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. 

You might think that being the final finisher of the Tour de France would be cause for embarrassment. But as Leonard explains, for a time in the middle of the twentieth century, there was, strangely enough, a considerable financial incentive to finishing last. From the late 1940s up until the 60s, the Tour was followed immediately by a month-long circuit of cash criterium races in Belgium and Holland, and the star and notable performers of the Tour were offered appearance fees by criterium promoters--and the lanterne rouge became one of those notables. This meant finishing last in the Tour could actually be quite lucrative. The 1951 lanterne rouge, the Algerian rider Abdel-Kader Zaaf, claimed to have made 35000 francs on the criterium circuit following his lanterne.

On the surface, being last in a bike race may not sound like much of an accomplishment. But in the case of the Tour de France, it actually is. A lot of factors have to align in order to finish last overall on the final day. The main reason is the Tour’s various rules designed to eliminate slower riders. The theory here is that in a grand tour, it’s too easy for a rider to take a day off, deliberately not ride hard, in order to save up energy for an attack the next day. In 1939, to prevent this from happening, race organizers introduced an elimination component. At the end of each stage, the slowest rider got the boot. This put considerable pressure on the riders hanging on at the back of what the French call l’autobus. A few years later, the rule was changed from eliminating the slowest rider to having a time cut off each day. Riders who didn’t finish under the cut off were out of the race. Some days no one would be eliminated; other days, several could be, at least theoretically. This tradition remains to this day.

So a would-be lantern rougiste has to be in last place but make the cut off each day. Then there’s the abandonment factor. In such a long race, some riders will quit part way through, if they realize that they’ve lost too much time and can’t help their teammates or would rather save themselves for another race. It’s not uncommon to have a couple of abandonments each day of a grand tour. One year in the early 1980s, the late Paul Sherwen found himself near the back overall after a major crash. He tells Leonard, “I didn’t want to be last overall, I kept fighting not to be. But every time I overtook a guy in the overall standings, he fucking abandonned.” It was as if Sherwen was destined to finish last. Luck--or lack thereof, depending on how you look at it--plays a part in securing last place. As journalist Sam Abt put it, “Lanterne rouge is not a position you go for. It comes for you.”

That’s not to say that some riders haven’t tried to go for it. Leonard recounts some classic tales of riders going to impressive lengths to try to be last--such as hiding behind a bush until the gruppetto is long past and then scooting in just under the time cut off. But those tactics rarely worked out in the long run. More often, the lanterne comes to a rider who doesn’t even think about it until the last week of the Tour, when, as one rider put it, he “realizes he’s last and thinks, oh that [the lanterne rouge] could be nice.” That maybe it’s better to be dead last than second last.

Each chapter in the book looks at one (or, in some cases, a couple of) particular lanterne rouges, between 1903 and 2008. I liked some of the stories Leonard has chosen better than others. His account of Pierre Matignon’s lanterne rouge experience in the 1969 tour is worth buying the book for alone. Martignon was solidly in last place in the GC going into the second last leg, when he broke away from the field and, against all odds, withstood the pursuit of all the chasers, including young hot shot Eddy Merckx. The Cannibal couldn’t catch the lanterne rouge on the brutal finishing ascent of the Puy de Dome and Matignon, incredibly, traded his lanterne for a stage win.

The chapter on throwback French rider Jacky Durand is wonderful too. He took the lanterne rouge in 1999 but was famous for his incredibly--some would say foolishly--aggressive tactics. He was a sucker for the heroic, impossible, doomed breakaway. As he tells Leonard, “I’d rather finish shattered and last having attacked a hundred times than finish 25th without having tried.” In fact, Durand won the prix de combativity at the same time that he held the lanterne rouge. (This philosophy of first or last only strikes me as somehow very French.)

Fascinating in a different way is the story of three-time lanterne rouge winner Wim Vansevenant (2006-08). Finishing near the back started out as a by-product of his ultra-intense approach to his domestique role. Wim would work for his teammates Robbie McEwen and Cadel Evans, often near the front of the race, until his work for the day was done, at which point he would drop to the back, conserving energy for the next day. In 2006, he gave no thought at all to the lanterne until fans on the internet drummed up some passionate discussion about what turned into a kind of race for last place between Wim and the sprinter Jimmy Casper. Over the next two Tours, Wim came as close as anyone ever has to perfecting the art of the lanterne.

A few of the stories drift somewhat from the focus of the book. For instance, in the chapter on Zaaf, Leonard describes at length the infamous incident of the year before he won the lanterne rouge, when on a sweltering day between Perpignan and Nimes, Zaaf drank from a bottle handed to him by a fan, then fell off his bike drunk, ending up asleep under a tree for a couple of hours before waking up and continuing on--in the wrong direction. This is a classic story, no doubt, but it has little to do with Zaaf’s lanterne rouge which actually came the following year. Leonard can’t resist stretching out that tale far longer than it needs to be. Similarly, Leonard goes on at length about Zaaf’s post racing life and legacy. While Zaaf is a fascinating character and Leonard has insightful things to say about him, I’m not sure that this book is the place for all of them.

Leonard includes some personal stories as well, accounts of his own experiences riding classic terrain such as the Puy de Dome. I get how these are meant to help us connect and compare the regular Joe cycling experiences to that of even the slowest pros, but I can imagine some readers impatiently skimming through these bits eager to hear more stories about pro lanternes rather than pretend ones.

Besides being an entertaining read, Leonard’s book contributes to a growing, recent swell of interest in the stories of sport’s non-winners. The recent Netflix series Losers (which I highly recommend), came after Leonard’s book, I know, but I thought of it several times while reading the book. Both celebrate the anti-heroic appeal of not just everyday not-winning but of how, in rare instances, losing can actually transcend winning, becoming something just as mythical as victory. 

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