Forget the Oscars: These are the best (and worst) cycling films in pop culture
Iconic films and not-so-classic comedies used two wheels to advance their narrative
The Academy Awards are back, celebrating the best films of the year. With Owen Wilson’s cycling reporter from Wes Anderson’s French Dispatch not getting a single Oscar nomination, we thought we’d look back at the best films about, or featuring, cycling.
Not all these movies are about cycling. Some, the bicycle just steals the scene. Some understand our sport perfectly. Others, like This is 40, understand cycling better than we’d like to admit. Then there’s those that totally miss the mark.
We’re loosely dividing this up into categories. In Best Feature, cycling is a central part of the film. In Supporting Character, it’s an important part, but not necessarily about cycling. Then there’s a few notable cameo’s thrown in for good measure.
Here’s the top Hollywood films that get cycling right – and a few that really don’t.
Breaking Away (1979)
Perhaps the OG North American cycling movie. And who knew the Omertà part would be so accurate, if a little exaggerated.
American Flyers (1985)
Actual footage from Coors Bicycle Classic and an Eddy Merckx cameo? Kevin Costner? The 80s? All good things.
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
A classic, and possibly the only Oscar-winning movie devoted entirely to the bicycle. Bicycle Thieves is a powerful and emotional work of art. Set in post-war Rome, it tells the simple tale of Antonio, an unemployed man who at last secures a job hanging posters. The only requirement for the role is that he must have his own bicycle. When Antonio’s bicycle is stolen, he trudges the streets with his young son in desperate search of it. Bicycle Thieves left a lasting mark on cinema worldwide and still lands on “best movie” lists, not just for cyclists.
Tour de Pharmacy (2017)
From high art of Bicycle Theives we move directly to the lowbrow laughs of Tour de Pharmacy. Lewd, dumb humour, but well researched deep dive into cycling’s darker days. It’s an exaggerated caricature, sure, but one that hits at some truths.
Tour de Pharmacy is a 40-minute made-for-T.V. mockumentary about the Tour de France. It’s full of lewd, dumb humor, sure. But it’s also a well-researched (and then wildly exaggerated) look at cycling’s darker days. TdP is a sequel of sorts to the tennis mockumentary 7 Days in Hell. It isn’t a light jab, but a full dive into the more inane quirks and sordid past of pro cycling.
I watched this once, in a basement mid-road trip, 5 years ago. It’s probably offensive, it’s definitely dumb. But it did hit a bunch of insider points that are funny about our sport (even if we like them, despite how silly they are).
Triplets of Belleville (2003)
It’s animated, it’s cute, and it’s about the tour de france. of course this is in our good books.
This is 40 (2012)
As painful as it is to admit, Judd Apatow’s movie about finding meaning in middle age absolutely nails MAMIL culture. As one Masters-aged rider at the office put it, “My first thought was ‘I feel seen,’ followed immediately by ‘Oh god, that’s what I look like to normal people.’” Cycling isn’t just a footnote in TI40, either. The movie’s narrative arc hits its climax when Paul Rudd’s character goes for a rage-ride to clear his head only to get doored while in an angry shouting match with a guy in a truck.
A movie about bikes and their transformative power to take us away from the problems of this world, in this case literally. Even if the escape only lasts as long as a ride, it’s a feeling we all understand.
You, Me, and Dupree (2006)
Own Wilson sprinting against Lance Armstrong in his living room is exactly what pre-zwift training looked like. A simpler time. A better time? Is Own Wilson secretly a cyclist?
Kevin Bacon is a stock trader that loses it all, only to find true meaning on the street as a messenger. The plot is bad, the riding is worse. It’s cheesy as all get out. Even Kevin Bacon allegedly referred to it as the “Absolute lowest point” of his career. But a high point for the Hollywood treatment of bicycle dancing.
Premium Rush (2012)
So bad it’s almost a cult classic. Watching Joseph Gordon Levitt pretend to race around New York was the final proof that the proverbial shark was getting more air time than a fixie freestyle kid trying to jump a curb. That scene never dies, of course, it’s just retreated back to the sub/counter culture that it has always been. Like a safe version of 2002’s Red Light Go.
Failure to Launch (2006)
Unfortunately not a crash highlight reel, as this title might suggest. Failure to Launch is a romantic comedy starring Sarah Jessica Parker, of Sex and The City fame, and Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey plays Tripp, a 35-year-old that lives at home to avoid, among other things, serious romantic relationships. Bikes feature in a scene where Tripp, Ace (Justin Bartha) and Demo (Bradley Cooper) go mountain biking.
I know what you’re thinking. Thirty-something bros in a perpetual juvenile state who use a mountain bike to avoid adulthood sounds pretty on point, right? The troubles start when Tripp, Ace and Demo hit the trails. Fingerless gloves, a Jofa helmet are bad signs. When the bros stop to feed the wildlife, it goes completely off the rails. Thankfully, they switch to
127 Hours (2010)
This isn’t bad, but it is also not good. Riding double-track like it’s hardcore, crashing while mountain biking without a helmet and filming it all on VHS dad-cam strapped to the bars… Ok, wait, maybe this is kinda funny.
Pre-scandal Lance appears to inspire Vince Vaughn’s Peter to win a dodgeball tournament. There’s some delicious irony to watching L.A. saying “I’m sure this decision won’t haunt you forever,” and to the Texan rooting against Globo-Gym, but this is one cameo that didn’t age particularly well.
City of Angels (1998)
Using a traffic death as a plot point sucked. Having Meg Ryan repeatedly apologize for dying? Worse. Of course, there is no details that would indicate fault at the scene. But it’s still no fun to watch.