeles – a cityscape of freeways, sprawl, and endless concrete. The film is a dreamy montage of bikers drinking beer, bikers doing tricks, bikers in tattoos and B-boy outfits, bikers racing, and bikers crashing into stuff, basking in all the California coolness. No city in the world has been more thoroughly filmed than the City of Angels, but To Live and Ride in L.A. manages to explore it in a whole new way.
E.T.: The Extraterrestrial
Between Steven Spielberg’s fast-paced cinematography and John William’s spectacular score, E.T. (1982) makes riding around the neighborhood on a Huffy look positively thrilling. Most of us will not get chased by government agents, or have to rescue an extraterrestrial, or levitate past a full moon. But for a generation of kids, the finale of E.T. made biking seem out of this world.