Monday, July 22, 2019

Lanterne Rouge

“[S]uccess, especially your own, is not a good subject; failure is.” --Tim Krabbe

Of the many Tour de France color-based designations (yellow, green, white, and polka dot jerseys; red number for combativity), my favorite is the lanterne rouge, a completely unofficial designation “awarded” to the last place finisher in the General Classification. The term comes from the nineteenth-century tradition of hanging a red lantern on the back end of a train. It was some time in the 1910s, in the second decade of the Tour’s existence, that lanterne rouge also came to refer to the final finisher of the overall race. Riders themselves, or sometimes fans, would give the last place rider a symbolic paper lantern to carry on the final stage.

Tour organizers have never been that crazy about the concept of the lanterne rouge, which could be seen by some (though not by anyone who really understands grand tour cycling) as celebrating failure and distracting attention from the front of the race. But British journalist Max Leonard, author of Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France (Yellow Jersey, 2014), makes the compelling argument that the front of the race is only one of many stories at any tour, and, in some ways, the story at the back end can be just as fascinating--perhaps even more relatable to most fans. Leonard’s book explores some of the most entertaining stories of this unique sporting tradition.