Five iconic bike movies + what they say about us

December 28, 2013

by Kristin Butcher

The automobile is no stranger as a cultural icon in Hollywood. Herbie the Love Bug heralded the carefree, can-do early sixties. Starsky and Hutch’s red and white Torino is a nod to the 1970’s value of style. And our hopes and fears of emerging digital technologies in the 1980s were captured by Knight Rider‘s KITT and a time-traveling DeLoreon.

But where do bikes fit in Hollywood history? The bike-centric film or television show is a rare bird — or in the case of Pacific Blue, an odd duck — but bicycling’s moments in the limelight are often intentional and revelatory. Let’s take a look at five Hollywood productions featuring bikes that speak to cycling’s zeitgeist.

Breaking Away (1979)

In this coming of age tale, four Indiana townies struggle with their stations in life, caught between working class roots and wealthy Indiana University snobbery. In Breaking Away, director Peter Yates created a classic that follows 19-year-old champion bike racer and Italophile Dave’s determination and disillusionment as his views on racing, family and friendship come to a head. Widely embraced by audiences, Breaking Away relates the pain, pleasure and pressure of bike racing to the issues faced when breaking away from youthful notions. Both feeding off and furthering the late-seventies adoration of bike racing, Breaking Away proved that bike movies aren’t just for niche audiences. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and remains a critical favorite.

BMX Bandits (1983)

In Nicole Kidman’s debut film, three BMX-loving kids stumble onto a crime ring’s bank robbing plan. In classic contrived plot-device fashion, a misunderstanding leads the kids to being hunted by both police and criminals. The solution? Round up a fleet of teens on bikes for an epic dash through downtown Sydney that even manages to incorporate riding bikes down waterslides. BMX Bandits exemplified the rebellious perception of BMX racing in the 1980s, while also showing how bikes create a common bond among kids like few other things can.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Despite the suit, bowtie, and penchant for talking to furniture, eighties kids across the country identified with a protagonist whose most prized possession, a cherry-red cruiser bike, is ripped off by the neighborhood bully. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, director Tim Burton takes viewers on a surreal journey where trans-America trips to the Alamo’s non-existent basement and dancing in platform shoes atop a biker bar are all normal parts of recovering a stolen steed. Released the same year as bike-racing drama American Flyers, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure illustrates the profound, and at times completely over-the-top, love one can have for a bike.

40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

Aging-virgin Andy Stitzer, played by Steve Carell, never learned to drive. His bike, a truly adorkable commuter with giant mirrors, ultra-high handlebars, and a milk-crate cargo box, speaks to how immune our star is to peer pressure. While the movie is mostly about Stitzer overcoming notions of image en route to true love, the depiction of Stitzer’s bike commuter status is a mixed blessing, playing both positive and negative roles in his relationship status. But as the movie demonstrates, image isn’t everything.

Premium Rush (2012)

If the onslaught of fedoras and fixies wasn’t enough to clue you in to the rise of the hipsters, this Joseph Gorden-Levitt film proves that the underground messenger movement is now mainstream. Loved and loathed by its target audience, Premium Rush is the caper-film antitheses of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Yes, there are bad guys. Yes, there are chase scenes. Yes, there are bikes. But unlike many bike-centric flicks, the hero’s love of bikes isn’t depicted as an eccentricity, but as normal as Steve McQueen’s love of cars.

If holiday movies are driving you insane, here are a few other movies where bicycles take center stage. Feel free to add your favorites.

The Bicycle Thief
American Flyers
Triplets of Belleville

Kristin Butcher is a freelance writer based out of Boulder, Colorado, she spends her time writing about people, the outdoors and, of course, bikes. You can read her column, Butcher Paper, in BIKE Magazine.

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