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Le Ride review: Michael Wolfe on the movie retracing the 1928 Tour de France

Here's the link to learn more about the film and how to get your tickets. Scroll up that page to see the trailer.

Le Ride is a recent attempt to celebrate the first New Zealander, Harry Watson, along with three Australians, to ever ride in the Tour de France, in 1928. The Australians were Sir Hubert Opperman, Ernie Bainbridge, and Percy Osborne. They arrived after six weeks at sea, and found that the promised resources didn’t await them.

They managed somehow, and three of them actually did finish the Tour. Opperman came in 18th, Watson 28th, and Osborne 38th. Bainbridge would drop off after about 50 miles, and was eventually outside of the time limit and was disqualified. It is remarkable that they did this well, considering that only 41 of the original 161 starters finished. One of the more startling facts that came to light in this film was the ability of the better teams to have fresh domestiques replace those worn out by the race, though the replacements couldn’t place in the overall standings. I can’t imagine the ultra-demanding Tour boss Henri Desgrange allowing such luxury!

Le Ride poster

Le Ride poster

Two New Zealanders, Phil Keoghan (director of the film as well) and Ben Cornell, both twice the age of the men who rode that tour, acquired 1928 racing frames and overhauled them to ride the perimeter of France, following the 1928 tour as best the roads would allow. The route today has become super freeways and roads that just dead end, so alternate roads had to be chosen. And unlike the 1928 Tour, the roads are now paved and not gravel or cobblestones.

Some concessions were made to the bikes, such as installing Dura Ace double-chainring cranks instead of the steel, single-chainring, cottered cranks, clipless pedals, alloy handlebars, modern saddles, and having support crews. It was only at the end of the film, where they announced they had not had a flat between them, that I realized that they had been using clinchers, not the tubulars that riders of 1928 used. They continued to use the steel brakes, which make horrible noises when applied, and possibly because they were used with alloy rims in this film, while until the 1937 tour, wooden rims were required so as not to overheat the glue that held the tubulars on. One stem developed a crack, and was temporarily repaired with gaffer’s tape until they could find a shop to weld the steel stem. Boss of the 1928 Tour, Desgrange, required a rider to make all repairs on his bike himself until 1930. Desgrange had allowed the exchange of a damaged bike for a replacement since 1923.

1928 Tour de France route

Route of the 1928 Tour de France. The riders went counter-clockwise, starting and finishing in Paris

While the film didn’t use derailleurs or shifters, they did use freewheels, which were banned from the Tour until 1912. The ability to coast saved 15-20% of a rider's exertion. But Henri Desgrange wanted a race that was man against man, not technology. Keoghan & Cornell still had to dismount and physically move the chain from one gear to another, which must have taken some trial and error initially, with the use of two chainrings and tensioning the rear wheel in the track dropouts without running out of dropout slot! Despite these few mechanical advantages that our riders had over the ’28 contenders, they averaged 240 kilometers a day for 26 days, including the mountains of the Pyrenees and the Alps. Some 200 mile stages began in the darkness of early morning and ended in the darkness of night.

Henri Desgrange

Henri Desgrange, the man who started the Tour de France and ruled it with an iron fist.

The film does use some amazing footage of the 1928 Tour, and while it only enhances the toughness of the riders in the ’28 Tour, one does have to appreciate the mental stability of the two New Zealanders as they complete this re-enactment. Rain, darkness, wrong turns, dead ends, forced onto super freeways — the film always portrays them in a chipper, optimistic perspective! Of course, there are some who would consider them crazy to have considered this ride!

Nicolas  Frantz

Winner of the 1928 Tour de France, Nicolas Frantz, racing on a typical mountain road of the era.

And if you want to know more about the 1928 Tour, here are results for every stage and some photos.