After three weeks of racing across France, across the flats, up and down monstrous hills, through the heat, the wind, and the rain, one man is crowned winner. TV crews and journalists repeat his story to the masses. Perhaps they dash off a story about those who could’ve won or the dozen or so who dropped out or crashed out. But the man who finished last, the Lanterne Rouge, is left to himself. No one tells his story. In his book, Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, Max Leonard profiles the some of the men who have finished last in the Tour de France. In doing so, he has provided readers with a more complete story of this great race.
The lantern rouge is not an officially recognized honor in the race, at least by the Tour organizers. They want racers to chase the award for first, not last. Some look on the award as a dishonor to the sport. They consider it a disgrace, rather than seeing the award for what it is- an acknowledgment for finishing one of the world’s hardest races.
Immense effort is required to finish each day within the time limits and to get on your bike day after day when you know you have zero chance of winning. It takes courage and strength to fight to win, but what does it take to keep going when the only thing you have to look forward to is finishing? When people ask how you did, all you can say is, ‘I finished.’
But maybe there is something in just finishing.
Though not on the level of the Tour de France, I’ve participated in my own endurance events. I’ve struggled to finish a long distance cycling event and even dropped out once. That DNF (did not finish), although it could not be avoided, left me with a sinking feeling that lasted longer than the nausea which caused me to quit that day.
A couple of years later, overcome by the same wave of stomach sickness, I pulled off the road, handed my bike to a volunteer, and climbed into the back of the truck. I was going to DNF again. I knew the dread that would stick with me. I wanted to avoid the questions from friends who would ask how I’d done.
While I waited on the volunteer, I talked myself into finishing. I got out of the truck, took my bike back, and started pedaling. Ten minutes later, the stomach cramps returned and I cursed myself for getting out of the truck. Still, I kept on. Two miles from the finish, having been unable to get any food or drink in me for a couple of hours, my legs seized up with cramps and I had to stop at the side of the road. I laid on the ground and watched my legs spasm.
When my legs finished torturing me with spasms, I got up and rode the rest of the way to the finish. To be honest, I pedaled a few strokes, coasted as far as possible, and then pedaled some more.
And I finished. Sickness and soreness accompanied me for days, but the feeling of accomplishment diminished their effects. I made it to the end. No one could take that away.
Book after book has been written and will continue to be written about the men who won and win the Tour. People buy these books for the inspiration they provide, but they only tell part of the story. Max Leonard’s Lanterne Rouge completes the picture by telling us the stories of the men at the other end of the Tour de France.