Lights, Camera … Bicycles!

On the Road, Travel Destinations
on March 29, 2009
David Snodgress Dave Blase (left) and Bob Stohler were the real-life inspirations for <i>Breaking Away's</i> main character, Dave Stohler.

Steve Dodds was just starting his bicycle repair business in Bloomington, Ind. "I had a truck that I would drive around to do repairs," he recalls.

Daniel Stern was hoping to break into movies. "I had just sold all my furniture trying to pay the rent in New York," the actor says.

Then something came along that put both of them in the spotlight.

The movie Breaking Away, filmed in the hometown of Indiana University and released in 1979, launched the movie careers of Stern and fellow actor Dennis Quaid, who starred alongside Dennis Christopher and Jackie Earle Haley. And dozens of Bloomington residents, including Dodds, found themselves in the film's intersection of real life and Hollywood.

Christopher portrayed the central character of Dave Stohler, whose obsession with Italian bicycle racing unnerves his car-salesman father.

"The movie certainly changed my life," Christopher says. "It was one of those things that just happens, not very often. We really caught lightning in a bottle."

Produced over six weeks with a modest budget of $2.4 million, Breaking Away was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning the 1979 Oscar for best screenplay. The story follows Stohler and three friends as they form a ragtag, underdog team to compete in IU's annual Little 500 bicycle race.

In the movie, snooty fraternity boys clash with Stohler and his buddies, dismissively calling them "cutters." The term refers to blue-collar jobs in the area's limestone-quarrying industry-jobs that didn't require college educations.

When Stohler and his three friends form an independent bicycling team to compete with the fraternities in the Little 500, they proudly call themselves the Cutters.

Lasting impact
Even after three decades, the film's impact continues to resonate in Bloomington.

"For anybody in cycling, that is the go-to movie," says Dodds, owner of Bloomington's Bicycle Doctor shop. Along with providing technical support for Breaking Away in 1978, Dodds was also an extra in a race scene. He recalls that he was paid "hundreds and hundreds of dollars; I don't remember exactly how much. But it was a lot to me. It was enough to buy a super stereo system that I still have today."

The Bicycle Doctor does business with customers all over the world, Dodds says, and Breaking Away has always been a major conversation piece. "I don't think there's a week goes by that someone doesn't ask me about it," he says.

Bloomington's 2009 Breakaway Visitors Guide, with a title that echoes that of the movie, features locations from the film that people can still see today, such as the "Stohler Home" on South Lincoln Street. Owner Steve Percy is accustomed to cyclists pedaling by and shouting "Ciao!" or other memorable lines from the movie. The bathroom where Dave Stohler shaved his legs-to be more like the Italian racers he admired-is still intact, complete with the bathtub.

And if you're hungry after driving by the house, stop by Bloomington Hospital and grab a bite at the Breakaway Café.

The big 'Little' race
The celebrated Little 500 race sets the stage for the movie's climactic showdown. Every year, the race traditionally marks the beginning of spring and anchors a weekend-long slate of other activities at Indiana University. (This year's events will take place April 24-25.) Founded in 1951 by Howdy Wilcox Jr., executive director of the IU Student Foundation, the Little 500 was patterned after the Indianapolis 500, which Wilcox's father, Howdy Wilcox, won in 1919.

The largest collegiate bike race in the United States, the Little 500 features teams of four members riding laps around a quarter-mile track. The race pits fraternities, sororities, residence halls and independent teams in fierce competition, with the winner often determined in the final tenths of a second.

When Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong visited Bloomington in 1997, he was impressed. "I've attended Super Bowls, World Series and the Monaco Grand Prix," he commented later. "But the coolest event I ever attended was the Little 500."

So what gave Breaking Away writer Steve Tesich, who died in 1996, the idea for such a durable and inspiring story? "It's based on fact and on my experiences, in large part," says Dave Blase, who provided Tesich inspiration-and half the name-for the lead character. "My father wasn't a used-car salesman, but he couldn't understand my peculiarities and this business of riding a bike instead of getting a job. I did shave my legs and I did walk along Third Street singing arias from Italian opera."

Fraternity brothers in IU's Phi Kappa Psi, Blase and Tesich rode on the winning Little 500 team in 1962. Blase, 69, a retired high school biology teacher who lives today in Indianapolis, played the role of the race announcer in the film.

The "Stohler" part of the movie bicyclist's name came from another Tesich friend from his IU days, Bob Stohler, who was the manager of the 1962 winning team.

"Occasionally people will ask, especially if I am in a bike store, 'Did you know you have a famous last name?'" says Stohler, 67, who serves today as president of the Indiana University Kelley School of Business Alumni Board. "I'm proud of the movie. It's become part of the history of the community."

Making movie history
It's also become a piece of movie history. Breaking Away is a staple of cable television, and the American Film Institute last year ranked it eighth on its list of the top sports-themed movies of all time.

For Stern, the movie was his first big break in a long film career that now includes City Slickers and two Home Alone comedies, as well as being the narrator and a director for the television series The Wonder Years.

"I was 20 years old at the time, working in the theater and in a drugstore when the director hired me as a complete unknown," Stern says.

"I love that movie. The longevity of it is amazing. I really didn't think about the success of it at the time, but the very first time we saw a screening, the audience just went ape. People were leaping out of their seats and applauding at the end of the race."

"It's a great family movie," Stern says. "I have many friends now who are introducing it to their children. It's timeless."

Story by Jackie Sheckler Finch of Bloomington, Ind.