I am writing my biweekly column on the Fourth of July. A quick session of taking stock has led me to conclude that I am a very lucky 71-year-old. I am healthy, have a terrific wife, three children, three nice in-law kids and four grandchildren. In addition I have one of the world’s greatest jobs (professor) and I am a citizen of the United States of America. How’s that for a Fourth of July epiphany?
To add to all this, I love movies and biking.
So, how does this all relate to Stage and Screen? Here’s the simple answer. Last Sunday I returned from my annual family and friends five-day bicycle trip, the 25th I have planned. Thirty friends and family members joined me in the Canadian Rockies — Banff, Radium Hot Springs, Golden and Lake Louise and back to Banff. Clearly beautiful country, incredible scenery, very nice local people, wonderful companions and a real challenge.
I polled our members to select their favorite biking movies. Here are the top three, each with a different story line:
1. “Breaking Away” (1979)
2. “American Flyers” (1985)
3. “Quicksilver” (1986)
“Breaking Away” has become a cult film for bikers, nerds and iniophiles (Paul Dooley, who plays Dave’s dad in “Breaking Away,” constantly refers to things Italian as being “ini,” that is, from Italy, as in “linguini”).
This is the prototypical, overplayed town-and-gown friction plot. High school buddies Dave (Dennis Christopher), Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern) and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) are “cutters.” Cutters (Indiana limestone cutters) is a pejorative term used by the college crowd (Indiana University) to describe the blue-collar class of non-university kids in Bloomington. Ind. This coming-of-age film features four going-nowhere friends who challenge the college snobs on a number of levels, not the least of which is in the Little 500 bike race.
Dave fancies himself a great Italian bike racer who is obsessed with all things Italian and co-ed Katherine (Robyn Douglass). His father (Dooley) masterfully portrays the seemingly inflexible yet loving and ultimately understanding father who cannot connect with his son’s off-beat behaviors.
“Breaking Away” writer Steve Tesich won an Oscar in 1980 for a Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Interestingly, Tesich was a 1965 graduate of the University of Indiana and was an alternate rider for his fraternity in the 1962 Little 500 bicycle race.
Even if you don’t love cycling, this is a very sweet and entertaining film. You’ll especially enjoy Quaid and Stern as they looked more than 30 years ago. “Breaking Away,” according to the IMDb database, was listed No. 8 on the American Film Institute’s 100 most inspiring movies of all time (2006) and No. 8 by Sports Illustrated on their list of the top 50 sports movies of all time (2003.) See it on Netflix – you’ll love it.
“American Flyers” takes a very different direction — serious bike racing. Coincidentally, “American Flyers” was also written by Steve Tesich. No Oscar this time.
This is a somewhat hokey, formulaic film featuring disparate brothers competing against themselves and the infamous Hell of the West bike race. This fictional race was based on the now-defunct Coors International Bicycle Classic that traversed the beautiful and extremely high terrain of the Colorado Rockies. With riders racing roads in excess of 12,000 feet in elevation, this is one tough ride.
I know this to be a fact as I have ridden every inch of the terrain ridden by these racers and am here to tell you that this ain’t no piece of cake. While my pace was snail-like on these roads, I can attest to the difficulty and feeling of accomplishment when a rider conquers Trail Ridge Road (12,183 feet), Independence Pass (12,095 feet), Mt. Evans (14,130 feet), Vail Pass (10,617 feet), Loveland Pass (11,990 feet), etc.
The scenery in the film is beautiful and the bike competition shots are compelling. The story features Marcus (Kevin Costner) a physician bike racer who encourages his brother David (David Marshall Grant) to join him in the Hell of the West bicycle race. Predictably, unbeknownst to David, Marcus is fatally ill with a congenital brain aneurysm. Rae Dawn Chong (daughter of Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame) plays girlfriend Sarah.
This film is interesting if you like the Rockies (who doesn’t?) and bike racing. “American Flyers is available through Netflix. Generally a not-so-great film with not-so-great box office. This film should have been an early warning sign of Costner’s limited acting skills.
The last of our trifecta is “Quicksilver.” This one is radically different as it tells a fall-from-grace story of a floor trader who moves from the fast lane of the stock market to the fast lane of a bicycle messenger in San Francisco.
One of my favorite actors, Kevin Bacon, plays stock broker Jack Casey. Jami Gertz plays his fellow messenger and love interest Terri. While a generally poor film and not a bike movie in the same sense as the first two, this film shows the harrowing existence of bike crazies maneuvering their way through the traffic of a busy city. This part of the film will be of interest to any urban biker who has dodged traffic on the mean street of a big city.
Kevin Bacon has called this film the low point of his remarkable acting career. For the bike mavens who read this column, you will be amazed to know that Jack rides a fixed-gear, single-speed bike in the movie. As far as I am concerned no human being can ride such a bike under normal circumstances, let alone bicycle messengering in San Francisco. Also available on Netflix.
Bernard A. Karshmer is a professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He is a past chair of the Denver Film Society and International Film Festival and currently chairs the Denver County Cultural Council.