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The best cycling documentaries

Joe Robinson
13 Jan 2021

Cyclist runs down the 12 best documentaries about cycling you need to watch

Cycling documentaries, there are tonnes of them. Some excellent, some good, some average, some bad, some atrocious. But the key thing is that there are lots of them that provide just the necessary content to while away the hours as we try and guide our way through the latest national lockdown in the UK.

In the past year, we have been treated to an inside look at Jumbo-Visma's 2020 Tour de France campaign – you know, the one that all came tumbling down on the penultimate day; and the Netflix original ‘El Dia Menos Pensado’ - The Least Expected Day, a six-part documentary following the dramatic 2019 season for WorldTour stalwarts Movistar, released in mid-2020.

These latest additions to the cycling documentary stable are certainly worth a watch, not least to see the stone-cold Movistar sports director Pablo Lastras project his utter contempt for former Movistar rider, Richard Carapaz. However, there are better out there.

Some are obvious – A Sunday in Hell, for example – but some are less so. I mean, who remembers the classic 1991 Motorola team documentary?

So with that in mind, we have compiled 12 of the best cycling documentaires, many that you should consider watching sooner rather than later.

The 12 best cycling documentaries of all time

Sunday in Hell, 1976

Jorgen Leith’s 1976 masterpiece ‘A Sunday in Hell’ is the pinnacle of cycling documentaries and perfectly encapsulates the splendid horror of cycling’s greatest race, warts and all. Has there ever been a better leading cast than Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Francesco Moser and Freddy Maertens?

And the best bit of it all is De Vlaeminck, sideburns perfectly shaped for the big day ahead, polishing off a rare steak the morning of the race. If it’s good enough for ‘Monsieur Paris-Roubaix’ then surely it’s good enough for us right?

The Stars and Water carriers, 1973

Another classic brought to use by Leith, narrated in those forthright tones of David Sanders. This time, the documentary follows Danish hopeful Ole Ritter as he negotiates his way through the 1973 Giro d’Italia.

There’s plenty of Merckx drilling it on the front, lots of riders nicking beer from a passing truck mid-stage and a suitable amount of cap luft too.

Icarus, 2017

Bryan Fogel (no relation to jolly-posh TV presenter Ben) unsuccessfully attempts to dope his way to victory at the Haute Route multi-day sportive series.

Next thing he knows, he has uncovered the largest doping ring in professional sport since the East Germans in the 1980s.

I’ll stop myself from saying much more as a way not to give any spoilers but what I will say is that Grigory Rodchenkov is the most lovable villain in cinematic history.

Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story, 2014

‘And I was in the 53x11 and he just rode past me’, an aghast Armstrong says of Miguel Indurain who just made him look like a junior at the Stage 9 time-trial during the 1994 Tour de France.

It’s almost as if being embarrassed by Big Mig that day was a tipping point for what was to come for Armstrong. Like that was when he decided he would do whatever it takes to win, to stop at nothing.

This is an excellent documentary, in our opinion, not least for Betsy Andreu, the straight-talking wife of former US Postal rider Frankie.

Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist, 2014

Have you watched Asif Kapadia’s exceptional biographical documentary about Diego Maradona? Well, you should, it’s fantastic.

Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist reminds me of Kapadia’s work on Maradona but not because both track the eventual fall from grace of two exceptionally talented athletes.

Like watching Maradona, there are points in the Pantani documentary where his gift for riding bikes is allowed to play out on screen uninterrupted and at those moments I genuinely found myself without words for the sheer brilliance on display.

Clean Spirit, 2014

As the team discuss whether Mark Cavendish intentionally crashed into Argos-Shimano’s Tom Veelers, a babyfaced Tom Dumoulin reaches across the dinner table in search of some butter for his roll, oblivious to the conversation being held.

John Degenkolb is furious with Cavendish, seething. Meanwhile, Marcel Kittel, the team’s star, is coy about the whole situation as he knows he’d have done exactly what Cavendish did on that run to Saint-Malo at the 2013 Tour de France. He shares that sprinter’s killer instinct.

At points, this documentary tells of the sheer mundanity of life for a cyclist during a Grand Tour and at those moments does it become most enthralling.

MAMIL, 2018

Unlike the rest of this list, this is not a documentary about the alien-like lives of the professional cyclist.

Instead, this is a documentary closer to home, an affectionate look at middle-aged men in lycra and what urges them to indulge in such an obsession with bicycles.

What it lacks in drama it makes up for in heartwarming stories.

Read our review of the MAMIL documentary here

Slaying the Badger, 2014

The 1986 Tour de France is probably the greatest cycling race of all time, can we all agree? So it’s no surprise this ESPN ‘30 for 30’ documentary retelling the battle between teammates Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond is pretty good.

To fully explain Hinault’s actions throughout this race, particularly when it became obvious LeMond was the better rider, I need to borrow a term from the world of football: pure shithousery.

Geraint Thomas: The Road will Decide, 2019

The road did decide, didn’t it? It’s just it chose 22-year-old Colombian Egan Bernal this time.

This particular documentary was made by the BBC and followed Geraint Thomas the year after he won yellow at the Tour de France. It’s interesting because you see the pressures and expectations mounted on a Tour winner and you become increasingly impressed by anybody who manages to win consecutive Grand Tours.

We also enjoy it because Cyclist’s very own Joe Robinson – yes, me – makes a fleeting cameo appearance too.

The 1991 Motorola Cycling Team documentary, 1991

The pièce de résistance of this entire documentary that follows the American Motorola team through the 1991 Spring Classics campaign is the awkward chat between Andy Hampsten and Eddy Merckx in the lead up to Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Hampsten’s explaining his detailed training routine to Merckx who clearly doesn’t understand why he isn’t just riding 300km a day and then winning every race he enters because that’s what worked for him.

We also enjoyed John Tomac forgetting his passport to cross the border between Belgium and France.

23 Days in July, 1983

Tracking Australian Phil Anderson’s attempts to become the first non-European to win the Tour de France, this hour-long documentary has everything you could possibly need during an extended lockdown.

Cameos from Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche, an incredibly well-spoken narrator, a synth soundtrack led by Kraftwerk’s seminal Tour de France tune and expert analysis from a young ‘disco-inspired’ Phil Liggett. What's not to love?

Paris-Roubaix 2016 Backstage Pass, 2016

‘This doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. Just on the ergos.’ We’re not crying, you’re crying. Ok, we are crying, we are all crying. Mat Hayman’s 2016 Paris-Roubaix triumph was the greatest race in modern history and one of the most beautiful sporting stories of all time.

It’s only 20 minutes long but in our eyes, it is Oscar-worthy stuff.

The best TVs to watch them on

Samsung 75" 4K Smart TV | £899

At 75 inches, this television is taller than the average man, so for full immersion how does a life size Pantani sound?

It's a smart TV so has all the streaming apps on it meaning you can watch Icarus and other Netflix shows without an aerial connection.

Buy now from Samsung for £899

Samsung 43" 4K Smart TV | £399

How about something a little smaller? It's not been long since 43 inches was absolutely enormous and this 4K TV will Stop at Nothing to give you the best experience.

It's also a fraction of the price and you can save £175 if you buy it with a Samsung sound bar.

Buy now from John Lewis for £399

Techwood 43" 4K Smart TV | £269

'Alexa, play Sunday in Hell again.' That's right, this affordable 4K smart TV from Techwood is compatible with Alexa so you can control it with your voice.

A perfect pain cave partner, why not turn off Zwift, turn on a documentary and churn it out imagining your own day in Hell.

Buy now from AO for £269