30 Jul 2016

Harry Watson and the Tour de France: 'A story that needs to be told'

4:36 pm on 30 July 2016

Harry Watson may just be one of New Zealand's greatest sporting stars that you've never heard of, but that's about to change.

Harry Watson.

Cantabrian Harry Watson competed in the Tour de France in 1928. Photo: Supplied

The Cantabrian was a New Zealand cycling champion who competed in the Tour de France in 1928.

He didn't win, but a new documentary, Le Ride, follows as Canterbury ex-pat Phil Keoghan (host of US reality television show The Amazing Race) and his friend Ben Cornell attempt to recreate the original route.

Averaging 240km a day for 26 days, the pair traverse both the mountains and the Western Alps, on original vintage steel bikes with no gears and marginal brakes.

Mr Keoghan said riding the route was one of the hardest things he had ever done, both physically and mentally.

Mr Keoghan, along with his wife Louise, are co-producers of the documentary, and were in Christchurch for its world premiere on Friday night at the Isaac Theatre Royal, as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Members of Mr Watson's family, including his grandson, also attended.

Phil Keoghan said riding the route was one of the hardest things he has ever done.

Phil Keoghan said riding the route was one of the hardest things he has ever done. Photo: Doug Jensen

The documentary was made, in part, out of Mr Keoghan's determination to raise the profile of Mr Watson.

"I hadn't heard about Harry or his achievements until I spotted a book, The Mile Eater, six years ago. It told Harry's story and just blew me away.

"We both love captivating stories about New Zealanders who have done extraordinary things and we'd never heard of Harry Watson and we thought 'this is a story that needs to be told'.''

Harry Watson was part of the first English-speaking team to take on the Tour de France; he and Australian teammates Sir Hubert Opperman, Ernest Bainbridge and Percy Osborn were among 168 riders who started the race in 1928.

As a new and untested team of four, they took on teams of 10 elite European cyclists.

"Only 41 riders finished the race. Harry was a champion, yet very few people in New Zealand know his remarkable story. It's crazy - if he was an All Black, he'd be a legend.''

Phil Keoghan and Ben Cornell attempted to recreate the original route.

Phil Keoghan and Ben Cornell attempted to recreate the original route. Photo: Doug Jensen

But he said he was not surprised by Watson's low profile.

"He's one of these almost reclusive persons who went overseas and did extraordinary things but being your typical Kiwi where you don't tell everyone about your achievements, slipped back into the country and didn't tell anyone one.

"He never really truly disclosed what happened there, it wasn't like you could Google online, he didn't show off, he didn't skite, he didn't tell anybody, not even his family.''

Mr Keoghan said the most surprising part of making the documentary was realising just how phenomenal a rider Mr Watson was, but there was a sad part too.

"The fact that he was New Zealand cycling champion seven times and broke records that stood for decades and that he's not in the sporting Hall of Fame is sad to me.

"I really feel he deserves to be there. He did not win the Tour de France of 1928 but when you think about what he achieved in his life, he deserves to be there.''

It's Mr Keoghan's second documentary; the first was in 2009 when he rode across America raising money for multiple sclerosis and generated over $1 million.

He joked that his next documentary in development was about spas and relaxing.

"We do like adventures and trying new and exciting things. Certainly the way we told this documentary, from the inside rather than the sidelines, gave it a different perspective.''

The documentary is very much a collaboration with his wife Louise.

"When one of us says we're going to do something, it's 'how do we make it happen?'

"If he said he wanted to go to the moon, I'd say 'right let's get some moonboots'. I'm up for whatever he's up for because we know we can make it happen if we get the right team onboard.''

Story-wise they had always been on the same page, she said, and their "absolute dream" was to work on a scripted New Zealand film next.

Phil Keoghan said it was amazing to have the premiere in Christchurch, at the Isaac Theatre, in front of a home crowd - back to where he was from, and back to where Harry Watson was from.

"We can't just put all our money into the practical things in life. When people go into that theatre they're transported by stories.

"For those 90 minutes that people are watching, they're transported and they forget about the hardships that Christchurch is going through.

"I feel blessed that we have a story about an inspiring Cantabrian who epitomised what so many people are like here: get up and get on with it. That was Harry Watson.

"They get to watch his story and hopefully leave the theatre inspired and motivated to achieve their next goal."