I don’t write many things that refer to people as “Mr.” But I have always thought the legend of the Lanterne Rouge should reach a bigger audience, and The Wall Street Journal was interested in the idea.
SAINT ETIENNE, France — As usual in a day following the last big mountain challenges, Stage 18 of the Tour de France finished without incident for its top contenders. Marcus Burghardt, a German riding for Columbia, won Thursday’s 122-mile stage from Bourg-d’Oisans to Saint Etienne.
The top five in the general classification crossed the finish line together in the main pack that finished 6 minutes and 50 seconds behind Mr. Burghardt. Spaniard Carlos Sastre, remains in first with the yellow jersey; Luxembourger Frank Schleck is second; Austrian Bernhard Kohl, the presumptive winner of the polka-dot King of the Mountains jersey, is third; Cadel Evans, an Australian who is the best time-trialist of the group and the racer many think will claim the yellow jersey after Stage 20’s time trial, is fourth; and Russian Dennis Menchov, who might also jump ahead of climbing specialists Mr. Schleck and Mr., Kohl in the time trial, is fifth.
But no matter how those five sort themselves out in the next few days, not one of these champions has a chance at achieving the historic record that’s in reach of one of Mr. Evans’s unassuming teammates.
Wim Vansevenant, a Belgian riding for Silence Lotto (ninth on the nine-man squad) is the favorite to win his third Lanterne Rouge, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the first official race in 1903. The French phrase, which translates to “red lantern,” is used to describe the racer who finishes dead last in the overall standings when the peloton reaches Paris. (The terminology is borrowed from railway jargon for the archaic practice of hanging a red light on the caboose of trains, which assured station operators that no cars had come uncoupled.)
The designation falls somewhere between insult and accolade. Mr. Vansevenant, who after Stage 18 sits in 150th place, some 3 hours and 45 minutes behind Mr. Sastre, is indeed the worst-placed rider in the Tour de France. But, in turn, he has outlasted those who abandoned the Tour through illness, injury or simple exhaustion; those who were eliminated for failing to finish within each day’s time limit and are forced to withdraw; and those who were banned or withdrew for doping-related causes. From year to year, about 20% of the riders drop out. In other words, you can’t simply coast to last place; you have to work for it.
The curious combination of a stubborn refusal to fail mixed with an inability to rise to victory traditionally transforms a Lanterne Rouge rider into a cult favorite, even though the accomplishment is neither recognized nor encouraged by Tour officials. The race organization, in fact, has at times had a contentious relationship with the Lanterne Rouge. In 1980, Austrian racer Gerhard Schoenbacher was on his way to a second consecutive last-place when, he says, race officials thought he was getting too much attention. “I got daily interviews,” Mr. Schoenbacher told journalist Rupert Guinness in an interview that year. “I was very popular with the crowd and I continued to tell everyone that I liked being last. [The organizers] said I made a mockery of the Tour.”Mid-race, officials instituted a temporary rule: After each stage, the last-place racer would be eliminated. Mr. Schoenbacher defied the rule by finishing in second-to-last place until the final stage, when he plummeted down to collect his Lanterne Rouge.
Along with Belgian Daniel Masson (1922 and 1923), the Dutchman Mathieu Heermans (1987 and 1989), Frenchman Jimmy Casper (2001 and 2004) and Mr. Vansevenant (2006 and 2007), Mr. Schoenbacher is one of five racers in history who was twice Lanterne Rouge in their careers.
With 49 in all, the French have more Lanterne Rouge titles than anyone. Mr. Vansevenant’s home country of Belgium is second with 12. Italy has eight, the Netherlands seven, Spain five, Czechoslovakia three, Germany, England, Luxembourg and Austria two, and Switzerland and Algeria each have one. The U.S. has never won a Lanterne Rouge. The closest in terms of general classification was Frankie Andreu in 1996, who finished 111th out of 129; the closest in time was Guido Trenti, who in 2005 finished 34 minutes, 48 seconds ahead of Iker Flores (whose brother, Igor, won the title in 2002, making them the only family members, let alone siblings, to claim the bottom spot).
Mr. Vansevenant, who is considering retirement at the end of this season, hasn’t won a race in more than 10 years and has dedicated his career to the role of domestique. He’s the rider who carries bottles and food for the team leader, shelters him from the wind, moves him up through the pack when needed for strategy, chases down breakaways that contain the leader’s rivals and, if necessary, stops to hand over one of his own wheels or even his bike if the leader needs a replacement. He seems, characteristically, blithely unimpressed by his shot at history. “I do my job for Cadel,” he said before the start of Thursday’s stage, “and afterwards what happens doesn’t matter anymore. Actually, I haven’t looked at the General Classification for a couple of days. I’ve been having a hard enough time I haven’t been paying attention.”
Mr. Vansevenant’s team director, Marc Sergeant, credited his rider’s low placing to a combination of physical prowess and race savvy. “He can ride at the front all day when we need him to,” said Mr. Sergeant as he stood beside Mr. Vansevenant near their team bus. “But when his part is done, he has the intelligence to know he should relax so he can come back strong the next day.”
In winning three in a row, Mr. Vansevenant will not only set a record but also, within the decidedly ambiguous context of the Lanterne Rouge, assume the status of greatest last-place rider ever. Previously, that honorific probably belonged not to one of the two-time winners, but to Jacky Durand, a Frenchman who, in 1999, achieved the supremely counterintuitive feat of simultaneously winning the Lanterne Rouge and the official award for Most Aggressive Rider (which paid €100,000). “I don’t mind being beaten,” Mr. Durand said in a press conference that year. “What I hate is being beaten when I haven’t tried.”
Mr. Durand’s Lanterne Rouge was the fifth in a seven-year run of last-place finishes by the French, who hold the record of 15 in a row (from 1903-1921, with a three-year gap in the from 1915 – 1917 when the Tour was interrupted by World War I). The antihero nature of the Lanterne Rouge feels modern, but its mystique may have been established with that very first title. Arsene Millocheau finished nearly 65 hours behind the winner in 1903, then vanished into history, never to race the Tour de France again.
Some cycling fans discover the lore of the Lanterne Rouge and become captivated by how it rewards fruitless struggle and alchemizes failure into a kind of success. You’ll know you’ve become one of them if, Friday, you look first at the bottom of the standings instead of the top.
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2008