Whether we race or simply ride, the lanterne rouge shines on us all at one time or another. That red lantern that once hung from the caboose of a train to show the conductor that none of his couplings had come undone, today represents the end-of-the-line, that hair’s breadth between riding and ceasing to ride.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve envisioned its burgundy haze over my shoulder as my legs went dead and the road refused to roll beneath my wheels. It is both a sadness and a motivation, as it must have been for all those domestiques who sacrificed all but still finished the big race. It is at once the stuff of nightmares, of being chased, endlessly and to the end of our means, but also the stuff of legend, the demarcation point of having passed out of danger. Alone on the road, not in a group and without a finish line to cross, we are confronted with the stark truth that, in order to get anywhere from where we are, the pedals must be made to spin.

It is one thing to look forward, to see the red kite and then the finish line. It is quite another to look over your shoulder, feel the glow of the lamp and hear the rumble of the lag wagon.

One afternoon last winter, I rode from the office to a party at my kids’ school. The temperature hovered around 37˚F (3˚C) and a steady rain fell. In my head, it was worth it. Look, Daddy came to the party even in the cold and rain! Smiles. Laughs. Hugs. Cockles-warmed. Memories made.

The school is 13 miles (20km), door-to-door, from my office, so even in miserable weather this was well within my capacity for suffering, especially as my kids were involved.

Five minutes before I left the office, I checked the map, thinking I could, perhaps, shave a mile or two off, limit the suffering by taking a different route. I eyeballed a potential path, committed it to memory as best I could and set out.

Now the interesting thing about New England is you can spend a lot of time here and not know your way around. An encyclopedic knowledge of one town tells you nothing about the adjoining jurisdictions. And so it was that I went awry, not towards the school but past it, off into suburbs I didn’t know and will never afford to live in. My skin went pink and raw where exposed. My tights soaked through. The wind drove me into making worse and worse decisions about how to get back on track.

I’d packed no food nor water, because I don’t need food and water to get 13 miles, and after 90 minutes in the saddle, I was running out of gas. It was getting dark. Every time I thought to go for the phone in my pocket I resolved to ride up to one more junction to see if I could get my bearings again. Foolish pride goeth before a bonk, or so I have read.

Finally I made the call to my wife, got directions and dragged myself over the last three miles to join the party, which was, by then, over. Mapping my errant route later, I discovered that I’d ridden 33 miles. Clever, eh?

Of all my days out on the bike, this one best typifies a day with the lanterne rouge over my shoulder. The rouge is that force that suggests to you that what feels impossible just might be done, if only you keep on. It is also the luminous manifestation of failure. Have I cried for having failed on the bike? I have. Have I felt satisfied on occasion for riding my worst? Yes, that too.

And, as on the bike, so it is in life. I have struggled, thought I couldn’t go on, but gone on anyway. I have also ridden in life’s broom wagon once or twice, scooped up by compassionate souls and ferried along until I was ready to ride again, so to speak. Sometimes we live on the front of the pack, and sometimes at the back.

Perhaps it is just my perspective, but I find the important rides of my year are the ones where I carry the lantern, rather than the ones where I feel strong. In strength, I can revel. I can smile. I can feel the power coursing through my veins. But I seldom learn anything about myself at that end of the ride.

It’s up against the wall where I learn the most, where I confront my limits and find the humility I need to keep on.

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  1. Souleur

    Brilliantly put Robot, thanks.

    You sum it up well in ‘It’s up against the wall where I learn the most, where I confront my limits and find the humility I need to keep on.’

    I agree. If riding were easy, and easy made champions…well, I suppose we would all be champions. But I am not, and we are not.

    If it was easy, we would all be a bunch of proud pricks too, never having eaten of the humble pie.

    Its because of these special rides that you suffer, your legs are heavy and the cadence slows, you taste sweat that roles off your nose, there is a faint taste of blood in your difficult breathing….you forget your name…this pain in sacrificial giving is indeed when you do learn of your self and the size of your heart and will. You learn of the very essence of your existence and what is at the core of your being.

    I find that voice in the sulci of my mind saying ‘quit….just quit’ and the other voice calmly contending ‘no way in hell, push on’. Which way will we go? Will we quit like 90% do? or ride?

    You do this in winter. I find myself in the trenches now. One cold. One hot.

    I for myself…will ride.

  2. wvcycling

    The lantern rouge is known to all, but may mean different things, depending who you ask. Being diabetic since you might as well say birth; the lantern rouge can sometimes be a haunting motivator. not always needed to fulfill the obligation of arriving home.

    Yesterday, I went on a very rough ten mile MTB ride to try out a pair of tires given to me by ITS. I started to feel the ride getting to me more than I expected, and did not pack food since I was only three or four miles from home. I cut the ride short, but this still was not early enough. By the time I was two miles from home, the lantern rouge vehicle was nipping at my rear. My blood sugar was so low, I could not pedal correctly at all. My left leg kept wanting to turn outward in the style seen when taking a wild hairpin downhill turn, and the right leg wanted to jam the pedal all the way down, then stop. I think I was swaying my body, wiggling the bike around, but I cannot honestly remember. I was delirious, but knew the consequences of not making it home would be worse than how I felt right there; and would not end well.

