Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Lanterne Rouge" by Max Leonard

Books on The Tour de France keep popping up thanks to the never waning interest in this seminal event and also to the bottomless reservoir of Tour Tales worthy of telling.  Whether recycling familiar topics with a fresh angle or finding a strand of unexamined material, they are all a must read for anyTour devotee.  Tales of The Tour, no matter how oft-told, never grow stale.

One of the latest Tour books examines the last placer finisher of The Tour.  In "Lanterne Rouge," as the racer is known, English writer Max Leonard profiles many of the riders who brought up the rear, not only at the end of The Race, but also a few who were last for a spell during The Race, but escaped that final bottom rung. They were never distinguished by a special jersey, unlike the Vuelta for one lone race (1936) and the Giro, where the last placed rider wore a black jersey for a six year stretch from 1946 until 1951.  Race officials try to discourage any emphasis placed on this dubious distinction, but riders and team officials know that it can bring them and their sponsors attention, so will vye to finish last.  Journalists, always looking for a story, can't help but mention it.

Leonard immersed himself in microfilm researching the early Lanterne Rouges and interviews many of those still alive and also does a little riding for a first-hand impression of signifcant episodes involving a Lanterne Rouge. He makes a clandestine climb of the Puy de Dome, now forbidden to bicylists despite being included in thirteen Tours, though not since 1988.  In 1969 the rider in last place at the time, Pierre Matignon, stunned Eddie Merckx and the peloton by getting in a break that ended at the summit of the Puy and managed to win the stage, holding off Merckx, and also climbing out of last place.  The Puy de Dome is so rich in Tour lore, Leonard was happy to devote a full chapter to it, though this was the only incident involving a Lanterne Rouge.

Another of the twelve chapters focuses on the Algerian Abdel-Kader Zaaf, who finished last in 1951 riding for a six-member Algerian team.  He's most famous though for one of the more storied events in Tour history, passing out in the extreme heat of the 1950 Tour under a tree.  When he was revived, he started riding in the wrong direction.  He finished well beyond the time limit and was stricken from The Race. Some blame wine from the fans for his behavior, as he was a Muslim unaccustomed to drinking alcohol.  The story has been embellished over the years and is one of those Tour Tales cloaked in myth that has never been resolved, though it has often been recounted.

Leonard interviews the oldest surviving Lantern Rouge, Tony Hoar from 1955, the first of two from Great Britain.  The other was John Clarey in 1968.  He also sits down with the only brothers to have finished last, the Spaniards Igor and Iker Flores riding for Euskaltel-Euskadi.  Igor did it in 2002, trying for it, knowing it was something he would be remembered for, while his younger brother three years later didn't want to be last, regarding it as an emblem of ignominy. 

The only three-time winner was the Belgian Wim Vansevent, 2006-2008, who considered it the most significant accomplishment of his career.  Only four others won it twice--Daniel Masson 1922/1923, Gerhard Schonbacher 1979/1980, Mathieu Hermans 1987/1989 and Jimmy Caspar 2001/2004.  Casper told Leonard that he wasn't really proud of his accomplishment, though after he had won it twice he would have liked to have won it a third time.  He, as every rider, could at least be proud to have finished The Race, as many don't.  He admitted the only race he ever cried over was when he abandoned The Tour.  Philippe Tesniere was also brought to tears in the 1978 Tour when he missed the time cut, going too slow on the stage 21 time trial trying to remain the Lanterne Rouge.

Most of the Lanterne Rouges had lackluster careers befitting a last-placed rider.  Many finished last in their debut Tour and many never rode another.  But three of them (Jean-Pierre Genet, 1967, Joseph Groussard 1965 and Jackie Durand 1999) wore the Yellow Jersey at one point in their career.  Durand actually won the Tour of Flanders in 1992.  He is among those who tells Leonard that he was proud to have finished last, that it was better than finishing second to last.  Commentator Paul Sherwen would not agree.  When he fell to last during his final Tour in 1985 after losing fifty minutes on one stage, he battled to finish 141 of 144 finishers. 

Leonard offers up a wide array of  trivia and oddities.  In 1950 the Lanterne Rouge Fritz Zbinden was on the same team as the overall winner, Ferdi Kubler.  In 2011 on the ninth stage the Yellow Jersey wearer Thomas Voeckler and the Lanterne Rouge Vincenf Jerome for the day were on the same team.
Only one rider won a Tour stage in the year that he finished last overall--Mathieu Hermans in 1989.  

Along with his fascination for stats, Leonard appreciates French expressions.  In the early days time trials were known as "Départs Séparés" acknowledging the riders going off individually.  They are now known as "Contre le Montre" (against the clock).  He likes the word "repêchage," the term for allowing riders who have missed the time cut back into the race.  "It suggests the hand of some more-or-less beneficent higher power," he commented, "casting around in the pit of despair, fishing riders out and putting them back on their bike."

Riders have to contend with "les aléas"--"the unforeseeable, unpredictable, unquantifiable unknowns." Drugged riders are "allumé," lit up or switched on.  Hoar tells him that in his 1955 Tour the Germans would all stop during a stage by their team car for an injection.  A couple miles later they'd roar by like a "bloody train."  The "culture de la séringue," the syringe culture, has long been a part of racing.

Leonard's bibliography isn't as lengthy as one might imagine, listing only eleven books, for the depth and breadth of his research and knowledge of The Tour.  He only make a few minor mistakes.  He wrote that the 2004 Grand Départ was in Charleroi.  It was in Leige with the first stage ending in Charleroi.  He incorrectly calls the Col de l'Iseren the highest pass in the Alps when it is the Cime de la Bonette-Restefond.  He also suggests the Tourmalet was the first mountain climbed in The Tour.  The Col d'Aubisque preceded it on that first foray into the Pyrennes in 1910.  Others would maintain that Herni Desgrange introduced mountains to The Tour in its third edition in 1905 with the Vosges and the Col du Ballon d'Alsace. 

But these are minor quibbles.  Leonard writes with the authority of one who intimately knows and loves The Tour. He delights in sharing tidbits that he has unearthed.  He knows enough not to authenticate the story of Rene Vietto cutting off his toe and demanding his domestique Apo Lazarides do the same, though he can't help mention it in one of his many footnotes.  This is not a hastily written book by a dilettante trying to cash in on the market of those who will read anything about The Tour, but a book so rich in lore that I would read it again if there were a lull in the trickle of Tour books.  

This is one of those books that is fully worthy of The Tour.  It includes an index and glossary and a list of every final Lanterne Rouge.  Unfortunately, Leonard is not so obsessed though to list every rider who was a Lanterne Rouge during The Race. Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar and many another familiar name would be included. Nor does his research go so far as to list the most days a rider was the Lanterne Rouge, or had the longest uninterrupted stint, or if a rider was in last from start to finish, or any of the other many stats that apply to the Yellow Jersey.  That task awaits another.  

This book is another shining example that there is a good story to be found in every rider who has ever ridden The Tour and in its every stage.  A good book could be written about every rider who finished eleventh, just out of the Top Ten, or the fourth placed rider, just missing The Podium.  Leonard could be just the writer for the task.  Among his forays into etymology, he reveals in the Puy de Dome chapter that the word "puy" is derived from the Latin "podium," meaning high or elevated place.

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