Winning Is For Losers: The Great Stories Of The Guys Who Finish Last
Cyclists competing in the Tour de France entered the 8th Stage on Saturday, where they'll face some short but steep climbs as they ride west through Brittany. At the end of the day, cheering crowds will gather around the finish line, the stage winners feted.
What about the guy at the end of the pack? That's the question Max Leonard answers in his new book, Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France. Leonard tells NPR's Wade Goodwyn that the riders in the back often have far more interesting stories than the riders in the front.
"A star rider in the Tour de France is looked after by a team of eight other riders and they will fetch his water bottles, they will protect him from the wind, they will pace him up the climbs, they will stop other teams from attacking so that he doesn't waste his energy," Leonard explains.
The lanterne rouge spends a lot more time on the road than the winner and may come in last for a variety of reasons — teamwork, injury, bad luck, crashes — "I think he sees a lot more of the race and there's a lot of rich stories there to tell," says Leonard.
On the origin on the term "lanterne rouge"
It means red lantern in French and it refers to the railways and to the red lantern that used to hang on the last carriage of trains. It used to be put there so that the signalmen and station masters knew that the train was complete and there hadn't been any decoupling along the way and so the line was free for another train.
And I kind of liked the idea of lanterne rouge in that sense because he makes the race complete. He may be coming up at the back, but he's almost in some ways as important as the first guy.
On how, in the early decades of the Tour, the difference in finishing times was tremendous — in 1904, the lanterne rouge crossed the finish line 100 hours behind the winner
He was doing exactly the same course as Arsène Millocheau, the first last man who raced the year before — and Arsène came in 65 hours late. The newspapers don't actually pay all that much attention to the last guy so we don't really know what went wrong — if he had crashes, if his bike broke, if he just went to sleep in the ditch at some point. But Arsène was so late that some days his name didn't appear in the official results purely because he arrived after the paper had gone to press.
On the riders who scheme to be last
In the tour there are a lot of different competitions — there's the climber's jersey, the sprint jersey, the yellow jersey. And the lanterne rouge — although it was never an official classification — it was always a fan favorite. It was the name the fans gave to the last guy on the tour. And he became so popular, in fact, that the lanterne rouge would get invited many years to the races after the tour, which took place all around France and Belgium and Holland. And he would get a lot of quite lucrative contracts for the races. For an unknown, lowly paid professional rider — in those days they could be paid very little indeed — it could be very, very worthwhile for this guy to come last and make double his salary in a couple weeks.
So there was kind of wacky races at the back of the peleton at times to try to lose time and grab the coveted last place spot. People would hide behind cars, they'd hide behind bridges, they'd do all sorts of things just to lose a few seconds and take last place.
On his favorite lanterne rouge riders
One of my favorites ... was a guy called Abdel-Kader Zaaf, who is long dead unfortunately. He had a very funny story where he was involved in a breakaway with another North African colleague — he was an Algerian rider — and it was a big heat wave on the tour, [he and] his other team rider, they took about 20-minute's lead over the peloton.
But right toward the end of the stage he started zig-zagging across the road he looked dehydrated, maybe he had sunstroke, and so he reached out to take a bottle from a spectator wanting to quench his thirst and actually the bottle wasn't full of water; it was full of wine.
For poor Zaaf who was apparently an observant Muslim who didn't drink alcohol, this was absolute disaster, so he was laid out under a tree to sleep it off and when he got up again a couple of hours later to continue the race, he actually rode back toward the start line. He was eliminated.
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