There are plenty of cycling documentaries out there – some excellent, some good, some average, some… not very good. In recent years, 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 Día Menos Pensado (The Least Expected Day). The latter’s first season was a six-part extended documentary following the dramatic 2019 season for WorldTour stalwarts Movistar.
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, who now rides for EF Education-EasyPost. El Día Menos Pensado has swelled to three seasons as of 2023. However, there are better docs out there.
Some are obvious – A Sunday in Hell, for example – but some less so. Who remembers the classic 1991 Motorola team documentary? With that in mind, here’s our pick of the best cycling documentaries.
1. A Sunday in Hell, 1976
For many, Jørgen Leth’s 1976 masterpiece A Sunday in Hell is at 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?
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.
2. The Stars and the Water Carriers, 1973
Another classic brought to use by Leth, narrated in the 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.
Watch on YouTube
3. 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.
We’ll stop ourselves from saying much more so as not to give away any spoilers but what we will say is that Grigory Rodchenkov is the most lovable villain in cinematic history.
Watch on Netflix
4. Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story, 2014
‘I was in the 53×11 and he just rode past me,’ an aghast Lance Armstrong says of Miguel Indurain who had just made him look like a junior during 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 Armstrong, as if this was the exact moment 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 the insights offered by Betsy Andreu, the straight-talking wife of former US Postal rider Frankie.
Watch on Google PlayWatch on Prime Video
5. 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 an exceptionally talented athlete. Like when watching Maradona, there are points in the Marco Pantani documentary where his gift for riding bikes is allowed to play out on screen uninterrupted and at those moments we found ourselves without words for the sheer brilliance on display.
Rent/buy on AmazonWatch on Apple TV/iTunes
6. Clean Spirit, 2014
It’s fair to say we haven’t stopped singing the praises of this documentary since its release…
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.
At points, this documentary tells of the sheer mundanity in the life of a cyclist during a Grand Tour and at those moments does it become most enthralling. It was briefly hosted on Netflix before being taken off and has since bounced around hosts. It looks like the latest platform to make it available is Apple TV, while it’s even available in DVD form (remember those!) through Amazon US.
Watch on Google PlayAvailable on iTunes
7. Tour de France: Unchained
With a release pencilled in for 8th June, the creators of F1’s Drive to Survive on Netflix have produced an eight-episode docuseries following the 2022 Tour de France. Won by Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingegaard, the French Grand Tour follows AG2R-Citroën, Alpecin-Fenix, EF Education-EasyPost, Groupama-FDJ, Ineos Grenadiers, Bora-Hansgrohe, Jumbo-Visma and QuickStep Alpha Vinyl on the road to Paris.
(Spoiler alert) Second-placed Tadej Pogačar and his UAE Team Emirates team were not featured.
Watch on Netflix 8th June
8. MAMIL, 2018
Unlike the rest of the entries on this list, this one is not a glimpse into the alien-like lives of professional cyclists. Instead, this is a documentary that’s much closer to home – an affectionate look at ‘middle-aged men in Lycra’ (MAMILs) and what urges them to indulge in such an obsession with bicycles. What this one lacks in drama, it makes up for in heartwarming stories.
Also from MadMan films is the cycling documentary All For One. But more on the Orica-GreenEDGE team at the end of this article…
Read our review of the MAMIL documentary Buy from MadMan Entertainment
9. Slaying the Badger, 2014
The 1986 Tour de France may well be the greatest cycling race of all time, 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 that LeMond was the better rider, I need to borrow a term from the world of football: pure shithousery.
Buy the 30 for 30 episode on Google Play
10. Geraint Thomas: The Road will Decide, 2019
The road did decide, didn’t it? It’s just that this time it chose 22-year-old Colombian Egan Bernal. 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 that are mounted on a Tour winner and you become increasingly impressed by the idea that anyone can win consecutive Grand Tours.
We also enjoy it because Cyclist’s former digital editor Joe Robinson makes a fleeting cameo appearance too.
Watch on YouTube
11. The 1991 Motorola Cycling Team documentary, 1991
The pièce de résistance of this entire documentary following 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 is 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.
Watch on YouTube
12. 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.
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?
Watch on YouTube
13. 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 surely the greatest race in modern pro cycling 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.
Watch on YouTubeRead our interview with former Orica-GreenEDGE videographer Dan Jones
Tags: Giro d’ItaliaTour de France