The legend of the Lanterne Rouge
Why the man that finishes last in the Tour De France is no loser
The cyclist who finished last at this year’s Tour de France was an Irishman called Sam Bennett.
I’ve never heard of him.
I watched every stage of the race and I don’t think I heard his name mentioned in commentary once. He rode the Tour for a team called Bora Argon 18, one of those ‘tier 2’ professional cycling teams that the race organisers invite to participate as wildcard entries to make up the numbers. Bora, the main team sponsor, is a German extractor fan manufacturer in case you were wondering.
So Sam Bennett came last, riding for a crappy team. He’s a loser right?
The man finishing in last place at the Tour is known as the Lanterne Rouge (“Red Lantern”), named after the red light traditionally hung at the end of a railway train to show that carriages have not become uncoupled. The Lanterne Rouge can be considered the opposite bookend to the Maillot Jaune, the famous yellow jersey of the race leader.
But finishing last at the Tour isn’t easy. In fact, it’s a major accomplishment that many starting the race fail to achieve. This year, Sam Bennett came last in 174th place, which means 24 riders failed to make it to the finish in Paris (198 had started the race three weeks earlier).
There are myriad of ways to crash out of the Tour early. You can literally crash out, of course, but niggling injuries and illnesses also take their toll over three weeks. Many simply give up, as former winner Alberto Contodor did this year once he realised he wasn’t a contender. Bennett himself crashed on the first stage, requiring an evening visit to hospital to deal with a damaged hand and bruised back. He could have justifiably quit there and then, but he was at the start line on for day two.
Even if you succeed in avoiding broken bones and bicycle pile-ups, there’s the challenge of keeping up with the race as it ascends into the Alps and the Pyrenees, a particular challenge for sprinters such as Bennett not built for the high mountains. All riders must finish within a time limit each day to stop participants deciding to take it easy for a day; on a flat stage that can mean finishing no more than 3 per cent slower than the time set by the stage winner (the organisers are more forgiving on the mountain stages). Add to that the fear of the Broomwagon, the vehicle that follows the race and sweeps up those who cannot pedal another stroke — and we begin to understand the heroism of the Lanterne Rouge: desperately trying to keep pace with the fast-moving peloton ahead of him and sensing the looming shadow of the Broomwagon coming up behind. The ability to hang on at the back requires the same courage and character needed to lead from the front.
Only a few elite names within the peloton tend to win the stages and take the jerseys. Getting into a breakaway and getting the team’s sponsor on the television cameras for a few hours is the height of ambition for many. Finishing the Tour as the Lanterne Rouge can therefore provide a profile for a previously obscure rider. For professional cyclists at the lower tiers of the sport, often in precarious financial circumstances, harnessing the legend of the Lanterne Rouge can even boost marketability and earnings.
This has led to bizarre instances of Tour riders competing to finish last. The most notorious example occurred in the 1979 Tour de France when Philippe Tesnière and Gerhard Schönbacher, the last and second-to-last riders respectively going into the final time trial stage, both rode deliberately slowly, Schönbacher just making it within the time limit and Tesniere being eliminated.
Tour organisers attempted to stop the farce the following year by introducing a rule that allowed them to remove the last-placed cyclist in the general classification in certain circumstances. But that didn’t stop the wily Schönbacher somehow managing to come last for a second consecutive year, allegedly picking up a fat bonus from his sponsor in return for the publicity.
Professional cycling has become more professional in recent years. Belgium’s Wim Vansevenant was the Lanterne Rouge on the Tour for three consecutive years, 2006 to 2008, though there is no evidence he did so deliberately. “The Lanterne Rouge is not a position you aim for, it comes for you,” he once said.
How far is the Lanterne Rouge off the pace? This year Chris Froome won the Tour in 89 hours, 4 minutes and 49 seconds. Sam Bennett was five hours, 17 minutes, 14 seconds behind him. Taking an extra five hours to finish a bike race suggests Bennett may have been riding a child’s tricycle, but it was a deficit accrued over 21 days and 3,529 kilometres of racing. Consider it another way: Froome’s average speed for the Tour was 39.6 kph, Bennett’s was 37.5 kph.
Could it be that Froome was able to ride 2 kph faster because he was supported by the world’s most well-resourced pro cycling team; and eight other riders tasked with protecting their leader from the elements, replenishing him with food and water; and shepherding him up and down the mountains?
In a sport where the marginal gains are the difference between winning and losing, Bennett is only a marginally a less talented bike rider than Froome, and a superior one to those that never made it to the finish.
A last among equals.