Pedal Power: Cycling On Film

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With the trailer for new Lance Armstrong thriller The Program (or as our British-English spell checker would have it, ‘The Programme’) recently released, now seems the perfect time to revisit some of cinema’s yellow jersey wearers. From the lowly stabiliser novices to the thick-thighed pros, slap on your lycra, grease up your chain, and join us on this history of two-wheeled movies.

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Bicycle Thieves (1949)

Beloved of film students the world over, De Sica’s masterpiece is still regarded as one of the all-time greats. In poverty-stricken post-war Rome, the bicycle plays a pivotal role: it’s a symbol of opportunity, but also a cursed McGuffin for long-suffering family man Antonio, whose life deteriorates when it is stolen. A heartbreaking melodrama – and also a handy security training video for correctly locking valuable property.

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Boy And Bicycle (1965)

A 25-minute black-and-white film from the 1960s made on a budget of sixty-five quid would not, normally, be considered worthy of note. That’s until you look at the credits: Boy And Bicycle was in fact the inauspicious debut of one Ridley Scott – or as he should now be addressed, Sir Ridley – the otherworldly concepts of Alien and Blade Runner then but a glint in his adolescent Geordie eye. Scott directed the short while studying at the Royal College of Art, and hired his brother (and fellow blockbuster-director-in-waiting) Tony to star as the titular Boy.

Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1969)

What if the Old West wasn’t full of drunks, murderers, and racists – but dashingly handsome scoundrels with a penchant for romantic bike rides? That’s the delightfully revisionist history offered by this ‘60s classic. In its most famous scene, Paul Newman gives Katherine Ross a ride on his handlebars, while Burt Bacharach chortles Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head in the background. As if being outrageously charming, good-looking and talented wasn’t enough, Newman did all his own bicycle stunts, too.

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Breaking Away (1976)

Released in the midst of the 1970s cycling craze, Breaking Away is a quintessentially coming-of-age yarn, a tale of eternal summers and earnest romance. Dave (Dennis Christopher) is our guide, a cycling-obsessed high schooler on the cusp of graduation, a climactic bike race on the horizon. Like all coming-of-age yarns, it has a grumpy Dad who just doesn’t understand kids these days – but given Dave’s irritatingly affected Dolmio-grade Italian accent, we sympathise.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

“It’s too bumpy,” says Elliott, riding his bike through the forest. “We’ll have to walk from here.” But the tiny grey alien in his basket has other plans. As John Williams’ iconic score swells to a crescendo, E.T. sends the unlikely pair flying through the air, silhouetted by the moon (an image forever cemented by the Amblin logo). Spielberg’s fable championed the suburbs, of which bicycles were a key distinguishing feature; in this scene – and the thrilling chase finale – he turned the relatively mundane into the heart-swellingly magical.

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Belleville Rendez-Vous (2003)

Professional cycling has never been given much shrift in cinema, always seen as niche and a bit dull (at least before the doping scandals offered some spice). Not so in France. The country which reveres cyclists as kings produced this charming dialogue-free animated curio, in which Tour De France heroes are grotesque misshapen caricatures, all tiny torsos and ballooning thighs. Also in the mix: an aging trio of music hall singers, the French mafia, and a fat dog. Formidable!

The Transporter 3 (2008)

Frankly, The Transporter is an action franchise better known for its four-wheeled vehicles. But this so-so sequel did throw up a fun scene where The Stath commandeers a BMX, somehow outpaces a car, and finds time to do some sweet BMX tricks along the way. Why? Because The Stath. That’s why.

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Premium Rush (2012)

“Fixed gear…no brakes…can’t stop…” intones Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s narration, neatly setting up an ingenious premise: Gordon-Levitt’s ‘fixie’ bike can’t slow down, and neither can this hyperkinetic chase movie. As if the belligerent cabbies and dozy pedestrians of Manhattan weren’t enough to contend with, our bike messenger hero must also dodge and weave from a growling Michael Shannon, desperate to get his hands on Gordon-Levitt’s package. (Stop sniggering at the back).
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Wadjda (2012)

Wadjdja was full of firsts: the first feature film made in Saudi Arabia; the first to be directed by a Saudi woman; the first Saudi film to be nominated for an Oscar… But beyond such lofty superlatives lies a simple story of an 11-year-old girl who dreams of owning a bicycle, in a society where women are not supposed to. Another example of how the humble bicycle can be an pedal-powered engine for social change.