Lanterne Rouge – The glory of the underdog

Ever stood in the sun on a mountain road and watched the Tour de France go past? Stood and watched the leaders racing towards the pass above? Then watched the chasers, lining out around the switchbacks, and then the peloton coming behind. Further back, the team cars pass slowly in a cloud of exhaust and the smell of burning clutches, and behind them the ‘autobus’ – the slow group of sprinters and team riders – dragging themselves over the mountain to stay within the time limit. Then back with the breakdown van and the ambulance and the fire truck, the last stragglers. Then finally the last man in the race, always alone. And then the race is gone.

The back end of a bike race is not a glamorous thing.

However, some riders in the Tour de France’s 116-year history have sought out last place. It has even made them rich and famous, and the French have given a nickname to the last placed man. The lanterne rouge is named after the red lantern that used to hang on the last carriage of a train, and it designates the man who sits at the bottom of the Tour’s general classification – the rider who has taken the greatest cumulative time to cover all the stages so far. The lanterne rouge is, if you like, the opposite of the yellow jersey. But don’t call him a loser; like most things in cycling, the truth is a lot more complicated than that. The first last man in the inaugural Tour in 1903 was called Arsène Millochau and he arrived in Paris, after 2,428 kilometres, 64 hours, 57 minutes and eight seconds behind the winner. Who knows what happened in that time; riders raced solo through the night and frequently had mechanical problems. Some days Arsène was so late he didn’t appear in the day’s official results – the newspaper had gone to print while he was still out on the road.

“The lanterne rouge is named after the red lantern that used to hang on the last carriage of a train.”

The term lanterne rouge probably dates from before the First World War. In 1919, the Tour’s official newspaper, L’Auto, saluted the plucky Jules Nempon as lanterne. He was an unsupported amateur, without even a bicycle sponsor, who struggled over bombed-out roads and finished tenth and last – but better than 145 riders, including many professionals, who had dropped out because the race was simply too hard. 155 starters, ten finishers. Even finishing was a great achievement. Later on, the organisers began to disapprove of the lanterne rouge. It has never been an official prize and perhaps Le Tour bosses thought it stole the limelight from the winners, or rewarded failure. Nevertheless, the lantern appealed to the public’s penchant for the underdog and he became so popular that the last placed man would be invited to all the city-centre circuit races after the Tour, tripling his meagre salary with only a few weeks’ work. Before long, riders began to race for last place.

Lanterne rouge 1976, Aad van den Hoek, a Dutchman, confessed that after his team leader crashed out and there was nothing left to race for, he stopped and hid behind some cars one day to lose time. The Austrian Gerhard Schönbacher, meanwhile, won the lantern in 1979, and created a stir by stopping 100 metres before the final finish line on the Champs-Élysées, walking across it with his bike and kissing it for the assembled journalists. Infuriated, Le Tour organisers instigated a rule the next year that the last-placed rider every day after a certain stage would be eliminated. But that didn’t deter Schönbacher: he simply judged his ride every day so he stayed just above the bottom, and then dropped into last place before the final stage.

“Infuriated, Le Tour organisers instigated a rule the next year that the last-placed rider every day after a certain stage would be eliminated.”

The king of the lanternes rouges, however, is the Belgian Wim Vansevenant. He was a super domestique (a valued team rider) in the 2000s. His job was to work as hard as he could for his team leader, shielding him from the wind to keep him fresh or placing him in a good position for the finishing sprints. And then Vansevenant would sit up and soft pedal, so he could recover as best he could and do it all again the next day. He paid no attention to his individual position, and in 2005 he inadvertently claimed the lanterne. He came last again in 2006, and in 2007 he was so determined to do it once more that he too stopped on the Champs-Élysées to lose time and assure his ‘victory’.

Nobody else has taken the lantern three times, and the team’s record in the years he came last is pretty good too; four stage wins, two second places and a fourth place overall, with the green (sprinters’) jersey to top it off. Some of that success can be put down to Wim and his other teammates, who willingly put aside their own chances for the sake of the greater glory. Because the truth is, most riders are not stars. There can only ever be one yellow jersey, one Chris Froome, one Bernard Hinault or one Eddy Merckx. But give these bit players a cheer next time you’re on the side of the road: they do unglamorous jobs, and often struggle on with terrible injuries, but they can teach us a lot about dedication, teamwork, dignity and sacrifice. And if they grab a moment of the limelight along the way, who would begrudge them that?

Read more in Max’s book, Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France. Max is also the author of the award-winning Bunker Research and most recently Higher Calling: Road Cycling’s Obsession with the Mountains.

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