It seems impossible, living in a nation so inured with its sporting heroes that the names of the first team to tackle the Tour De France are not known in every household. Even more so after seeing Le Ride which retraces the journey of the four Antipodeans on the team, follows all the hardships they suffered, and puts into perspective how massive an achievement the gargantuan effort was.
New Zealand TV personality and host of the American The Amazing Race, Philip Keoghan is a cycling enthusiast on a mission to retrace the steps of the 1928 Tour De France, in particular the amazing efforts of the four man team that traveled from New Zealand and Australia to compete, not only becoming the first Australasian team to do so, but the first English speaking team as well.
Hubert Opperman, Percy Osborn, Ernest Bainbridge, and New Zealander Harry Watson should be household names. The 1928 Tour De France is widely regarded as being the single most difficult race of its kind ever. Of the 161 cyclists who started the race in Paris, only 41 made it the whole way back. Over 22 grueling stages, covering 5,476km, crossing the Pyrenees and the Alps, the race itself was enough to put a fresh team many considered a joke off competing. But after 6 weeks at sea getting to the South of France, their troubles started as soon as they arrived in Paris.
Keoghan and his riding buddy Ben Cornell decided to track down some old 1928 steel frame bikes, map out the original Tour route and attempt the ride in 2013. Filmed by Louise Keoghan and her crew, the footage has since become Le Ride. While it tells an extraordinary tale of sheer will power, and captures some of that “underdog” determination that has come to be associated with Australians the world over, Keoghan’s television background is prominent throughout. With the enthusiasm of someone who has spent a long time hosting a US reality television program, he narrates every aspect of the ride as it unfolds, blocking in many ways, the visual experience of a ride through some of the most extraordinary countryside in the world. Small narrative excerpts from the diaries of the original racers and news reports of the day, paired with snippets of archival footage, piece together what the Australasian team experienced on a daily basis. However, the focus of the story becomes that of the struggles of Keoghan and Cornell as they fall way behind the pace of the original race and they struggle to stay on track as many of the roads are no longer around.
Colourful locals join and leave the ride at various stages, adding some much needed respite from the two leads along the way. But despite the beautiful, sweeping aerial shots, the film feels like a made for TV special and downplays the achievements of that initial Tour De France team in comparison with what Keoghan and Cornell are struggling with. At the end of the film we learn that Sir Hubert Opperman OBE had a very successful international racing career, cut short by enlisting in the RAAF during World War II, after which he became a politician central to the abolition of the White Australia Policy. As a documentary that sets out to tell the little known story of the first English speaking team to partake in the Tour De France, it would have done well to focus a little more on this subject rather than the first person narratives of the two men attempting to recreate it. Their story is extraordinary, and the achievements of these men should be recognized more prominently, however this film is the personal story of Keoghan completing the 1928 Tour De France on a 1928 bike, with a modern support team and a camera crew.
Le Ride is screening exclusively at ACMI from 26th January through Madman Films.