A version of this got picked up by The Wall Street Journal. A nice lady who runs a Lanterne Rouge website thought I was calling Wim a loser and upbraided me. And I ran into Frankie Andreu at the Tour and he sort of politely reminded me that the reason he was the last American so many times was because he’d finished more Tours than any American at the time, and for many of those years he was either the only American who finished or had worked for Lance Armstrong so hard he could barely finish. So, Frankie: I never thought you were a loser, either.
When it comes to the Tour de France, it’s swell to spend your time admiring what my drinking pal Phil likes to call “the sharp end of the race.” Go ahead, get your chamois in a sweat every time Ricco or one of the Schlecks draw blood with an attack. But my deep experience watching knife fights has taught me that if you want to really appreciate the artistry of the struggle you have to focus not solely on the blades but also on the hilts — and nothing this year deserves your attention more than Wim Vansevenant’s pursuit of a record-setting third Lanterne Rouge title.
The French phrase meaning “red lantern” refers to the racer who is dead last when the race rolls into Paris. (It’s derived from the historical practice of hanging a scarlet light on the caboose of trains, which let station operators know that none of the cars had come uncoupled.) The title is no insult. It’s an outright accolade: The guy who sticks out the suffering and indignities of the Tour despite being a good three hours off the podium is a badass existential anti-hero — think Cool Hand Luke with chainrings instead of chain gangs.
Lanterne Rouge winners become fan favorites, a fact that grates on the organizers, who since 1980 have refused to acknowledge the honor. In that year, an Austrian named Gerhard Schoenebacher — who had won the title the previous season and was on his way to a second — annoyed race officials by getting too much attention. “I got daily interviews,” Schoenebacher told journalist Rupert Guinness. “I was very popular with the crowd and I continued to tell everyone that I liked being last. [The organizers] said I made mockery of the Tour.”
The officials were so incensed that mid-race they instituted a temporary rule: The last-placed racer would be eliminated each day. Schoenebacher showed the stuff of a champion, riding with calculation, and guts, just managing to finish in second-to-last place every day until the last, when he swooped down to claim the Lanterne Rouge. Along with Belgian Daniel Masson (1922 and 1923), the Dutchman Mathieu Heermans (1987 and 1989), Frenchman Jimmy Casper (2001 and 2004) and Vansevenant (2006 and 2007), Schoenebacher is one of five racers in history who’ve twice won the last spot.
Vansevenant, who has said he might retire at the end of this season, has been a consummate domestique — he hasn’t won a race in more than ten years but has served as the trusted second for champions such as Peter van Petegem, Stijn Devolder and Evans. He carries extra bidons — water bottles — from the car up to teammates, grinds out kilometer after kilometer to keep a race in check, drags his leader across vast gaps, gives up his wheels when needed, whatever it takes. Up until 2006, he gloried in the non-glory of sacrificing his body, bike and, ultimately, any chance he ever had for fame. That year, in the normal course of obliterating himself for the good of his team, he unwittingly found himself fighting two-timer Casper for the Lanterne Rouge — and he also found his destiny.
“I wanted to be the next Belgian after Hans De Clercq to be last in the Tour,” he told journalist Sam Abt. “It was a big struggle with Jimmy Casper . . . but I’ve got it with just 16 seconds after 3,600 kilometers of a very hard Tour.” Then, wrapped in bandages and nearly four hours behind the leaders, he provided a glimpse of the sort of truths afforded to those who find it within themselves to ride dead last: “Lanterne Rouge is not a position you go for. It comes for you.”
Lanterne Rouge riders understand not merely how to lose with honor, which is a cliché, but something deeper, and maybe more important: that absolute loss must be honored.
It is, in fact, those who comprehend the complexities of victory — those who can understand how abject defeat can be a triumph — who make the best Lanternes Rouge. We Americans, with our culturally instilled upward mobility and win-at-all-costs drive, have never even come close to the purest loss.
The nearest any American has been, in terms of placing, was in 1996, when Frankie Andreu ended 111 out of 129 finishers. (Andreu was the lowest-placed American a record seven times.) In terms of time, Guido Trenti got off his bike in Paris 3:46:24 behind the leader, or just 34 minutes, 48 seconds ahead of the 2005 Lanterne Rouge, Iker Flores. (Flores, by the way, was half of the only pair of brothers ever to win the Lanterne Rouge. Igor, who took it in 2002, made so much of his pursuit that, according to a story by Abt, he was fired by his team; he now runs a furniture store in his hometown Basque region.)
Yet most of us here in America have more in common with Wim than with any of the immortals who shine yellow rather than red. Every day when I look at the GC my eyes drop to the bottom, hoping to see his name stuck there, stubbornly refusing to let go of the Tour de France — struggling on senselessly (and often, like many domestiques, to the point where he loses his senses) in a drama he can barely understand let alone shape, riding on with no hope of victory, largely unnoticed, misunderstood, yet possessed with the fervent desire to be something — anything — besides one of the many lost in the middle of it all.
If second place is the first loser, then last place is, in a way, the final winner. Go get one more loss, Wim. For all of us.
Originally published in the July 14, 2008 Sitting In