The bike is back! Cycling in Britain is enjoying a 21st-century renaissance, flushed with Olympics success and now welcoming the Tour de France’s Grand Départ.
So what better time to celebrate a century and more of cycling on film? Over 60 bicycle films are available to watch now on the BFI Player – and most are free!
Our tour of cinematic cycling has three stages. In Setting Off we capture the thrill of that first bike, the joy and peril of learning to ride, and all the hijinks and adventures that two wheels have to offer.
The romance of the open road is the subject of Freewheeling, a selection that evokes a leisurely ride through British rural back-ways.
Finally, Pedal Power changes gear for a look at cycling’s competitive streak, with would-be champions pushing their two wheeled-machines to the limits and beyond.
So put on that helmet, climb back in the saddle and prepare to whiz through a 10-film sampler of this landmark collection.
10 to try
Lady Cyclists (1899)
There’s more than a little mystery to this charming film. It’s been attributed to pioneer filmmaker James Williamson, on the basis that he lists a ‘Military Ride’ by lady cyclists in one of his early catalogues.
Rudge-Whitworth – Britain’s Best Bicycle (1902)
Motion picture advertising was barely five years old when this Edwardian promo was made. With its short, 30-second duration and simple, humorous message, this entertaining commercial shows that the wheel of screen advertising has turned full circle.
Women Rule the Waves (1929)
Who says bikes can’t swim? Intrepid 22-year-old Aimee Pfanner was a cross-channel sensation in 1929, valiantly pedalling her way from Calais to Dover on a ‘hydro-cycle’ – something like a bicycle affixed to water skis – in just nine and a half hours. This is production material for a newsreel story thrillingly conveying her daring feat.
Tony Buys a Bike (1942)
A lucky schoolboy gets a brand new bike for Christmas in this charming, playful film from the Cyclists’ Touring Club, promoting the joys of club cycling and good road sense – especially on a Claud Butler bike! In one delightful sequence, toy cars and model streets come to life.
Skid Kids (1953)
There are shades of classic Ealing comedy Hue and Cry (1947) in this breezy, Bermondsey-shot kids’ adventure from a long-gone London. ‘Swanky’ and his chums take on a gang of bike thieves, with barely a thought for their own safety.
Cyclists Special (1956)
A wonderful short, produced by British Transport Films, about travelling around Britain by bicycle – with the help of the odd train. An excursion train equipped with cycle vans takes a party of cyclists and their machines from Willesden and Watford to Rugby, where they split up into separate parties and tour the countryside of Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire.
Cyclists Abroad (1957)
A party of cyclists set out for an Austrian tour in this colourful and evocative British Transport Film. On the boat-train from Victoria to Calais their bicycles are carried in a specially-equipped van, while in Buchs the party start their tour of the land of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert.
The Racing Cyclist (1966)
A fascinating insight into lightweight racing cycle manufacture, through the eyes of a black female artist from the Caribbean. Made to introduce overseas audiences to British life, the film features ‘Harry’, a rising star in amateur cycle racing – actually cycle legend Barry Witcomb.
It’s a Bike! (1983)
Oozing with 1980s cheese, this hugely entertaining live-action comic-strip story was made to encourage bike maintenance and safety, in which two thieves pursue an overgrown schoolboy and pilfer parts of his bicycle. The fun is crowned with a rapping Cockney narrator in the mould of 80s pop maverick Ian Dury.
The Kid with a Bike (2011)
The Dardenne brothers’ powerful, award-winning drama tells of a troubled and volatile young teenager abandoned by his dad and ‘adopted’ by a hairdresser. In the film, Cyril (Thomas Doret) escapes school to search for his bike, a symbol of his lost relationship with his father.