7 Aug 2016

Sculpture proposed for unsung NZ cycling legend

5:53 am on 7 August 2016

The family of one of New Zealand's least known cycling champions is supporting calls for a sculpture be installed in his hometown.

Harry Watson.

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

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

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

Cantabrian Harry Watson competed in the Tour de France in 1928 and was a New Zealand cycling champion.

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.

Harry Watson's grandson, Guy Noble, told RNZ he has written in support for a sculpture by Christchurch-based artist Neil Dawson, who also created the chalice sculpture by the Christ Church Cathedral, a proposal Keoghan is championing.

The sculpture would feature an arch that cyclists can pass through and a large replica of the wheel used by Watson in 1928.

Mr Noble said he wrote the letter a few years ago but he is aware that the Christchurch City Council is strapped for cash so did not blame them if they could not fund it.

"But it would be such a cool thing to do. We're such a cycling mad area in Canterbury but how that can be arranged is a different kettle of fish.''

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

TV presenter Phil Koeghan in his film Le Ride. Photo: Doug Jensen

Mr Noble was full of praise for the documentary and for Keoghan who he said has done a fantastic job of bringing his grandfather's story to life.

About a year after the Amazing Race host made contact and interviewed the family Keoghan announced he was making the documentary.

"We thought, 'Oh yeah, good luck to you'.''

Initially Mr Noble thought about joining Keoghan and Cornell on the tour himself but quickly checked himself that as a 50-year-old man it would be too much for him.

And after watching the documentary he is glad that he did, as the course was gruelling, he said.

Watson died about 17 years ago and suffered from alzheimer's in his final years.

Mr Noble said that when we was in his early teens he remembers talking with his grandfather about his sporting achievements.

But by Mr Noble's late twenties Watson's memories were fading and he regretted not asking him more when he was young.

"His lasting memory was just how rough the roads were, they would shake your bike to bits."

Mr Noble said his "Grandpop" was a very private man who did not tell his family a huge amount about his sporting past, but they found out a lot more going through all the research material than what he ever told them.

"He was a solitary man. I think that's what cycling is, you're out there training by yourself all the time.

"Later in life he was very a keen gardener, fisherman, hunter, he just liked being by himself, he didn't like the limelight at all.

TV presenter Phil Koeghan in his film Le Ride

Photo: Doug Jensen

Mr Noble said he was not surprised by how popular the documentary has been at the New Zealand International Film Festival, where Le Ride is currently screening in Christchurch, with a third screening added to the schedule.

"Phil's done a great job and the scenery alone is worth going to see. There's not a lot of movies out there for cyclists, so I can see why it's got the interest.''

The sculpture would be a tangible, visual reminder of Watson's achievements, with Mr Noble counting a couple of Watson's bikes as all that remained of any memorabilia.

"Phil did manage to get into the French archives and he dug up a lot of footage and archives of Harry which we hadn't been aware of, so we've got some great photos which have been circulated in the family.''

People should go see the documentary, especially non-cyclists, he said.

"The depth of training required, brings home to you how tough these guys in the early 1900s were.''

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