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View from the Sofa: Wild men on wild bikes knockin’ on heaven’s door – it’s Unbelievable

The Unrideables, ITV4

An episode in history is not epoch-defining until it has a talking-head documentary made about it. And in order for the documentary to be worth its salt, it must fulfil three criteria: it must have decent archive footage, present-day interviews with participants and observers – no journeymen comedians, commentators or journalists, thanks very much – and, most importantly, be accompanied by contemporary music.

It’s difficult to know which event will be turned into a nostalgic reminiscence. Will David Moyes’s 316 days in charge of Manchester United be treated to an all-access film, to the tunes of Sigma’s “Nobody to Love”, come 2035? Will England cricket’s summer of discontent and winter of disaster be raked over in 20 years’ time with Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” played in the background?

One sporting look-back that nailed the three prerequisites was last week’s Unrideables, about a golden age of motorcycle Grand Prix, when brilliant riders with such strong rivalries that they almost came to blows risked their lives on skittish, unpredictable 500cc beasts of motorbikes.

The years it focused on (this was the second part of what looks like at least a three-parter) were 1990 to 1993, when Wayne Rainey dominated on his Yamaha, with his bitter rival and fellow American Kevin Schwantz nipping at his heels on a Suzuki which seemed to throw him off at the slightest twitch of the throttle. It fittingly began with EMF’s “Unbelievable”.

Apart from wincing at the rag-doll crashes (to Guns and Roses’ version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”) and gaping at the near-misses (“Unbelievable” again) which made us hark for simpler, less computer-dominated motorsport, the documentary showed two things that were puzzling about the era. Namely, there were a lot of naff songs at that time and it is a wonder that 1990s bike fans didn’t become terminal tobacco addicts. The bikes, tracks, leathers and safety barriers were all plastered with advertisements for cigarettes. Even some of the teams were named after cancer sticks.

We were treated to in-depth interviews with the major players (“wild men on wild bikes”, according to one observer). The Australian Wayne Gardner was a particularly laconic and illuminating subject, especially when describing winning a race at his home circuit of Phillip Island with a broken wrist and a bike which was falling apart. “I have no idea how I did it,” he said.

The description of an injury to Mick Doohan was jaw-dropping. The Aussie’s leg came close to being amputated after a crash; a fellow rider was merely disappointed that Doohan “had to miss six or seven races”.

The incident which brought the era to an end – and left Rainey paralysed from the chest down – was dealt with in the final three minutes in a suitably hard-hitting way, by omitting the footage. We had no need to see the crash; the headlines from newspapers of the day and sight of ex-riders almost in tears – as well as an incredibly matter-of-fact Rainey – describing it over two decades on were enough. But did they really need to hammer the point home with REM’s “Everybody Hurts”?