The 10 greatest bicycle movies

If it’s not about the bike, as Lance Armstrong famously said, then what is it about? If you watch the great films about bicycling, it’s about suffering

‘‘You cannot be a cyclist without going through incredible amounts of pain,'' says Jock Boyer in Rising from Ashes, a superb new documentary about his efforts, with others, to create and nurture a Rwandan cycling team.

Rising From Ashes ranks high in my personal top 10, because it takes the bicycle movie to a new level. As narrator Forest Whitaker says, if you had a bicycle on which to escape in 1994 in Rwanda, it could make the difference between life and death. This film features a guy who knew nothing much about the genocide, but something about guilt.

Boyer was the first American to compete in the Tour de France, spent 20 years riding in Europe, did five Tours, then returned to America where his life went pear-shaped after he pleaded guilty to sexual contact with an 11-year-old girl. After a jail sentence, he begins a kind of atonement in Rwanda, with young men who have all seen too much trauma. In terms of suffering, riding a bike seems easier.

It is true that bikes and cinema have a natural bond. Two wheels, two reels, and a story unfolds. There is drama in every bike race and a sense of history: the bicycle changed our planet, and the bike race has changed our idea of sport. As a very excitable French journalist says in Pepe Danquart’s Hell on Wheels, a marvellous documentary about the 2003 Tour de France, Le Tour is far greater than the World Cup or the Olympics, and a very French invention. ‘‘It is France, the mountains, the plains, Les Landes and Brittany, it is the ideal venue for great endeavour … The riders come to you … the regular guy, the loser, the metro commuter. Cycling is the only sport that ennobles its audience.’’

Though not if you watch the Tour in its mountain stages, obviously, where every stupid drunken loser in Europe turns out to get his five seconds on TV and irritate the athletes with ‘‘encouragement’’. Don’t get me started.


Pee Wee Herman in Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

I have chosen a mix of documentary and fiction, comedy and drama, because so much of the great stuff is about the enthralling reality of racing. If you don’t believe me, watch Jorgen Leth’s A Sunday in Hell, about the 1973 Paris-Roubaix race, featuring Eddy Merckx. Note that word hell, again. As in suffering.

Is it a coincidence that the Tour originated in a Catholic country? Can the bicycle movie offer a religious experience? Danquart talks to a man who lives in a church, decorated with Tour memorabilia: ‘‘For me, suffering has two meanings. Suffering can be negative. If you try to suffer for its own sake, that’s bad. There’s something wrong in your head. But when you talk about suffering that you must get through, and that you can survive through enormous effort, that is something else. That is positive, good and beautiful. Beautiful because you think of courage and stamina, loyalty, the willingness to make sacrifices, modesty and love. From this perspective, the suffering during training, during sporting competition, while doing one’s job, is the same as religious suffering. It is love. It is beautiful…’’
Amen to that, brother.

So now, let us survey the field:
1. A Sunday in Hell:The Paris-Roubaix race sorts the men from the supermen on the cobblestones of northern France. If you’re just starting out as a racer, this will make you want to give up. Eddy Merckx the destroyer rides against fellow Belgian rival Roger de Vlaeminck. Bone-jarring, mud-eating, awe-inspiring. If you want to understand why cycling is for many the greatest sport of all, this is a good place to start. Directed by Jorgen Leth.

2. Breaking Away: The most charming bicycle film ever made was directed by Peter Yates, as Dennis Christopher pretends to be an Italian cyclist, to escape the boredom of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Bloomington, Indiana. Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley are his pals in the frenzied finale, where Christopher has to beat the stuck-up college dudes. Steve Tesich, who raced in college, won the Oscar for best original screenplay.

3. Hell on Wheels: Pepe Danquart follows the German team in the 2003 Tour de France, featuring Erik Zabel and his roommate Rolf Aldag. A fascinating and funky deconstruction of the toll it takes, with glimpses of Lance Armstrong. This was before the EPO hit the fan, so to speak. Three years later, Zabel and Aldag admitted to taking it. They weren’t the only ones.

It is true that bikes and cinema have a natural bond. Two wheels, two reels, and a story unfolds.

4. Rising from Ashes: See above.

5. American Flyers: Of writer Steve Tesich’s two films about cycling, Breaking Away is the better one, but this has the better racing. John Badham directs with a truncheon, as two brothers (David Grant, Kevin Costner) bond on a three-day race through the Rocky Mountains. Fabulous locations make up for a cornball story.

6. Stars and Watercarriers: Danish director Jorgen Leth is the Scorsese of bicycle movies: thoughtful, original, unblinking. This is his portrait of the 1973 Giro d’Italia – 3746 kilometres, 140 professionals, 20 days. Eddy Merckx humbles his opponents on Monte Carpegna. See why they say he was the greatest pro-cyclist of all.

7. Jour de Fete: Jacques Tati as a postman in a small French town, on the day of a festival. No one has done more with a bicycle to make us laugh. Somebody needed to take the piss out of the Tour and Jacques was the man to do it.

8. Vive le Tour: A short, expressionistic celebration of Le Tour from the perspective of a French director (Louis Malle) who loved it: waving nuns, cyclists peeing on the road, ecstatic crowds. It raises the question of doping, as early as 1962.

9. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure: You’re not serious. Well no, nor was Pee-wee Herman. And yet, this is a great film about the bond between a boy and his bike. When someone nicks his souped-up red conveyance, Pee-wee must make an epic and hilarious journey to recover it. Pure magic from Tim Burton.

10. Bicycle Thieves: Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 film about a poor man searching for his stolen bicycle in post-war Rome is a classic of neo-realist cinema, but it’s also a film about the way the bicycle changed the world. This man can’t feed his family without work and he can’t work without his bike. The same equation holds true still in many parts of the world. A bike gives life and hope.

On Twitter @ptbyrnes

Rising from Ashes is in limited release.