Advertisement

Sign up for our newsletter

Advertisement

Lanterne Rouge at the Tour de France

Max Leonard
11 Sep 2020

During the Tour de France the fans & TV cameras focus on the front of the race, but there is a whole other competition going on at the back

In most races, the man who comes last is the weakest competitor. Not so with the Tour de France. At the end of three weeks in the world’s toughest event, one man stands on the podium and receives the glory, fame and wealth that comes with the yellow jersey, but his victory is built upon the suffering and sacrifice of teammates who ride in the wind for him, collect food and water for him, and give up their bikes for him if and when required. 

The position of those unsung heroes in the field when the final General Classification (GC) is revealed is of little consequence and rarely reflects their talent or effort.

When you’re a domestique, a worker ant, it makes no odds whether you come 50th or 150th, but there is one non-podium place in the GC that has held a particular fascination for followers of the Tour de France over the years – that of man at the very bottom of the list, the Lanterne Rouge. 

The name comes from the red safety lantern that used to hang on the back of the last carriage of trains and almost certainly dates to the very first days of the Tour de France, before the First World War.

The Lanterne Rouge has never had his own jersey – it has never been an official award – or any other prize, save for the paper lantern that is often given to him at the end of the race by Tour photographers looking for good pictures to sell. His is an entirely popular accolade. 

Perhaps fans throughout the Tour’s history have cheered him on because they feel for the underdog, or because they feel that, in the peloton of stick-thin superhumans, riding across whole mountain ranges and countries at unfeasible speeds, he is the most like them, the most human. 

The Lanterne Rouge title is sometimes laughed off as a booby prize, a wooden spoon for the heroic loser. More damningly, it is sometimes seen as perverse, as a celebration of failure. But all those fans down the years can’t be completely wrong.

Look a little way into the history of the Lanterne Rouge and the story of the last man becomes complex and fascinating. 

For one thing, unlike most losers the Lanterne Rouge does not give up. Arsène Millochau, the first last man in 1903, did better than 25% of those on the official starters’ list just by making it to the start line.

And of those 60 pioneers who began the race, only 21 would make it to the finish in the Parc des Princes velodrome in Paris two weeks later.

Yes, Millochau covered those six long stages a cumulative 65 hours behind the eventual winner, Maurice Garin, and on some days his name would not appear on the published GC because he did not arrive at the stage end before the papers went to press.

But he got there. Eventually. 

Even in modern Tours, around 20% of riders drop out each year for various reasons including injury, illness or even planned withdrawal. Likewise, those who end up as Lanterne Rouge do so for many reasons.

Some are debutants: young riders being blooded in their first long stage race, whose time at the sharp end of the peloton is yet to come.

Others have struggled on after falling victim to crashes, faulty equipment or bad luck. And many others are domestiques, the faithful helpers for whom it is simply not their job to win. 

Among the ranks of the Lanternes Rouge over the years are yellow jersey wearers, Milan-San Remo, Bordeaux-Paris and Tour of Flanders winners, national champions and Olympic medallists – so they’re not habitual losers by any means.

Accidental hero

Perhaps the most successful (if you can call it that) Lanterne Rouge was Belgian rider Wim Vansevenant, although he is unconvinced by the accolade.

He was a talented domestique, spending most of his best years at Lotto in the service of race-winners such as Robbie McEwen and Cadel Evans between 2003 and 2008. On top of his duties he squeezed in being last in the Tour three times, in 2006, 2007 and 2008. 

For Vansevenant, the position he achieved at the Tour was largely irrelevant, because he was focused on helping his team leader to victory, and the success or otherwise of a Tour depended on whether he achieved that goal. (McEwen won the green jersey in 2006, while Evans was 4th in the GC in 2006, and 2nd in 2007 and 2008).

‘It’s always fun to race in the Tour when you win victories – otherwise it’s shit,’ he tells us as he sits in the kitchen of his Belgian farmhouse while his teenage son gulps down spaghetti Bolognese in preparation for a cyclocross race.

‘If you don’t win, or you don’t have a GC rider, the Tour de France sucks,’ he says. The Lanterne Rouge was not something he went for; in 2006, his first year, it came for him. 

‘Robbie [McEwen] was in the green jersey, I didn’t notice or care that I was close to last,’ he says. ‘In the flat stages I was already saving energy for the next day, because I knew I would have to do the same job again. And after my job was finished I would just sit back in the peloton and let myself drop and pedal easy to the finish.’

So losing time is, in fact, a crucial part of the domestique’s art. And when the team does well, everyone shares in the victory. ‘Yes, the success [of the team leader] is partly mine,’ he says.

