Before Dave Blase shows me his Little 500 memorabilia and old racing trophies, first he produces an album filled with his meticulously shaded drawings of cell cross-sections and fish. By the time our visit is over, I will see the connection between the silver-haired retiree before me and the college cyclist who inspired an Academy Award-winning movie.
Unless you attended Indianapolis' Arlington High School during Blase's 39 years teaching there, you will know him better in his fictional form, the opera-singing cyclist in the tender coming of age film Breaking Away, now 30 years old. Played by the skinny, blonde Dennis Christopher, Dave "Stohler" is a romantic teen with dreams far beyond the evacuated quarries of his Bloomington, Ind., home.
Much to his father's consternation, Dave loves all things Italian: sleek bike frames, Italian arias, even Catholicism. Like his three friends, Dave struggles to launch from high school to adulthood without quarry work or the confidence for college. They face down their fears together in a climactic bike race (Indiana University's Little 500) that pits townies against rich fraternity snobs.
From the sofa of his Northeastside home near Fall Creek, Blase, a short, tightly configured man wearing a red polo shirt and khaki pants, sorts out reality from fiction.
His Little 500 team rode to glory in 1962, not the late 1970s depicted in the film. There was a tall, wise-cracking philosopher (played by Daniel Stern) and a short, runt of a guy (played by Jackie Earle Haley). And there was Blase, who set a race record by completing 139 miles of the 200-mile relay race himself.
Infected with ... Italian fever
The Little 500 is a student-only race and Blase doesn't recall any animosity between locals and frat boys. He was a frat boy from Speedway and he wasn't rich. His fraternity brother Steve Tesich had emigrated from Serbia to East Chicago when he was 14. After graduating from IU, Tesich moved to New York and wrote one screenplay about conflicts between the working and leisure classes and another about Blase. Director Peter Yates advised him to merge the two into the one that would win Tesich an Oscar: Breaking Away.
"As far as the Italian thing," Blase (pronounced Blaze) says, "when you think of yourself as a nerd, if you pretend to be something else, it's a shield, an image to keep from being hurt." As the 69-year-old Blase delves into his far and recent past, it's easy to see that this veteran teacher and interview subject (local sports hero immortalized by Hollywood) knows how to wield a story.
As a college freshman, Blase says he was a nerd straight out of the old Charles Atlas Muscle Man ads: all legs and no guts. However, when his dormitory's beefy athletic director invited Blase to try out for the Little 500, he realized that big guys aren't necessarily bullies and little guys can be athletes. "I amazed myself," says Blase, who quickly outpaced his friend during tryouts. "It was the first time I asked myself, what could I do if I really tried something?"
Blase distinguished himself in his first Little 500 and soon Phi Kappa Psi wanted the new kid on the balloon tire bomber for their team. Blase joined them, but the move cost him. The real rivalry in those days was between dorms and Greek houses. To keep any one house from dominating the race, IU's student foundation mandated that students who switched houses sit out the race one year. Blase sat out and kept training, and even competed in the Pan American trials. The following year, another retroactive rule prohibited riders who had competed off campus. Blase was out, and feeling down.
Here, Blase's metamorphosis story takes an Incredible Hulk turn. In his senior year, Blase studied in Indy and took a job at the Riley research center, where he was infected with ... Italian fever. As Blase worked alongside doctors from Italy, his admiration for the Italian cyclists who dominated the 1960 Rome Olympics turned into imitation. He adopted their language and style. He grew out his hair and swapped wire glasses for contact lenses. Having now seen Blase's old racing photos, I can testify: Blase had more man-boy charm than Leonardo DiCaprio.
When Blase returned to IU in the spring, Phi Si was talking about a freshman who rode a 10-speed derailer: Tesich. The senior and the freshman became friends, trained together and often cycled to Blase's Speedway home. The year culminated in a ferocious underdog victory at the Little 500. After a three-year delay, Blase grabbed victory for Phi Psi. How could Tesich not adore him?
The passions of youth are not wasted
With Breaking Away, Tesich transformed Blase's win into cinematic proof that the passions of youth are not wasted. The writer died in 1996, but as his first film's fans grow older, they wonder: What happens after the cyclist rides over the hill and the flutes of Rossini fade?
Blase cycled professionally through his 20s, and if he was accompanied by music, it might have been Mozart's Requiem. Always pushing himself to his limits, Blase collapsed at one finish line with heat exhaustion. "I couldn't move for 45 minutes," he recalls. "I think I know what it's like to be on the doorstep of death." Blase confesses that cycling was sometimes a self-imposed torture.
Eventually, he learned to compete with himself without beating himself. He could drop the Italian accent. "As I grew in self-respect, I didn't have to pretend."
Blase didn't make it to Italy, but he's been to Denmark, where he met his Dutch wife on a cycling trip. (They return as often as they can to Germany, where their daughter is an opera singer.) As a young married man, Blase thought that teaching would be a good job between racing seasons. He soon realized that serious cycling was a time-consuming mistress that his wife did not deserve. "At school during my free period," he recalls, "I was listening to Bach and my mind opened."
Biology class became Blase's new passion, a laboratory of human experience. He decorated his classroom with art prints, poetry and philosophers' words. He often told his students, "We're all in space in a glorious spacesuit. Not a worm spacesuit, but a human spacesuit." He asked students to think about the difference between worms and humans, between love and lust, and about that most human attribute, compassion.
As he talks about teaching, Blase stands up as if he's at the lectern again. Soon he is crawling on his living room floor, re-creating a lesson about the frailties of the human body. He would make fun of himself, his balding head and big butt, so that students would feel sorry for him, show their humanity.
Next, Blase stands up and pretends to be a bird pecking, as he once did in class until his nose was bloody. "Next," he yells to the students who aren't with us as he leaps to an imaginary window ledge, "I'll demonstrate flight!"
Tesich would recognize this man. For Blase, it seems, the performance never ends. Only the soundtrack changes.