The host of the hit TV series The Amazing Race stars in, directs and has co-written Le Ride, a documentary re-creating arguably the harshest Tour de France of them all. Phil Keoghan has always had a fascination with stories about underdogs. He found a book about the history of New Zealand cycling and in it was the story of a guy called Harry Watson who was from Keoghan’s hometown of Christchurch. As a big cycling fan, Keoghan had never heard of this bloke who was a seven time New Zealand champion and a phenomenal athlete.
Keoghan soon realised Watson was the first New Zealander, and a member of the first English-speaking team, to ride in the Tour de France. He wanted to bring that story to life and decided the best way to tell it was to literally pedal every kilometre Watson did and retrace the exact route – the same mountains, the same towns. The more Keoghan started to think about it, the more he thought it would be good to ride the 5,600 kilometres on the same kind of bicycle that Watson rode. That became the journey and it took Keoghan three years to find the bike and some five years of research to work out the exact route.
Le Ride was filmed during the 100th staging of the Tour in 2013. It follows Keoghan and his friend Ben Cornell as they attempt to recreate the original route of the 1928 race. Averaging 240 kilometres a day for 26 days, Phil and Ben traverse both the unforgiving mountains of the Pyrenees and the Alps on original vintage steel racing bikes, with no gears and marginal brakes. The documentary takes inspiration from the remarkable true story of Australians Sir Hubert Opperman, Ernie Bainbridge and Percy Osborne, and New Zealander Harry Watson. They arrived in France after six weeks at sea, under-trained and under-resourced, untested and completely written off by the French media. Racing as a team of four against teams that had 10, the Australasians’ entry was considered by many a joke. Fifteen of the 22 stages were Team Time Trials and one French journalist called their attempt “nothing short of murder” … with some stages taking 20 hours. Watson, who suffered severely from influenza for much of the race, said it was “a veritable nightmare”.
The 1928 Tour was regarded as the toughest in history – a hell on wheels race of attrition. Only 41 of the 160 plus starters finished. To put this in context, the Americans didn’t enter the Tour de France until 52 years later … in 1980.
Le Ride is very much a Phil Keoghan project, one that he dominates from the get go. He does the vast majority of the talking – the commentary. In fact, his mate appears to be far shyer … and says very little. Keoghan is erudite, personable and good humoured. Not only is this doco easy to watch, but it features some of the most superb cinematography you can imagine (Scott Shelley is the man responsible). We get that each year on SBS TV, but here it is in one compact package, complete with this fascinating story of these Australasian pioneers.
Mind you, stunning vistas or otherwise, I am not convinced that after seeing this you would be keen to cover the distance – especially the tortuous uphill climbs – on rusty old bikes without gears. Of course, that is the whole point. And try as the filmmakers might … and have, to be faithful in their reproduction of the 1928 Tour, the degree of difficulty then was still far harder because the roads weren’t paved! Nevertheless, Le Ride gives us a pretty decent taste of what these remarkable adventurers endured … and the end of the picture tells us what became of them. Rated PG, Le Ride is in limited release and scores a 7 out of 10.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television