Review: ‘Le Ride,’ a documentary by Phil Keoghan

While the training regimens of professional athletes have changed by leaps and bounds over the past century, the archaic nature of most professional sports around the turn of the twentieth century meant athletic glory was once harder to attain. Sports used to be so difficult that I doubt most modern athletes would have been able to compete at a professional level if they had been born a century earlier. Take, for example, the 1928 Tour de France, the focal point of Phil Keoghan’s documentary, Le Ride. Blending an often untold history lesson with a painstaking recreation of a race so brutal that only 41 of the 168 entrants were able to finish, The Amazing Race host and avid cyclist looks at one such event where no amount of modern day strength conditioning and ingenuity would make an athlete’s task any easier.

Wanting to follow in the footsteps of fellow New Zealander Harry Watson and a band of ill equipped, underdog riders, Keoghan and his best mate, Ben Cornell, set out to follow the routing of the 1928 Tour de France as authentically as possible. It’s a task that’s easier said than done. Even with a wealth of archival material at their disposal (including detailed records for the start and end of each leg in the tour), the route of the race is essentially unnavigable: some roads have been destroyed, others turned into highways, and some still remain as unpaved and dangerous as they were in 1928. Keoghan isn’t getting any younger, and at nearly fifty he’s almost twice the age of most riders entering the race. Keoghan and Cornell’s commitment to authenticity doesn’t stop at following the routing. They seek to complete the race around the country on steel framed, period appropriate bikes with only one gear and brakes that seem to only work with a lot of hope and prayer. The shoes, clanging metal water bottles, and helmets are all period appropriate, as is their diet, which includes wine, salty meats, and plenty of other things that modern athletes would never dream of putting into their bodies when attempting a race as gruelling as the Tour de France.

Despite its feature length and often stunning shots of the French countryside and mountains, Le Ride has been constructed with television firmly in mind. There are edits that suggest points where commercial breaks could logically happen, and there are some off putting sound cues that have clearly been added in post to spice things up a bit. These are minor quibbles, and considering Keoghan’s television background, it’s hard not to see Le Ride as a case of a filmmaker and subject sticking to what they know best. The passion that Keoghan shows for the project and his earnest desire to depict the 1928 Tour de France as the hardest cycling event ever run comes through at every turn as a result.

Harry Watson was part of a team of four Australians and New Zealanders who were promised spots on a team with several more established and seasoned European riders. When they arrived in France, they discovered that the other riders were nonexistent and that they would have to make do with what they had. The team was eviscerated in the media and treated like a joke, and with only four members, they couldn’t band together in the same way most ten member cycling teams could. It was a constant uphill battle compounded further by the unforgiving nature of the race itself.

Keoghan balances the history of the 1928 race and Watson’s narrative nicely with his own struggles to follow in the footsteps of a man the subject and filmmaker clearly idolizes. While many of the 1928 riders were somehow able to muddle their way through hundreds of miles of rough terrain on their tank-like bicycles in a single day, Keoghan and Cornell struggle mightily to keep pace, sometimes riding for nearly twenty-four straight hours with few breaks and breathers. Keoghan and Cornell never give up (unless they need to reroute their trip around a highway, which is out of their control), but after seeing what they go through, one wouldn’t fault them if they suddenly decided to pack it in early. Through their tenacity and desire to tell the best story possible, Le Ride does justice by the athletes they seek to emulate.

One doesn’t have to be a cycling enthusiast to get easily caught up in the thrill of Keoghan’s pursuits. The enormity of the task at hand is explained early on and in great enough detail to make viewers care, but never too exhaustively as to bore them. The on-screen road faced by Keoghan might be a tough one, but Le Ride crosses the finish line with ease and confidence.

Le Ride screens for one night only at select Cineplex locations across Canada on Wednesday, August 23, 2017 at 6:30pm. Check out Demand.Film for a full list of participating locations.

Check out the trailer for Le Ride:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.