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My TV Dinner

Every Friday The Social's digital correspondent, Jessica Allen, answers two questions we face every day. What should I eat? And what should I watch? The answer for one is frequently found in the other.

Thoughts of bicycles prompts reminiscing of Breaking Away

Jessica Allen ponders cycle culture and one of her favourite movies from childhood

For the last 18 years I’ve travelled the streets of Toronto on my bike.

In the early days, before designated bike lanes arrived on some streets, I quickly learned that police will treat cyclists like motorists: shortly after arriving to the city in ’98 for grad school, I received a ticket for running a red light. I’ve never done it again, $185 later.

Today, I’m equal parts frustrated and bewildered more by my fellow cyclists than motorists: those that don’t signal their intent, that breeze past open streetcar doors, and that ride on sidewalks (some even ring their bells at pedestrians!) What confuses me most, however, involves what used to be pretty standard street fare: the right-hand turn.

Today, at most downtown street lights where cars and bikes converge, it’s turned into a juggernaut that shouldn’t be: “cyclists can either stay behind the vehicle,” the Ontario Ministry of Transportation advises me in its safety material, “or pass the right-turning vehicle on the left by shoulder checking, signalling, checking again and then passing on the left. Never pass a right-turning vehicle on the right.”

Mostly I just see motorists yielding to cyclists illegally passing on the right. When they don’t, I’ve observed cyclists give motorists the finger, kick their door, and yell at them to get out of the bike lane, which — in most cases — they’ve legally merged into. Once a cyclist even yelled at me for lawfully yielding to a car. It’s almost enough to make you ride the streetcar.

Which is why I dialled up the 1979 classic Breaking Away on Netflix. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, and taking home a screenwriting Oscar, it’s the best biking movie ever made.

OK, yes I know there’s not a big pool to choose from, but the film, set in Bloomington, Indiana, during the summer that four friends figure out who they should be after graduating high school, was on steady viewing rotation in my childhood home.

The movie climaxes with a relay bike race that sees the the four “cutters”— colloquial for townies — compete against the rich college kids. Their leader, Dave, is so obsessed with the Italian cycling team that he pretends to be one of them.

Like Dave, I’ve also pretended to be Italian — mostly in the kitchen, which explains why almost every day this August, I’ve made panzanella salad. Grill stale bread on the barbecue, add cucumbers, pickled red onions, basil, ripe home-grown tomatoes, vinegar and olive oil and you’ve got dinner — without turning on the oven.

Besides nostalgia, I also owe a lot to this film, professionally speaking. Back in 2011, an editor at Maclean’s thought it would be fun for the magazine’s editorial assistant, me, to report from TIFF red carpets. First up was Moneyball, where I posed the profound question of: What’s your favourite sports movie? Chris Pratt and Anna Farris politely obliged. After naming Raging Bull, Field of Dreams, and A League of Their Own, Ferris dropped in Breaking Away and I lost my mind. “Breaking Away? Breaking Away!” I screamed at them. “I rode my bike here!” My festival coverage that year was nominated for a National Magazine Award. I didn’t win, but I did ride my bike to the gala.

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