The documentary Le Ride is a must for cycling enthusiasts, and anyone who loves a good adventure or underdog story. In Le Ride, Amazing Race star Phil Keoghan physically and mentally pushes himself to the limit as he replicates the gruelling bike ride taken by Kiwi Harry Watson during the 1928 Tour de France. Producer and co-writer Louise Keoghan, and director and co-writer Phil Keoghan, kindly took the time to have a chat about bringing Le Ride to screen.
RC: What a wonderful opportunity to tell the story of this little known, but incredibly talented New Zealander. How did you discover the story of Harry Watson?
My wife and producing partner, Louise, and I found a book in an airport bookstore in Christchurch, 6 years ago, written by The Kennett Brothers (New Zealanders) called The Mile Eater. The book told the story of Harry Watson, from Christchurch, who was a champion cyclist. Very few people today know who Harry Watson is and that blew my mind as he had won seven championship races. He was also part of the first English speaking team to compete in the Tour de France in 1928 with three Australians. They competed as a team of just four against the bigger and more experienced teams of ten. "They were like lambs to be slaughtered” one newspaper said from that era. The particular Tour had the highest attrition rate of any tour. 22 Stages over 3338 miles. That’s an average of 150 miles a day over roads that were sometimes no more than dirt track. I felt this story had to be told and I wanted to bring it to life by retracing the exact route, or as much as I could with some of the roads built over.
RC: Phil in order to give us a real sense of what Watson achieved, along with your riding campaign Ben Cornell, you kindly retraced Watson’s Tour on bikes from 1928. What was the most difficult aspect of using gear from the era?
The bikes from 1928 were twice as heavy as modern bikes and there were no gear shifters and marginal brakes. To change the gears you had to take off the wheel and move the chain to a different cog. Ben and I rode more than 90 percent of the “Tour” using a 50-tooth ring chain wing with a 17-tooth cog, about a 7 inch gear. We used a modified saddle because we didn’t want to take chances in that department (laughs) and we made a change with the cranks. The bike I was riding was too small and to make matters worse it was fitted with 165mm cranks. We also had to rebuild the wheels because they were damaged and of course very old and fragile. We found the original 1928 bikes through a French bike collector named Jean-Paul Bourrounet. He had an extremely rare Ravat-Wonder bike like what the downunder team rode in the Tour. We had to give it some love and attention with the help of some engineers back here in Los Angeles, Gary and Jim Berry. They did an amazing job breathing life back into the bike.
RC: Louise, a lot of research went into preparing for this ride, and yet anything that could happen did happen on this shoot! What were some of the challenges you faced, and how did you keep on top of them?
The biggest challenge was finding the exact route as very little was documented about the 1928 TdF for some reason. We naively thought there would be a route map but we had to go looking for clues in diary entries from the riders, newspaper clippings and photos. Then we would piece together where the rode each day. We knew which town they left from and where they ended up but the part in between was not as easy. When we got back after filming and started editing we found out that the Canberra Library had a box of photos from Hubert Opperman (on the team). We flew to Australia to investigate and lo and behold there were boxes of diaries, newspaper clipping and glass slides. We were screaming the house down with excitement much to the amazement of the staff. We sure tested the “shhhhh please be quiet” policy of the library that day. But we were able to piece together a lot of information which was missing and create a script for our narrator and for the voice of a young Opperman. The narrator by the way is our very own Hewitt Humphrey formerly of Radio New Zealand. And the young Opperman is Australian Robbie McEwen 7 Times Green Jersey Winner of the Tour de France.
RC: Le Ride is incredible effort on everyone's part - it was a huge undertaking for crew as well as the riders, but Phil how did you manage, in between riding 150 miles a day, to also direct this film?
I never want to direct a film again while undertaking the biggest mental and physical challenge of my life. I was not able to just focus on pedalling and getting through each day. I also had to think of how the film would look and the story we were telling. Sometimes we had to reshoot sections to get different angles. Can you imagine being told by your cameraman that you need to go back down the mountain and then come back up so he could get a reverse. We also had to do interviews on the fly. Because we were recording daily blogs and posting online each night, we had to set up for my sit down pieces to camera. I would never get to sleep before 2am and then we were up again around 6am, sometimes earlier. I learned a lot about patience and how to really dig deep!
RC: No matter how crazy and gruelling this adventure gets, I never got the sense you wouldn’t finish. Phil, how did you and Ben approach each day in the saddle?
Not finishing was never an option. We had not only promised our crew and sponsors, but ourselves. And more importantly we knew we had to do it so this story could be told about the forgotten heroes for all New Zealanders and Australians and particularly for Harry Watson’s family. So each day we just approached it one pedal stroke at a time day after day.
RC: I love the fact this film was a family affair - who was helping out?
We had my mom helping with nutrition, my dad was the driver, my brother the navigator and of course my wife was the producer. It was an incredible experience but kind of unusual to be working with your family (my sister was working in New Zealand at the time so was not able to be part of it) for almost a month with no sleep, driving at 10 miles an hour day after day, squashed in crew vans day after day. I was very impressed and of course so grateful.
RC. As you mentioned in the film Phil, this is the kind of event that gives you some insight into what you’re made of. What did you learn about yourself during your Tour de France?
You can do anything if you put your mind to it. Don’t let your thoughts carry you away. Just focus on the job at hand. You will be surprised how strong you are. I am no different to anyone else.
RC. Has completing the 1928 Tour de France inspired you to tackle more cycling adventures? … Although maybe next time with gears and brakes?
No more bike adventures for now. Louise and I want to produce a scripted film next and it’s set in New Zealand. That’s our next big dream. Watch this space for more details :)
Click here to see when LE RIDE is next screening on Rialto Channel throughout February.