Comedian Franklyn Ajaye used to tell a joke about a runner who, after years of training and dedication, is about to finish last in an Olympic race. Ajaye would jog in place and, mimicking the runner’s indignation, say, “Man, I’m about to take last. In front of the whole world. If I hadn’t trained at all, I could have taken last.”
It’s a good joke, but in some sports, last place doesn’t necessarily imply ignominy. While the bulk of attention in the Tour de France goes to the winners, the world’s most prestigious bicycle race has an unofficial and lesser-known honor: lanterne rouge (red lantern), the designation given to the athlete who takes the longest to complete the race’s 21 stages.
The term, as English journalist Max Leonard explains in his entertaining book “Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France,” is borrowed from the railways, where a red lantern was hung at the back of a train to show that no carriage had decoupled from the rest.
Not all of cycling’s lanternes rouges were failures. Many won races in other countries or claimed the Tour’s yellow jersey after winning a stage. And the red lantern “winner” used to be so much in demand in post-Tour races (called criteriums) that riders would deliberately try to lose to get invited to them, where they stood to make substantially more money.
Leonard’s book is rich with stories. There’s three-time lanterne rouge Wim Vansevenant, whose job, like that of all domestiques, was to help his team’s leader by shielding him from wind, bringing him water and performing other subservient tasks.
Jacky Durand, 1999’s lanterne rouge, was so beloved for his attacking style and past victories that when Belgian police pulled him over for speeding, the officer said, “Ah, Jacky Durand, you won the Ronde [Tour of Flanders] in ’92,” and let him off.
Amédée Fournier wasn’t 1939’s lanterne rouge, but he lost a stage that year because he ate too many grapes while riding through wine country and became violently ill.
Some parts of “Lanterne Rouge” are filler: We didn’t need to know that the author bought a Coke and tuna baguette for 8.50 euros at the Puy de Dôme and, later, had to urinate. But this is a lively and engaging book that offers a valuable lesson: A lanterne rouge may finish last, but at least he stayed in the race. Tony Hoar, 1955’s lanterne rouge, came in 69th, but 51 riders dropped out before him. Few amateurs, Leonard writes, could keep up with a professional rider, even the lanterne rouge, for more than a kilometer. The last-place runners in next year’s Rio Olympics should keep that in mind.
Michael Magras, who lives in southern Maine, is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, BookPage, Bookreporter and other publications.