Finishing last in professional sport is not usually a cause for celebration. The aim is to win, to conquer, to vanquish. To the victor the spoils and all that. It’s a pretty Darwinian landscape out there. Thrive and survive or falter and fade. But even in Nature occasionally something unusual happens. The weakling persists; the unsuited somehow clings on, the underdog has his day.
Grand Tour cycling is unusual too. Unusually long, unusually hard, unusually constructed. Just finishing the gruelling three-week stage race is entry to an exclusive club; one that automatically carries the mark of a survivor. Seen through some eyes there are no losers at all. “I’m not last.” insisted Iker Flores when he was in just that position at the 2005 Tour de France, “Make no mistake. 200 came here. I am 120th. In another race I might be last. But not here.”
The Tour de France in particular has a long rich history of celebrating the man who arrives in Paris last. Founder Henry Desgrange’s publicly-stated aim that “The ideal Tour would be one in which only one rider survives the ordeal” makes every finisher a winner in some sense and Max Leonard’s engaging book Lanterne Rouge – The Last Man in the Tour de France (Yellow Jersey Press. RRP £16.99 Hardcover, £6.99 Kindle) on the history and mindsets of these “Lanterne Rouges” is just that; a celebration. He examines the reasons behind the longevity of and affection for this most historical of ‘wooden spoons’, talks with numerous Lanternes to see how they view their ‘achievement’, and ponders what place such an accolade has in their (and our) lives.
For some the reasoning is quite plain. In past decades the ‘fame’ that accompanied being last-placed in the Tour made it a much more lucrative option than finishing tenth from last – or even tenth overall – and so, for some, it became a goal in its own right. Being Lanterne Rouge (named after the red light that was traditionally hing form the last train carriage to help station masters know that none had become unhooked) guaranteed exposure for the rider’s sponsors and invites to the all-important post Tour exhibition criteriums for the rider himself. For some the goal of finishing last became a positive aim rather than just the consolation prize it began its life as, and throughout the book Leonard recounts tales of riders using all their racing guile, experience and tactical inventiveness in order to make the fine judgement between losing bundles of time and finishing within the time-cut.
In looking for the essence of the Lanterne Leonard inevitably unearths a few of the characters of the sport. The Lanterne who battled through through early sickness and then managed a stage win over the great Eddy Merckx later in the same race; the exotic North-African who reckoned he was poisoned and then expertly spun his own PR in order to stay in the headlines; the brothers were both Lanterne Rouge during the reign of Lance Armstrong. With chapters covering almost every decade since the race’s inception in 1903, the book also acts as an historical mirror to the privations of those who undertook La Grande Boucle. The tale of Jules Nempon – the sole surviving ‘unsupported’ rider of 1919 – is particularly illuminating. He tracks some of the surviving Lanternes down – men like triple Lanterne Wim Vansevenant, epic baradour Sandy Casar and the man who probably fought ‘hardest’ of all to be Lanterne Rouge, Gerhard Schönbacher but others escape him – most notably Philippe Gaumont – but again, this just adds to the story as it is understandable that some might not cherish their award as dearly as others.
Leonard’s own battles on the bike also feature in the book. His writing style is both engaging and engaged. His journey along the road of discovery is a much a part of the book as the reminisces of the pro riders who suffered so mightily to finish dead-last. His trials and tribulations interviewing the Lanternes is his own Grand Tour with good days and bad days. I heard Max talk about the book at the Rapha Tempest Festival back in July and found his enthusiasm for the subject quite captivating. As we saw in Yorkshire, the Tour is a huge beast these days with the gaze often relentlessly focussed on the winning and the winners but these little sideways looks at the sport – like Charly Wegelius’ excellent ‘Domestique‘ – offer a new persepctive and understanding to the races that we often feel that we know so well.
Today’s Lanterne Rouges – more comfortably paid and looked after than their predecessors – do not need the limelight in same the way that their earlier counterparts did and enjoy relative anonymity these days. This summer Giant Shimano’s Ji Cheng was the most recent to join the roll-call of Lanternes. Quite fittingly, he will not be the last.