As Fabio Sabatini receives the Lanterne Rouge for finishing the 2011 Tour in last position, some musings on one of the more quirky traditions of a multi-faceted event…
One of the enduring eccentricities of the Tour de France is the accolade given to the rider who finishes in last place in the general classification. Known as the ‘Lanterne Rouge’ (from the red lantern once placed at the back of French trains), the rider that brings up the rear of the peloton can expect special attention from the press and public.
He can also look forward to invitations to the lucrative post-Tour criteriums which are otherwise the preserve of jersey holders, stage winners, fan favourites and other riders that animate the race. At one time, appearances at the crits could make up the bulk of a rider’s income, so an invite was much sought-after.
Counter-intuitively, then, coming last in the race could be seen as a kind of success for it bestows a kind of celebrity on a rider whose efforts may otherwise go overlooked. Simply finishing a Tour de France is an immense achievement that requires extraordinary athleticism and will; but as we focus our attention on the riders contesting stage wins and the overall victory, it’s easy to forget the many others whose race assumes a different shape.
The last survivor
That includes the 10-20 per cent who, each year, through illness, injury or fatigue, simply don’t make it to Paris. The Lanterne Rouge is, symbolically, the final survivor of a gruelling affair; the one who made it by the skin of his teeth. To think of the attention given to the Lanterne Rouge as a celebration of failure, however ironic, is to miss the point: as a part of the carnival of the Tour de France, it’s a subversive acknowledgement of the toughness of the event and a grateful tip of the hat to the otherwise unremarked riders without whom there would be no great spectacle (they are for the most part domestiques whose days are spent in the exhausting service of the ‘protected’ riders on their team).
There are many tales of riders who, finding themselves at the tail end of the classification in the dying stages of the Tour, have ‘raced’ each other for the Lanterne Rouge – giving rise to some amusing scenarios. The Belgian Silence-Lotto rider Win Vansevenant actually set an historic third successive Lanterne Rouge as a goal for the 2008 Tour and even negotiated a time trial loss with the then last-placed rider Bernard Eisel in order to secure the prize in 2008.
The Lanterne Rouge is one of many colourful aspects of the Tour. But in recent decades, the race organisers have removed its ‘official’ status and discouraged competition – apparently in a bid to stop some of the dafter shenanigans among riders vying for the award towards the end of the race. The attraction to riders has been further reduced by rising salaries, which mean the post-Tour crits are no longer as financially necessary as they might once have been.
Edit: looks like those post-tour crits are still very lucrative for riders, though. According to cyclingnews.com, jersey winners can make up to €60,000 a race.
Nevertheless, the tradition of the Lanterne Rouge continues. To some extent, it’s also a battle between those who run the Tour and try to discourage the title and those who watch the Tour and revel in it. As an unofficial award, it’s now ours to bestow and celebrate as fans; like so many elements of this wonderful race, the Lanterne Rouge collapses the barrier between competitors and onlookers and helps to turn the Tour de France into a truly public event.
The 2011 Lanterne Rouge
This year’s ‘winner’ of the Lanterne Rouge was the Liquigas-Cannondale rider Fabio Sabatini who completed the Tour in 167th place, 3 hours, 57 minutes and 43 seconds behind the winner, Cadel Evans. His nearest rival for the accolade, the Costa Rican Andrey Amador, riding for Movistar, was a mere 3m 8secs ahead of him in the final classification. 31 riders abandoned what was frequently a turbulent race.
Whether these two men were actually ‘racing’ for the Lanterne Rouge in the final stages of an exhausting Tour isn’t easy to say, not least because Amador, lying last by ten minutes, gained close to 11 minutes on Sabatini when a break he infiltrated turned out to be just about the most successful of the Tour. Given the legends of the Lanterne Rouge, it’s amusing to think this might have been an accidental gain.
And was there a touch of gamesmanship from Sabatini in the penultimate stage, an individual time trial they began with barely a minute between them in the classification? The Italian – a pretty decent TTer – started last and rode more than two minutes slower over 42.5km than Amador, extending the one-minute gap in the standings to three minutes. Shades of Wim Vansevenant in 2008… The Costa Rican was never likely to lose that much time on the final procession into Paris.
If you’d like to know a little more about Fabio Sabatini, I’ve written a brief bio and palmarès to accompany this post.