It won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Barbara Barrie), Best Director, Best Music, Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Best Adaptation Score and Best Picture.
The film is 8th on the List of America's 100 Most Inspiring Movies compiled by The American Film Institute in 2006. In June 2008, AFI revealed its "Ten top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Breaking Away was acknowledged as the eighth best film in the sports genre.
When a professional Italian bicycling team (Team Cinzano) comes to town for a race, Dave is thrilled to be competing with them. But during the race, the Italians become annoyed when he is able to keep up with them, and force him to crash. Dave becomes disillusioned and depressed as a result. Meanwhile, Dave's father has a mild heart attack and is briefly incapacitated.
His friends talk Dave into forming a team for the annual Indiana University Little 500 bicycle race in an effort to beat a group of frat boys at their own game. They race under the name "Cutters" (a reference to stonecutters who worked in the limestone quarries in southern Indiana) against university intramural teams. Although the Little 500 is a relay race, Dave does all the riding for his team, building up a sizable lead. Then he crashes and injures his leg. At first, his teammates just stand around in shock - they didn't expect to have to do anything - but then Moocher jumps on the bike and does his best. When he tires, the other two do their part as well. However, they gradually lose the lead, then drop farther and farther behind. At that point, Dave has them tape his feet to the pedals, the only way he can ride, and gets back into the race. He overtakes the leader on the last corner and wins.
Dave's father, who's been prescribed bike riding for his health, is very proud of him. Later, he greets his son, only to have Dave reply in French. The French are also a bicycling power, and Dave has just met a French exchange student.
Dooley and Christopher also played father and son in the 1978 film A Wedding and in the 2003 Law & Order: Criminal Intent television episode "Cherry Red". Barrie, Haley, and Ashton continued their roles in the prequel TV series.
The team is based on the 1962 Phi Kappa Psi Little 500 champions, which featured legendary rider and Italian enthusiast Dave Blase, who provided screenwriter and fellow Phi Kappa Psi team member Steve Tesich the inspiration for the main character in the movie. Blase, together with team manager Bob Stohler, provided the name of this character: Dave Stohler. In the 1962 race, Blase rode 139 out of 200 laps and was the victory rider crossing the finish line, much like the main character in the film. Blase himself appears in the movie as the race announcer.