There are various ways to experience and see France, but for former Turlock resident Benjamin Cornell, it doesn’t get much better than on the seat of an antique racing bicycle.
Cornell served as the riding partner for “The Amazing Race” host Phil Keoghan as they recreated the 1928 Tour de France race by pedaling more than 3,300 miles across France. The entire trip was filmed for the documentary “Le Ride.”
“I love challenging myself,” Cornell said. “I went into this knowing that I have never ridden as far as we did on a daily basis (150 miles per day) or as long as we did on the longest day (over 200 miles). Making it through was a great accomplishment, but what made it better was doing it alongside a good friend in a beautiful country.”
The 1928 Tour de France is notable for being the first time an English-speaking team competed in the race. It also was a particularly grueling course that year, with 160 riders starting the race and only 41 riders reaching the finish line.
The documentary “Le Ride” is a tribute to New Zealander Harry Watson, and Australian riders Sir Hubert Opperman, Ernie Bainbridge, and Percy Osborne. They were the first English-speaking riders to compete in the elite race and were cast as the underdogs because they were untested and under-resourced. Some days the team of four would spend 20 hours riding, leading one French journalist to describe their attempt as “nothing short of murder.”
“The tour was hell on wheels,” Keoghan said in a news release. “The roads were all unsealed and Harry and his co-riders were the talk of the competition. Harry was a champion, yet very few people in New Zealand know about his remarkable story.”
Cornell and Keoghan set out to follow the 1928 race course as closely as possible in 2013. The goal was to recreate the experience of the four riders by doing the course on 1928 steel bicycles and donning the authentic garb of the riders for the time.
“The brakes were barely operable,” Cornell said. “They helped slow us down, but not very well. My right shoe has a lot of wear from rubbing it against the road to help slow me down. The bikes were one speeds without any shifters.”
The two men completed the journey of 3,338 miles in the same time as the original race of 26 days.
Cornell’s foray into long-distance bicycling began during his days as a student at Turlock High School. While watching a classic cycling film, the then 18-year-old Cornell and his cousin got the idea to ride 200 kilometers the next day up to the foothills without any sort of planning, much less training. The experience tested his mettle and also instilled a new passion.
“I started riding in high school and then rode for the UC Davis cycling team,” Cornell said. “I got into Ironman triathlons in 2000, which kept me riding.”
Cornell has been a practicing physical therapist in the Los Angeles area for more than 10 years now. His friendship with Keoghan began after their wives met and the two cycling and endurance sport enthusiasts realized they had a shared passion. The two rode together in Keoghan’s first film, “The Ride,” which took them across the country. So, naturally when it came time to suit up for “Le Ride,” Keoghan knew exactly who to ask first.
“When he came up with this crazy idea, he asked me if I was up for something bigger and I said ‘Yes.’ I’ve learned that anything done with Phil will be a great adventure,” Cornell said.
“Le Ride” was recently screened at the SXSW festival and was the second highest grossing film at the New Zealand Film Festival. It was the opening film of the Louisville International Film Festival, where it claimed the Festival Favorite Award. It is being shown in selected cities, including a local showing at the Modesto Regal theater. The showing is set for 7 p.m. Sunday, with proceeds going to benefit Jessica’s House in Turlock.
“It’s amazing that Regal Theaters offered to donate 100 percent of the proceeds from each showing to a local charity,” Cornell said. “Having not lived in Turlock for 20 years, I asked for help from my sister, who is involved in the community. She gave me three options that she thought would be good. I really loved what Jessica’s House offered. When I sent the information to Phil and his wife Louise, they fell in love with the idea.”