‘Breaking Away’ always takes me back to my IU days

Last weekend, I watched one of my favorite movies, “Breaking Away.” It was on the free Movies channel (with a lot of commercial interruptions). I used to have the DVD, which I acquired from a cereal box offer, but the disc has vanished.

 I have seen the movie dozens of times. If you haven’t seen this 1979 classic, what are you waiting for? It should be required viewing for incoming Indiana University freshmen.

“Breaking Away” was written by IU graduate Steve Tesich. It won the 1979 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and received four additional nominations, including for Best Picture. It is both eternal in themes and a snapshot of Bloomington and southern Indiana in the late 1970s.

It is special to me for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that I saw it for the first time at the IU Auditorium during my first week on campus in the fall of 1982. After viewing the movie, my friends and I walked over to the Tenth Street Stadium where the climatic race was filmed. The stadium, with its cinder track, was in disrepair because it had been replaced by IU’s Memorial Stadium for football games and by Bill Armstrong Stadium for soccer and the Little 500 bicycle races. \

The author stops at IU’s Sample Gates, which didn’t exist when “Breaking Away” was filmed.

During my time at IU, the Tenth Street Stadium was removed and replaced by an arboretum. Some of the stadium’s ticket booths and columns were preserved as part of the arboretum borders.

“Breaking Away” stars Dennis Christopher (as Dave), Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern (later of “Home Alone” fame), and Jackie Earle Haley (the bad boy of the “Bad News Bears’) as four recent high school graduates trying to chart their futures in a small town that offers them few good career paths. 

For different reasons, college does not seem like a viable option for the young men. Their parents used to work in the limestone quarries of southern Indiana where much of the building material for the IU campus as well as buildings in New York City and Washington, DC was mined. Work in the quarries was back-breaking and the industry was shedding jobs. 

Adding to the existential crises of the four young men is the arrival of the college students, particularly those in the Greek system, into townie territory. I won’t spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it by giving away too much more of the story.

The film was shot entirely in Bloomington and the surrounding areas. For me, the campus scenes evoke powerful memories. So much has changed in the ensuing years. If you look quickly at an early scene shot near the Student Building, you can see there are no Sample Gates at the Kirkwood campus entrance. The Sample Gates are now one of the most photographed locations at IU. But when I graduated in 1986, the iconic entryway was still on the drawing board. 

When “Breaking Away” was filmed, Memorial Stadium was open on both ends. It was easy to stroll onto the field during off hours (which my freshman roommate Chris and I did one evening). I ate many days in The Commons dining area in the Indiana Memorial Union. There were no chain restaurants there, just a nice university cafeteria. In the years after I graduated, the cafeteria was remodeled to include a Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and Subway.

State Road 37, which during my time of making the trek to and from Bloomington, was a rolling 50-mile stretch between Indianapolis and IU with very few stoplights.  A pivotal scene in the movie has Dave riding his bike behind a semi on SR 37. For the past decade, the Indiana Department of Transportation has been busy turning SR 37 into part of Interstate 69. Riding a bike on it today would be dangerous and probably illegal.

The Little 500 is billed by IU as “The World’s Greatest College Weekend.” It is an annual spring event that until the late 1980s only included a men’s bicycle race. Female students for many years suffered the indignity of participating in tricycle races, a snub that has since been corrected.

Each spring, bicycle riders appear in and around Bloomington training for the race. Many of the teams are from the fraternities and sororities and dorms. But “Breaking Away” created a fictional “Cutters” team, which was meant to denote the young protagonists in the movie being children of limestone stonecutters. \

After the movie was released, independent teams calling themselves Cutters have participated in the race most years. The Cutters have won the Little 500 fourteen times, more than any other team in the 72-year history of the race.

My roommate Chris (yes, the same one who trespassed with me onto the football field) was on a Little 500 team in 1985. He had a training roller setup in the living room of our apartment. He routinely wore the same style yellow Campagnolo cycling cap that Dave wears in the movie. It was really cool to know a participant in the race. If I’m not mistaken, the illustrious Bill Moor was on a second place team in the Little 500.

In the newly remodeled Union cafeteria, there is a seating area memorializing “Breaking Away.” It has photos, posters, and other memorabilia documenting the making of the movie. Most current IU students probably pass by without looking up from their phones. 

The story of “Breaking Away” is timeless. It’s even more special to me that it was filmed in Bloomington, Indiana, one of my favorite places in the world, right around the time I was a student. If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it unreservedly. If you have seen it, make a point to view it again. If you attended IU and have not seen the movie, you should have your diploma suspended. And if you have my DVD, please return it. Hail to old IU!