‘It’s fun to work in a team when it’s going well. A domestique is as strong as his team leader. If the leader doesn’t perform, the domestique doesn’t do well.’

In Vansevenant’s Lanterne Rouge years, Lotto’s Tour palmarès included four stage wins, the green jersey, two GC podium positions and a fourth place.

Not bad for a small-budget squad and the last man in the race. Vansevenant only ever won one race: a stage of the Tour de Vaucluse as a second-year pro. But his value was measured in units other than personal victories. 

Race for the bottom

In 2008, Vansevenant’s third consecutive Lanterne year, he admits he actually aimed for last place, even going as far as putting foot to cobble on the Champs-Élysées in a duel with Team Columbia’s Bernhard Eisel for the honour of last place. 

As every rider knows, publicity has its worth – both to the individual and to the team, whose raison d’être is to gain exposure for its sponsors.

One way of making the headlines is to have your rider cross the line first, arms aloft, but another way – proving the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity – is by coming last.

For small teams, encouraging riders to shoot for the bottom used to be a shortcut to media exposure, and for the riders the publicity meant cold, hard cash on the post-Tour race circuit, where the Tour’s stars would line up at city centre criteriums across northern Europe, bagging big crowds and big appearance fees. 

Such was the esteem in which the public held the Lanterne Rouge, he would be offered these post-Tour crit contracts too. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, when jobbing professional riders’ salaries were very low and life precarious, the prospect of earning several times your annual salary in just two weeks must have been very tempting, and so the era of the race for last place was born.

Cue Wacky Races-style games of hiding down alleys as the peloton whooshed by, or stopping with your last-place rivals as they took a pause naturelle to make sure they didn’t take precious seconds off you. 

In 1974, the Italian Lorenzo Alaimo played hide-and-seek with Australian Don Allan to rob him of the Lanterne, and in 1976 Aad van den Hoek, a Dutchman riding for the legendary Peter Post’s Ti-Raleigh squad, ducked behind a car to lose some minutes and claim the Lanterne Rouge once his team leader, Hennie Kuiper, had been injured and abandoned. 

However, the king of the last place showmen was Austrian rider Gerhard Schönbacher. A week into the 1979 Tour, the sponsors of his team, DAF, decided their names weren’t prominent enough in the race coverage.

A Belgian journalist suggested going for the Lanterne Rouge for more publicity and, following the logic of maximum exposure, Schönbacher, a born entertainer, took on the responsibility. 

‘Journalists kept coming up to me asking, “Is it true that you want to come last?” and I kept saying, “Yes, I want to come last!” I kept dreaming up these stories about how I would do it: that I would hide 30km in behind a bridge, or whatever,’ he says.

‘Every day I was in the media. I just made things up. I was provocative when I was younger.’

In the end, Schönbacher’s battle for the Lanterne Rouge came down to the final time-trial. His rival was Team Fiat’s Philippe Tesnière, a French former electricity pylon worker and Lanterne Rouge in 1978, who was determined to take last place again and thus supplement his income for another year.

Their mutual opponent was a rampant Bernard Hinault, who was shooting for his second Tour de France win. Being last and second-last in the GC, Schönbacher and Tesnière were the first two to roll off the start ramp for the time-trial in Dijon that day, and each had to gamble on exactly how fast they thought Hinault would complete the course.

The time cut for all riders was a percentage of the winner’s time, so if they gambled wrong and went too slow they’d be eliminated from the race altogether. 

Hours after finishing, on the edge of his hotel bed, Schönbacher watched Hinault cross the line on TV, and waited for the time cut to be calculated.

Finally it came: Schönbacher was safe, by 30 seconds, and Tesnière too slow, by almost a minute.

‘The brave lad from Fiat was in tears, and he couldn’t sleep all night for thinking about what he has lost in this adventure,’ French newspaper L’Équipe wrote the next morning.

‘One might even wonder if it wasn’t to conserve this Lanterne Rouge that he dropped so far back and committed this error of judgement that has cost him dear.’

Schönbacher’s Lanterne Rouge was secure. So pleased was he that he decided to go out in one final blaze of publicity: two days later, in Paris, he got off his bike and, surrounded by journalists, he walked the final 100 metres of the Champs-Elysées. 

Tour director Félix Lévitan was already put out by Schönbacher’s clowning around at the back, and this act was the final straw. It was war. 

The war against the Lanterne

Back in the Tour’s early days the roads were so bad, stages so long and the challenge so tough that Henri Desgrange, the race’s first director, would sing the praises of each and every man who completed the loop around France.

