The Race to Be Last
As is often the case with races, a lot of attention surrounding the Tour de France is focused on who will win it. Will Bradley Wiggins hold on to the maillot jaune or will teammate Chris Froome steal it out from under him? Does Vincenzo Nibali have the legs to ride into first in the Pyrennes, and does defending champ Cadel Evans have even a long-shot chance?
But there's another lesser-known contest going on at the back of the pack, one with all of the drama but none of the flash—the race for the lanterne rouge, or last place. Lanterne rouge, as you probably guessed, means "red lantern," and its name comes from the red lantern that used to hang on cabooses so train conductors knew they hadn't lost any cars. Not only is the red lantern considered an honor, of sorts, for the Tour stragglers, but it can also prove lucrative.
Bicycling.com just posted a great piece on the history of the lanterne rouge, as well as analysis of those in the running in this year's race. Some choice outtakes from the Bicycling piece:
There is no prize money for the lanterne rouge, but the riders fiercely contest it all the same. The prize offers a chance for a lesser-known rider to grab some media attention for himself and his sponsors. He becomes a minor celebrity in the cycling world. Big-ticket salaries in professional cycling are a fairly recent development, and many riders have traditionally relied on prize money and appearance fees to make ends meet. Winning the lanterne rouge means invitations to the well-paying criteriums that follow the Tour de France...
It is a tricky business to finish in exactly last place at the Tour de France. A rider chasing lanterne rouge glory must make sure to stay far enough behind to hold his position. At the same time, he must avoid the pitfall of missing the time cuts on the mountain stages. More than one would-be lanterne rouge has fallen to the race jury’s ruthless enforcement of the time cuts. A successful breakaway is also doom for a lanterne rouge contender. By joining a stage-winning breakaway, a rider rockets up the classification.
The story makes for a good read and a welcome break from the typical Tour drama over doping arrests and perceived slights in the peleton. Above all, it reveals a bit of the romance and intrigue of the early Tour that has survived modernity and makes it, still, the world's greatest bicycle race. The good news, too, is that American Tyler Farrar is, at this point in the race, in great shape to come in last. Allez!