It's often easier to recall the winner of any sporting event. For avid cyclists, many names quickly come to mind when thinking about who captured the top spot in the Tour de France. As examples, Anquetil, Merckx, Indurain, LeMond, Froome, and Pogacar are all fairly familiar victors. But what about the poor souls who finished last in the biggest bicycle race in the world? No one remembers them.
I've just finished a book that offers some insight into those who fought like hell for three weeks just to survive, but ended up at the tail end of the peloton. To have the chance to arrive on the final day in Paris. To ride along the Champs-Elysees. It's titled "Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France" by Max Leonard (Pegasus Books, 2015).
Lanterne rouge? What's that? The phrase comes from the French for "Red Lantern" and refers to the red lantern hung on the rear vehicle of a passenger train or the brake van of a freight train, which signalmen would look for in order to make sure none of the couplings had become disconnected.
Through research, the author unearthed inspiring stories that included:
— Igor and Iker Flores, two brothers from Spain, who were both lanternes rouges, one in 2002 and the other in 2005.
— Wim Vansevenant, a Belgian cyclist, who was the lanterne rouge for three straight years (2006, 2007, 2008).
— And Arsene Millochau, a Frenchman, who was the first last man in the 1903 Tour de France.
One particular passage in the book does a good job at summing up the lanterne rouge title. "It is probably cycling's most notorious prize and it exerts a peculiar pull on many fans. Some see the lanterne rouge as a joke, simply a booby prize for an untalented rider; others as a survivor's badge of honor awarded to a man nobly struggling on against the odds. ... What is for sure is that, for better or worse, the lanterne rouge does not quit."
Turning the pages, for me, created several lasting thoughts. I found it astounding that some eventual lanternes rouges would finish as far as 40 to 45 minutes behind a given stage winner. Also, I learned, some cyclists wanted to be last in the Tour, just to bring publicity to their sponsors and team; realizing that those who finish somewhere in the middle are absolute unknowns. Other riders certainly dismissed the last-place accolade. In fact, it's an "honor" that's not officially recognized by the Tour organizers.
Anyway, the way I look at it is that it would be quite an accomplishment just to finish the Tour de France no matter what. Whether you are first, fifth, in 100th place ... or even last. Definitely a good book if you want to delve into a different side of this great race.
'Thought for the day'
"I was not yet sixteen when I understood a great deal, from having ridden bicycles for so long, about style, speed, grace, purpose, value, form, integrity, health, humor, music, breathing, and finally and perhaps best, of the relationship between the beginning and the end." — William Saroyan, Armenian-American novelist, playwright, and short story writer
From "Words To Ride By ... Thoughts on Bicycling" by Michael Carabetta (Chronicle Books, 2017)