In one instance, in 1919, so few riders finished that the race organisers personally took care of the last-placed man – who was an unsponsored privateer – and Desgrange applauded him from the race director’s car on the final stage from Dunkirk to Paris. 

But somewhere along the line the cult of celebrating every survivor became a fear of subversion. For later Tour directors, the idea of the Lanterne was at best frivolous and at worst antithetical to the point of the race.

In 1939 race director Jacques Goddet instituted an elimination rule: after each of the first 14 stages the last man in the GC each day would be eliminated.

Ostensibly this was to liven up the racing, but in practice it also meant the Lanterne Rouge started each day living on borrowed time and ended it by being eliminated if he couldn’t take time off a rival.

It was a brutal rule and the riders didn’t like it: it penalised the domestiques and encouraged crafty racing among teams to knock out each other’s riders. To their relief, it didn’t survive the Second World War. 

However, when Schönbacher said publicly he wanted the Lanterne Rouge one more time in 1980, Félix Lévitan, a fearsome, autocratic director very much in Desgrange’s mould, resurrected the elimination rule with the intention of taking the annoying Austrian out.

A cat and mouse game ensued: every day after stage 14 the last man was eliminated, and yet each day Schönbacher stayed just a place or two out of reach.

He definitively hit bottom after stage 19, but that was the last day elimination was allowed for in the rules and his place at the bottom was safe. 

The camembert and the Lanterne

Lévitan had not been able to crush the cult of the Lanterne Rouge as he would have liked, but over the course of the 80s rising salaries and public indifference – perhaps due to the overexposure of the Schönbacher years – did for the Lanterne in a way the dictatorial director could not.

It faded from the European public’s consciousness, became less of a novelty news item and, with better wages making the post-Tour crits less important, fewer riders raced for last. 

Talk to a Lanterne Rouge these days and he’s more likely to be slightly embarrassed by his position, or simply determined to overcome injury, fatigue or whatever else is plaguing him and get to Paris intact.

It takes a special man, such as Vansevenant, to stand out these days. Or a man like Jacky Durand.

In all the topsy-turvy history and derring-do of the Lanterne, Durand’s exploits are notable. Many people will remember the 1999 Tour de France as the first time that a certain brash Texan won the yellow jersey.

But it was there that French Lotto rider Durand achieved the supremely counterintuitive feat of coming dead last in the GC and yet, as the strains of ‘La Marseillaise’ rang out over the cheering crowds, still earning a bona fide place on the podium next to Lance Armstrong. 

How had he done it? By first having his leg almost crushed by a Mapei team car and then attacking as if his life depended on it. Durand was known as the master of the long – and usually doomed – breakaway.

In 1992 he had won the Tour of Flanders after a 217km attack, to the adoration of French and Belgians alike. He played up to the adulation, and a French magazine began to publish a monthly ‘Jackymètre’, measuring how much time he’d spent off the front of the peloton.

In 1999 he had a reputation to uphold and he wasn’t going to let a career-threatening crash stop him. 

‘Every year I’ve raced the Tour I’ve always attacked,’ he said to newspaper journalists after a few days. ‘This year because of my fall at the start of the race I’ve attacked, but only backwards.’ 

As soon after the crash as he was able, he began to attack – forwards. Soon, he was collecting cheeses, the daily reward for the winner of the Prix de la Combativité (the combativity award for the most attacking rider), which that year was being sponsored by the Coeur de Lion (‘Lion Heart’) camembert brand. Every day he could, he got in the break; every day he was unsuccessful, but he picked himself up and tried again. 

‘I’d rather finish shattered and last having attacked a hundred times than finish 25th without having tried,’ he said.

Two stages from the end, he tried his final attack, got caught, and then dropped back from the peloton to lose some minutes and claim the Lanterne Rouge.

However, he also won the overall combativity award, meaning he got to share the podium with Armstrong on the Champs-Élysées.

‘The symbolism was just too good,’ Durand says today. ‘The man climbing onto the podium like the winner is actually the last guy. Is it the last man? No, it’s not the last, it’s the most aggressive rider! For me, the ambiguity was too good.’

The race for last place is full of inversions, subversions and perversities, but in the history of the Lanterne, Durand’s cheerful ascent to the podium with the yellow jersey is one of the best.

The prestige of the Lanterne Rouge may be waning, but the tales of the men at the back will last forever, and their stories may just turn your ideas about the nature of cycling on their head. 

Max Leonard is a freelance writer and author of Lanterne Rouge (Yellow Jersey Press)

Read more about: