The Lanterne Rouge – the race to be last in the Tour de France.
It would seem like a dubious honor at best, maybe even a mark of failure, but for some the Lanterne Rouge has been the most coveted prize of the Tour de France after the celebrated jerseys…
Named for the red light on the rear of a train, the Lanterne Rouge has been part of the Tour de France from its beginnings. It was never an official award, but a very popular unofficial recognition, highly prized by riders who couldn’t be contenders for victory, and enormously popular with the public.
The Lanterne Rouge of the Tour de France may be the most contested booby prize in all of sport.
Very few people remember who finished half way down the field in the last Tour de France, or who was next to last, but the rider who gets to Paris in the very last place sticks out and is remembered.
This rider attracts sympathy and some notoriety for enduring all the hardships and agony without giving up, even though they had no hope of winning. The organizers
In the circuit of criterium races that used to follow the Tour de France, the jersey winners would be able to command substantial appearance fees as celebrities. The Lanterne Rouge benefitted from his achievement the same way, often doubling his annual income in a few weeks of post-Tour racing.
Naturally, the Lanterne Rouge became a distinction to aim for. Back in the earlier days of the Tour, riders would resort to all kinds of devious tactics to “win” it: sabotaging opponents so they might be eliminated, hiding down alleys to lose time.
The Lanterne Rouge Specialists
A few riders made a specialty of the Lanterne Rouge. Belgian rider Wim Vansevenant was in last place three years in a row from 2006, though intentionally only the last time.
It’s Austrian rider Gerhard Schönbacher who gets the yellow jersey of Lanterne Rouges. In the 1979 Tour de France he set out in pursuit of the extra income and celebrity of last place, and went further, announcing it to the press and cultivating publicity throughout the Tour.
The Classic Lanterne Rouge Duel
In the same year, French rider Philippe Tesnière, who had been Lanterne Rouge the previous year, also set his sights on the prize.
The two pitted wits and strategies against each other through the race, coming down to a final time trial where last place depended on achieving a fairly exact percentage of the expected winner’s time – it was Bernard Hinault that year. Too much faster and you wouldn’t be last. Slower and you would be eliminated from the race. It was Schönbacher who gauged it correctly.
Lanterne Rouge – 2018 Tour de France
Lawson Craddock has the unusual distinction of attaining the Lanterne Rouge position on the first stage of 2018 and holding it through the entire race. No one else has ever done that. Unlike many who achieved the Lanterne Rouge by calculation or maneuvering, Craddock suffered a bad crash in the first stage, and battled his way through the race with injuries but without being eliminated – a notable feat of bravery (and suffering) and well worth recognition.
Even so, the Lanterne Rouge is not quite so prized these days. Because compensation has changed so much as the sport has reached a higher profile, post-tour appearance fees are largely a thing of the past. Now for riders at least, the “honor” is more of what we might expect – a bit of a joke, kind of embarrassing, and certainly not achieved on purpose.
The story of the Lanterne Rouge and the riders who achieved it is actually a great insight into the Tour de France itself.
Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, by Max Leonard, covers a lot of fascinating and very amusing stories behind the Tour and the people who run it and race it. A highly recommended summer read!
Read a detailed story on the Lanterne Rouge here, and check out our post on the Tour de France Jersey Colors here.
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