When Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan discovered that New Zealander Harry Watson rode in the Tour de France 88 years ago, he set himself the challenge of telling his story. Russell Baillie reports.

Phil Keoghan rode across America once. That hurt. Now he's ridden around France. It's a smaller country. It hurt more.

Why? Because he was doing it in 1928, sort of. And carrying some extra weight.

It wasn't just the vintage bike he rode, one which probably weighed only slightly less than the many Emmy Awards Keoghan has won for reality show The Amazing Race over the years.

No, he had the burden of a story to tell - about how New Zealander Harry Watson and three Aussie team-mates were the first English-speaking team to ride the Tour de France in 1928.


How they competed against professional European teams of 10.

How they averaged 240km a day on 22 stages for nearly 5400km - by comparison, this year's Tour de France is just over 3500km.

And they did that on bikes without gears, riding miles across cobblestones, up and down unsealed alpine roads with hopeless brakes, through dark nights with no lights, through dysentery, saddle sores, and crash injuries.

Keoghan had come across the story of Watson in The Mile Eater, one from the New Zealand Cycling Legends series by Kiwi biking publishers the Kennett Brothers.

Watson's tilt at the Tour de France came early in his spectacular road cycling career. But hardcore cyclist Keoghan had never heard of his fellow Cantabrian. He thought he should do something about that.

He was also intrigued about why he hadn't heard of him, especially as Watson's Tour team-mate Hubert (later Sir Hubert) Opperman went on to become Australian cycling's own Bradman.

"I think he typified the Kiwi understated, never-skite-about-what-you-do kind of mindset," says Keoghan from his office in Santa Monica.

During his research for the story he talked to Watson's son Ian, who has since passed away.

"When I showed him his father in all these French publications he was brought to tears and I realised that Harry never shared that with his own son. I thought how extraordinarily sad that was.

"I have always been fascinated by the New Zealand psyche, where New Zealanders really struggle to acknowledge their achievements.

"It is incredibly endearing and that humility is very appealing in many ways. But in other ways it's also detrimental to us getting out and putting our hands up and going, 'I can do that. I am good enough to do that'.'"

Telling Harry Watson's Tour tale as a doco had its challenges.

For one thing, no moving pictures of Watson were known to exist. If the film got bogged down in the running of the 1928 event itself, with its arcane rules and results, it risked inducing comas in all but bike race history nerds.

"We felt we needed to bring together so many elements that were missing from Harry's story. All that emotion was missing. We needed somehow to try to connect on an emotional level and go through the hardship of what he did.

"We could just tell the story in a traditional documentary style or we could try to bring it to life and juxtapose 2013 with 1928 and try to make an authentic ride to communicate how difficult it was what they did - tell the story from the inside rather than looking from the outside."

So Keoghan decided to replicate Watson's lap of France himself, accompanied by riding buddy Ben Cornell, with his producer wife Louise and his father among the support crew.

The pair would do it on the same sort of bikes Watson himself used - steel steeds purchased from collectors and untroubled by ergonomic modern frame geometry.

Bikes, where, if you need an easier gear to, say, climb a couple of thousand vertical metres up the Pyrenees, you had to stop, unclamp the back wheel and manually shift the chain over to a more comfortable sprocket.

Yes, Keoghan was indeed putting his arse on the line, though he did allow his bike to have at least one modern feature.

"Let's just say this: I used a modern racing seat. I thought, I am subjecting myself to enough pain. I am not going to risk damaging another part of my body unnecessarily," he laughs.

Keoghan didn't just have to ride and attempt the 22 stages at the same rate Watson's team did, he also had to front the doco.

"I would never do that again ... it was brutal, it was really brutal. You would see something really good as you came along and you would realise you had to do a shot there, so you would back-track slightly and add on more miles.

"There were definitely stages where we didn't know whether we would keep going.

"But at the same time, we were hell-bent on finishing out of respect for Harry and his mates."

Keoghan says he is still recovering from the experience and thinks a niggling hip injury was caused by pushing a too-high gear uphill.

Plus Watson was 24 at the time, whereas Keoghan followed in his skinny tyre tracks in 2013, at the age of 46, before taking the film, entitled Le Ride - his earlier US epic was called The Ride - into the editing suite.

But, of course, being Keoghan, he tells his stories of exhaustion and physical damage in the voice of the most motivated man on the planet. He's looking forward to coming home for the film's world premiere at the Christchurch leg of the New Zealand International Film Festival. He used to walk past the Isaac Theatre Royal, where it will screen, every day in his early days at TVNZ in the city.

He's also hoping the film will mean something beyond the festival - that in its own way maybe it will do for Watson what The World's Fastest Indian did for Burt Munro.

"It started with the Kennett brothers, who alerted us, and we were able to pick it up and turn it into something visual. Hopefully the story will never be forgotten again.

"Hopefully when New Zealanders hear 'Tour de France' they will be proud of one of their own being in one of the first English-speaking teams. And he won't be forgotten now."

Keoghan's vintage bike now hangs from the wall in his office. As the movie shows, it took him through some lovely scenery. He didn't notice much of it.

"My wife calls the film a real postcard to France. I don't remember so much of the beauty. I remember the suffering."

Low down


Phil Keoghan


Le Ride

When and where:

NZ International Film Festival. World premiere in Christchurch on July 29. Screens in Auckland July 30 and 31.