With the 104th edition of the Tour de France reaching a sweaty climax in Paris this weekend, now seems the perfect time to revisit some of cinema’s saddle-seated heroes. From the lowly stabiliser novices to the thick-thighed pros, slap on your lycra, grease up your chain, and join us on a history of two-wheeled movies.
Bicycle Thieves (1949)
Beloved of film students and opportunist criminals alike, Vittorio De Sica’s Neorealist 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 MacGuffin 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.
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 Sir Ridley, as he should now be addressed), 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 and shows off a few circus tricks, while Burt Bacharach chortles Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. As if being outrageously charming, good-looking and talented wasn’t enough, Newman did his own bicycle stunts, too.
Breaking Away (1976)
Released in the midst of the 1970s cycling craze, Breaking Away is a quintessentially coming-of-age yarn. Dave (Dennis Christopher), a cycling-obsessed high schooler approaching graduation and a climactic bike race, is our breaking-away hero, who – like all coming-of-age yarns – has a grumpy Dad who just doesn’t understand kids these days. It's dated a little bit – Dave's affected Italian accent grates a little ("it'sa me, mama!") – but there's something infectious to be found in a blissful, cycling-heavy eternal summer.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
An image so iconic, they made a production company logo out of it. Chased down by faceless bad men, Elliott and his kindly alien pal seem to be out of options – but as John Williams’ faultless score swells to a crescendo, E.T. sends the unlikely pair flying through the air, silhouetted by the moon. Spielberg’s classic 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.
Belleville Rendez-Vous (2003)
Professional cycling has always been given short shrift in cinema, seen to outsiders as 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 ageing trio of music hall singers, the French mafia, and a fat dog. Formidable!
The Transporter 3 (2008)
Let's be frank here: as action franchises go, The Transporter is 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.
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 at the heart of this critical darling 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 a pedal-powered engine for social change.
Premium Rush (2012)
“Fixed gear…no brakes…can’t stop…” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s narration neatly setting up an ingenious premise: his ‘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.)
The Armstrong Lie (2013)
Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney initially set out to make a film about Lance Armstrong's extraordinary comeback year, returning to the Tour De France after recovering from cancer. Then Armstrong found himself stripped of his seven Tour De France titles and banned from professional cycling after it emerged he was a serial doper and liar. Gibney's film is a fascinating portrait of cycling's biggest hero fall into disgrace; Armstrong, we quickly learn, is far from the man we thought he was.