Pez At The Movies: “BREAKING AWAY”
While there have been many documentaries about cycling, very few dramatic movies have featured the bicycle as a central element. If you like grim realism (and it is really grim) Vittorio De Sica’s 1940 “Bicycle Thieves,” a title also translated as “The Bicycle Thief,” is considered one of the greatest movies ever made but for our money “Breaking Away,” a charming and funny 1979 film about four teenagers trying to figure out their lives, is very special.
“Breaking Away” was made for just over $2 million and featured a cast of young actors on the verge of making their careers. Directed by Peter Yates (who directed the police action film “Bullitt” in 1968) and written by Steve Tesich, expectations were not especially high but the film turned into the surprise hit of the year. It won the Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) and received five Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director, and did win for Best Original Screenplay.
It is odd that one of the films most beloved by cyclists is not really about cycling. Set in Bloomington, Indiana, one summer, it follows a foursome of friends who have just graduated from high school and now are faced with the big decisions of what to do with their lives. There is the football hero, Mike, played by Dennis Quaid, who is quick to anger; Cyril (Daniel Stern) is the class clown; Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is the affable pipsqueak; and then there is Dave. Dave Stoller is the central character in the film. Dennis Christopher’s portrayal of this nineteen year old is wonderful. Dave is a smart kid but clearly is suffering from some severe teenage insecurities. A bit sickly, he has improved his health through cycling, and the sport becomes an obsession. He saved his money carefully and bought a beautiful Masi Gran Criterium. And turned into an Italian.
Much of the humour in the film revolves around this alter ego of Dave’s and how inappropriate it is to his real life. He is the child of blue collar parents. His father was a stonecutter at the quarries, now become a near-caricature of a used car salesman, and his mother a housewife who maybe wanted something better. They have some difficulty coming to terms with a son who now speaks to them in Italian, plays opera records and wants Italian food. In one particularly memorable scene, his father (Paul Dooley) rails against food that ends in “ini” since he just wants his french fries.
Bloomington is a college town and the movie makes much of the conflict between the university community and the locals, disparagingly referred to as “cutters.” On the one side there is money and beauty and Mercedes-Benzes; on the other Dave and his clueless friends, looking in. But Dave manages to cross the boundary, at least for a while, by passing himself off as an Italian exchange student named Enrico Gismondi at the university, attracting the interest of a pretty girl there.
So “Breaking Away” features confused teenagers, uppity rich kids, class conflict and limestone quarries. What about the cycling? Well, the Masi is clearly central to Dave-Enrico’s life and when he hears that his idols, the Cinzano racing team, are coming to Indiana to race, he heads off to race with them. He learns a hard lesson that day and cycling is not the same. But it is still important to the plot as he and his friends are going to settle their feud with the nasty frat boys at the “Little 500,” a track race held at Indiana University. Founded in 1951, the race, which attracts 25,000 spectators, features 33 teams of four, who ride 200 laps of a cinder track in relay fashion. The idea our heroes have is that since Dave is so fast he can do the whole distance by himself while the others cheer for him. In true movie fashion, their plans go awry and we are treated to an exciting (and funny) climax to the film. A warm movie with many great performances in it, “Breaking Away” remains as fresh and entertaining today as it was four decades ago.
Chainset on the wrong side!
However, for some of us Dave Stoller’s Masi was one of the big highlights and has an interesting history. Faliero Masi was born in 1908 and founded his bicycle enterprise in rural Tuscany, moving to Milan in the 1940s. From a workshop located under the Vigorelli velodrome, where his son Alberto continues the trade, Faliero, nicknamed “the Tailor,” became famous as a builder of some of the finest racing bicycles in the post World War II era, with clients including Rik van Looy and Eddy Merckx. As a “framebuilder of trust,” his bikes were usually painted in the colours of team sponsors rather than as Masis.
In 1972, Faliero Masi retired and sold the rights to his name to an American company and brought over framebuilders from Italy to teach the Americans how to build frames in his style. A number of noted craftsman built frames for Masi USA, including Mario Confente, Brian Bayliss, Jim Cunningham and Dave Moulton. Two Masi Gran Criteriums were obtained from the firm and used in the movie and returned to California after the filming in Indiana. A third bike, a cheap Sears, was painted up to look like a Masi for close-ups, apparently Masi USA was unwilling to loan an additional bike! Writer Steve Tesich was a bike enthusiast who had insisted on a Masi for Dave and Colnagos for the Cinzano team and he ended up with one of the Masis used in the film.
My own 1981 Masi Gran Criterium, which is identical to the one used in the movie, was brazed by Dave Moulton. “Breaking Away” gave Masi USA a boost for a while but with bicycle racing being what it was in the United States at that time Mr. Moulton had done up enough frames by 1984 that they were filling up the shop unsold and production ended temporarily. Masi has since gone through a number of hands and the brand is currently owned by Haro Bicycles of Vista, California, with frames being made in Asia.
Directed by Peter Yates and written by Steve Tesich
Starring Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, et al.
Twentieth Century Fox, 1979, 101 minutes
All photos from the film, apart from Leslie’s Masi
Available on Amazon Prime.