Phil Keoghan is one of New Zealand’s most high-profile international celebrities, best known as the host of The Amazing Race. He tells Victoria Tait about his epic journey to film Le Ride and his list of things to do before he dies.
Born in Lincoln, Christchurch, and an ex-St Andrew’s College student, Phil Keoghan has always maintained a strong connection to Christchurch. After the February 2011 earthquake, he returned home to record segments for American morning television programme The Early Show to help raise funds for the New Zealand Red Cross and also promote tourism in Christchurch.
His career started at the age of 19, with his first on-screen role for children’s show Spot On, filmed in Dunedin and Christchurch. He went on to further television roles, including reporting for TV series That’s Fairly Interesting – alongside Tim Shadbolt, Neil Roberts, Sue Kedgley and Phil Gifford. With stars in his eyes and a natural on-screen presence, he moved overseas to extend his opportunities and, today, has worked in more than 100 countries as a television host, producer, writer, and cameraman.
Phil has won numerous awards for his work, including 10 Emmy Awards (of 17 nominations), all for The Amazing Race as a producer and a host. In 2012, he was recognised as one of six “Emerging Leaders” during the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Awards, for his support of the Christchurch earthquake relief and funds raised for multiple sclerosis. In 2014, he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services as a television presenter and to tourism.
Phil is also a published writer, releasing No Opportunity Wasted: 8 Ways To Create A List For The Life You Want (2004). This is man who plans to live his life to the fullest, and with a strong sense of adventure has already broken a world bungee jumping record, gone diving in the world’s longest underwater caves, eaten a meal on top of an erupting volcano, and renewed his vows under the sea while feeding sharks.
In 2009, Phil took part in Ride Across America, a bike race in which participants clock up more than 4800km as they travel from Los Angeles to New York. Stopping at
39 cities, the course is described as being 30 per cent longer than the Tour de France. Phil’s efforts were driven by his ongoing commitment to raising funds for multiple sclerosis research. To further boost the profile of his efforts, he set himself the goal of completing the race in 40 days, which meant160km per day. Not only did he conquer another challenge, he helped raise more than $637,000 (USD $450,000).
Four years later, Phil donned his cycle gear one more, this time in France. With his friend Ben Cornell, they recreated the original route of the 1928 Tour de France. Averaging 240km a day, for 26 days, Phil and Ben traversed both the unforgiving mountains and the Western Alps, on original vintage steel bikes, without gears and marginal brakes.
A documentary, Le Ride, was made simultaneously, primarily to raise the profile of New Zealand champion biker Harry Watson, also originally from Christchurch. Harry Watson was part of the first English-speaking team to take on the Tour de France.
What was it about Harry Watson’s story that inspired you to embark on 1928 race route, 85 years later?
Harry Watson was a cycling champion from New Zealand and yet hardly anyone has heard of him. If he was an All Black he would be considered a hero. To take a six-week journey by sea to France and take on the world’s best in what is arguably the toughest sporting event in 1928, on roads that were not sealed, riding an average of 150 miles [80km] a day is incredible. When they arrived they learned that the six riders promised to them to complete their team were not available, so they had to race as a team of four against teams of 10. I was so blown away by this untold story that I was inspired to do a documentary about Harry Watson and attempt to recreate the 1928 Tour de France route.
What can people expect from the subsequent film, Le Ride?
I hope the audience will appreciate what these brave riders from Down Under endured day after day. That they embarked on this gruelling journey without seeking recognition and just got on with it. In an era where everything is announced on social media, it’s incredible to think Harry went looking for adventure and then returned to his job as if nothing happened. He did not seek fame or fortune. I bet if you mentioned Harry Watson’s name to anyone you would be met with a questioning look. I had never heard of him either and now I hope his name is never forgotten.
How did you physically prepare for this ride? Especially as you were attempting this on a vintage steel bike without gears?
The 1928 bike was not ready to ride until a week or so before the actual ride around France so I had to train on my regular bike, which weighs about 17 pounds [7.5kg]. The 1928 bike weighs twice as much and has no gears. The biggest challenge was riding for hours and hours without cracking mentally. Some of the days were 200 miles [320km] and I had to prepare my head for that.
Did the one bike last the distance?
Ha – you will have to see Le Ride to find out.
Did you ever thing you wouldn’t make it?
When I thought I couldn’t go on I thought of Harry and his team! We had better nutrition and better roads and we had a support team. It was punishing enough for us, but every time I thought of Harry, I was able to push on.
What made you choose to donate funds from Ride Across America to multiple sclerosis research?
My producing partner and wife, Louise, and I used to sponsor an under-23 cycling team in the US and a professional women’s cycling team. Initially we were approached by an existing cycling team who supported MS and we decided to continue the association. It wasn’t long before we met so many people affected by MS and realised that we could do a lot to raise funds for research. So, we helped raise over a million dollars for MS. It seemed appropriate that we continued our support with our film.
I believe you have a list of things to do before you die, what’s left?
Focus on making this world a better place. My list is less about my personal goals now and more about how I can contribute to improving the lives of others. Whatever that takes I will stick on my list.
Who would you choose as a companion to compete in The Amazing Race?
Maybe my daughter Elle. She is smart and tough and an athlete. We might argue a bit as we are both stubborn, but she would get the job done!
Having travelled to more than 100 countries with The Amazing Race, is there an experience or country that has had a huge impact on you?
India is always mind-blowing. Such a colourful and vibrant country. I think everyone should try and visit India. It’s hard to put into words, so just go if you can.
What is your greatest achievement?
Being a father and good husband. I have a great family and every day I appreciate my wife and daughter. I’m sure it’s not easy for them with me travelling so much, but we have a lot of quality time together when I’m home. Lots of adventures!
The world premiere of Le Ride is on July 29, at the Isaac Theatre Royal, as part of the New Zealand Film Festival.