The ones that capture what it is to push the limits on two wheels
DOCUMENTARIES about bikes and bike racing are often disappointing. There’s a tendency for them to either put too much emphasis on facts and figures, with a dull voiceover reading an uninspired script, or for them to be dumbed-down in an attempt to reach a mass, non-motorcycling audience, with cringe-worthy errors and stereotypes.
But amongst the dross there’s also a host of well-made, interesting and sometimes even legendary documentaries, from TV specials to feature-length, big-screen extravaganzas.
We’re focussing on racing documentaries only here, as the number of travel and road-riding ones means they’re worthy of a top ten of their own another time.
These are the ones we reckon hit the sweet spot, but let us know what we’ve missed out…
Televised recently and also available on DVD or download, this 2012 documentary looks back at the golden era of WSB – at least from the British perspective. Largely talking heads interspersed with period race footage from the 1990s, with a heavy focus on Carl Fogarty, it’s a reminder of an era when superbike racing was far better than MotoGP, and populated by a mixed bag of egos, good guys, bad guys and er, John Kochinski (the section where he’s described by Foggy and Whitham is worth watching even if you skip the rest).
While good, the documentary serves as a reminder of how awesome that period of WSB racing was and leaves you wishing that maybe the producers had ditched the flag-waving British angle and dragged out more period competitors – Slight, Russell, maybe even Gobert? – to take you even further down that particular memory lane.
It’s a documentary about Sheene. With Murray Walker doing the talking. What more do we need to say?
The Baja 1000 is a race that goes virtually unnoticed on this side of the Atlantic, but this relatively high-budget, cinema-release documentary from 2005 is worth a watch even if you’re clueless about the gruelling off-road event it centres on.
Admittedly a bit, well, American for British audiences – the voiceover and incessant background music gets wearisome after a while – but some of the shots are great. Check out a clip or two on Youtube before taking that buying plunge.
Al Jazeera might not seem the most obvious source for a documentary about the TT but this film, released in 2012 and available free on Youtube in its entirety (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8J6s7qSUbY), is a remarkably in-depth and balanced look at the event. OK, so there are elements that will be more than familiar to many here – after all, this is aimed at a general TV audience – but its study into the psychology of TT riders and team entrants is fascinating nonetheless.
While it got a limited cinema release, I, Superbiker sits slightly uncomfortably between being a season review and a documentary. But it was successful enough to spawn a sequel and a third instalment will be available soon.
We suspect that this is one of those documentaries that will come into its own as it ages. Right now, some of the footage is still too familiar and the riders are, of course, still currently active. Give it a decade or so, then come back to I, Superbiker as a nostalgic treat.
This period documentary tracking the first build and its race debut of the Britten V1000 Daytona in 1991 is guaranteed to leave you mourning the loss of John Britten and wondering just what might have happened to the bikes bearing his name – and motorcycle design as a whole – if he hadn’t died unexpectedly in 1995, aged just 45.
Capturing the whole built-in-a-garage ethos of the Britten, which ignored conventional bike design entirely – opting for ‘funny’ front suspension, a carbon frame, under-seat radiator and a host of other unusual ideas – the movie is a reminder that you don’t have to follow the herd to be successful. Perhaps it should be made compulsory viewing to designers working in MotoGP and road bike development, just to remind them that you don’t have to copy the established winners to be able to beat them.
Two for the price of one here, as that’s how these classics are presented on DVD. Respectively covering 1970s Irish road racing and the 1983 Ulster GP and TT, the focus is on Joey Dunlop – the former was early in his career, the latter at his peak. The second incudes the all-time classic on-board Isle of Man lap footage from Joey’s Honda RS850R. Essential.
OK, we’re cheating a bit here. Arguably Mark Neale’s three MotoGP-related documentaries could have filled more than one slot in the list, but it’s only a top ten so we thought we’d package them together.
The original (and best) focuses on the 2001 and 2002 MotoGP seasons, when the 990 four-strokes were still untamed by any effective traction control. Updated in 2004 to add some 2003 footage, it was followed up by The Doctor, The Tornado and the Kentucky Kid in 2006 and Fastest in 2011. All together, the movies are a great way of looking back at the first ten years of four-stroke GP racing, and take up less shelf-space than a set of dry season reviews.
Enough has been written about Bruce Brown’s 1971 documentary to fill several volumes. You’ve probably seen it, and you’ll either love it (and own it) or be left unmoved. Nothing like it had been done at the time (or since, really), so its position as a seminal motorcycle documentary can’t be challenged. Oh, and Steve McQueen’s in it. Yes, it’s dated, but that simply adds to its appeal; see if you can watch it without getting an urge to go out for a ride straight afterwards.
There could only be one movie heading this list, although we’re ready for the comments that the top two should be reversed.
Closer to the Edge was released at the same time as the critically-acclaimed and much more mass-market Senna movie and yet in some ways outshone that film. Shot in (slightly pointless) 3D, it’s a must-own, now that you can get it on 2D DVD. Even ‘real’ critics gave it the thumbs-up (check out the scores on Rotten Tomatoes) and it introduced road racing to a whole new audience. As with Faster and even I, Superbiker, we suspect the film will actually get more appealing as it ages and the bikes and characters take on a rose-tinted glow an earlier era (like those in On Any Sunday), but it’s made with a deftness and an injection of character that the more traditional documentaries miss while the race footage remains some of the most spectacular you’ll find anywhere.
Article link: Top 10 fastest production motorcycles from 10 decades
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