don't deny it, you're fed up hearing this story for the umpteenth time, even though, in the present context, it is highly pertinent. when we met in the departure lounge at heathrow airport, i told rapha's simon mottram over a fine espresso, that i was bereft of a competitive nature. even if i came in last, i continued, provided it was fun, i really didn't care. aside from the fact that this is entirely true, it seemed the ideal opportunity to get in there first and excuse any propensity i might subsequently display to be left flailing about on my own, well off the back of the peloton.
as it turned out, during that particular trip to provence, my prediction proved consistently true. while my partners in crime were already at the cafe stop enjoying some froth, i was keeping at least one rapha guide more or less permanently and exhaustively employed.
as it turned out, the ability to arrive last on each and every occasion still with a large grin on my visage, had a fringe benefit in my being presented with a highly coveted (so they told me) red rapha lanterne rouge cycle cap. due to the nature of the esteem in which cyclists hold themselves, i doubt very much whether prior knowledge of this presentation would have created much in the way of competition. unbeknownst to yours truly i was pretty much a shoe-in for the prize before we'd even left blighty.
if i may quote from the back cover of max leonard's surprisingly excellent book lanterne rouge, the title refers both to 'The red lantern that hangs on the rear of a train', but more pertinently to our interests 'The competitor who finishes last in the tour de France'. naturally enough, the first pretty much informed the second.
leonard's approach to the subject is great. i confess i had expected a blow by blow account of each and every lanterne rouge across all 100 tours de france (hence my assertion above to its surprising excellence); but the author is far too perspicacious and intelligent to have settled for the obvious. it makes a great deal of sense to begin at the beginning, with the man arriving last in the 1903 tour de france, an event won by maurice garin. as becomes customary at the end of each chapter, leonard details the average speed of the winner and that of the lanterne rouge. in the case of messrs garin and possibly arsene millochau, the speed difference amounted to more than 10kph. by the time the last chapter ends at the 2005 race, that speed difference was down to less than 1kph.
the general consensus of both max leonard and many wearers of the hypothetical red jersey, is that we all remember the tour winner, yet few recall who came second. and in the nature of the sport, many will also remember who came last (svein tuft in 2013, now that you ask). however, the tour is one of only several stage races and one day events across the course of a season and it would be iniquitous to classify the so-called lanterne rouge as a loser. lanterne rouge deals with its subject in ever changing ways, the author having interviewed individual riders as well as detailing other aspects of their careers, often proving that their careers were frequently more than successful; jimmy casper, jacky durand, philippe gaumont and edwig van hooydonck to name but a few.
sadly, the competition that really never existed has begun the brief journey into obscurity. no longer is it a competition that was once worth winning if only for the potential commercial benefits such as post tour criterium invites. leonard's authorial style offers a book that leans heavily towards compulsive reading; though i read this in conjunction with other review titles, i often had to check myself from an over apportion of reading time at the expense of others.
his nurtured overview of the lanterne rouge also tends to hold a surreptitious view of what history records as the truth: "An incident the previous year involving a daring breakaway, some wine and a tree has passed into Tour myth. But myths are just that. They are stories we tell ourselves about heroes living in a time more authentic and burnished than our own, stories that may or may not be true."
unlike many a book concerned with cycling history, this is not an historical book, at least not in the tried and trusted academic manner. many things are screechingly obvious, but often only after someone has had the acuity to point them out. there have been many volumes published on the winners and principal protagonists of the tour de france over its past 100 editions, and now with the appearance of max leonard's lanterne rouge it seems glaringly obvious that those who form the posse of last men home have been criminally overlooked.
this book more than redresses the balance and with considerable literary style and panache.
max leonard's 'lanterne rouge' is published by yellow jersey press on 17 april.
through the generosity of yellow jersey press, i have one copy of 'lanterne rouge' to give away to the winner of the following competition. just let me know who was last man home in the 2013 edition of the tour de france. answers, along with a full postal address, should be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. last correct answer drawn from the red cap will win. closing date is easter monday, 21 april.
tuesday 15 april 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................