    I can only imagine that some racers also weigh out the consequences of being caught by the lantern rouge (especially during a stage race). I don’t think I would have died if I would have stopped right there and walked, or attempted to compose myself. I’m sure racers sometimes would rather figuratively die than be dropped out of a race due to being caught. For racers, and I, the ominous red glow does not need to be there; we already have the clock going in our head, telling us what will happen if we don’t keep going… but sometimes it is better to be able to see your ?downfall? than to just come upon it.


  3. Sean

    Well put. I remember a ride two falls ago that started out as a routine loop that I had done and have done many many times. My favorite loop actually. I had a couple of hours “free” in my day and took advantage of it as only a parent can appreciate. Ride when you can has become my motto since my kids were born. Anyway, that hour to hour and fifteen minute ride I love so much turned into three. I kept saying it was because the head winds were so bad on the way back. The intermittent bouts of snow blowing sideways to the ground were easy to blame as well. I had watched them descend the foot hills and make their way across the valley thinking “geez, best pick it up or I’m going to be finishing in the snow”. I was half way back and headed up a steady but my no means hard incline into the wind catching snow flakes in my teeth when I looked down through the haze of my tired brain and realized I didn’t have any gears left. “How did that happen?” I said in desperation. Clicking up a few and standing up to get the speed and cadence going again I hit the wall that was looming in front of me for the last few miles. Cold, tired, hungry, discouraged I slogged on and thought of anything to keep myself going. Long story short, I had the next two days to mull over what was going on in my head and legs as I burned a fever out that either was the reason I was so slow or the result of the weather combined with the exertion. I’ll never know which came first but I had a lot of time to think about what the pros go through when they get sick. It was one ride for me that I think I might have gotten in the wagon had there been one behind me. The warm glow of the lantern would have been a welcome sight at times during that ride. There have been a few other rides like that but none stick in my mind like that windy and snowy fall afternoon. Certainly no other ride where I had started looking for ways to get off the bike and climb into a car.

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  5. michael

    The red glow hit me just last weekend on a long ride. I had fuel and liquids for 3 hours, but ended up not really noticing how long i had been out as it was such a glorious day out, and I felt up to exploring some new roads. exploration turned into being quite lost, and the downfall of any GPS unit is of course your batteries running out when you need them most.

    Finally managed to crawl home after being out for 4.5 hours. Completely spent, I walked into the garage and laid down on the cold concrete with a silly, shit-eating grin from ear to ear. Destroyed, yes. Happy and satisfied, YES.

    Long live the bike.

  6. michael

    as an aside to the above story, or any hard bonk – it makes for a great excuse to eat your weight in xxx food. in my case, I ate enough home made sushi (salmon, avocado, veg and prosciutto wrapped scallop) to feed a small army.

  7. pdx velo

    To WV cycling-

    dude- diabetic coma isn’t worth it. the weight of a gu or glucose tabs is insignificant to brain death or kidney failure. I didn’t think your story was cool or valiant, it was idiotic.
    keep riding, with some glucose tabs handy. epic rides need not require diabetic coma.


  8. pdx velo

    To wvcycling-

    well said but diabetic coma isn’t worth it. the weight of a gu or glucose tabs is insignificant to brain death or kidney failure. I didn’t think your story was cool or valiant, it was idiotic. keep riding, with some glucose tabs handy. Sugar packets in your shoes, anything to keep you blood sugar up in times like that. I had a friend that made it home the last 30 miles of a ride with no money, but he took free sugar from gas stations to mix with water in order to stay upright. epic rides need not require diabetic coma.
    We’ve all felt the bonk come on, I’m glad you made back.
    safe riding’

  9. wvcycling

    @pdx velo

    Cycling is tough, diabetes just adds some more thing to observe. Even with top maintenance, unknown variables can throw a wrench in the gears, figuratively and literally. It was just one of those events where I went out with my indicators saying all systems ready, but it wasn’t enough. Out of the twenty-some years of having diabetes (23 out of 24), freak unexpected lows have happened less times than I can count on one hand. I felt a bit attacked by your comments, when all I was trying to do was make a relative comment to Da Robot’s post. A few sentences cannot detail my lifestyle/health/knowledge/experience/actions enough for one to interject with their expertise. In the end, I think you were trying to be helpful~ (Sorry if this starts a flame, RKP D:)


    Amazing how our retrospective view on a ride can turn a grueling slog into something we reminisce and gleen about~

  10. velosopher

    Of all the wonderful European perspectives I’ve been blessed to absorb since re-entering the world of cycling, perhaps the most rewarding is the tradition at Le Tour of celebrating the day’s Lanterne Rouge nearly as much as the stage winner. The courage it take to finish the course when you know you’ll be straggling in last seems to me more laudable (and more relevant to daily life) than the courage to attack with 30 K to go when your legs feel like steel springs ready to uncoil.

    This is a particularly un-American sentiment. Which is why I love the chance to watch and learn from the French, the Italians, and the others.

  11. SinglespeedJarv

    A huge storm cloud is a good a lanterne rouge as there is. Last year I decided to ride to a training course for work. Long story, not explaining. It was a 150km ride, nothing to fit racers, but I haven’t been a fit racer and ridden 150km for about 7years. So I left expecting to have to stop for food half-way (70km was a pretty good ride for me last year) and I still expected to creep the last 20km. Setting out I found a gap in the middle of huge summer storms and for the first half of the ride looking over my right shoulder I could see this mass of cloud behind me. Feeling fine at half-way, it was those storm clouds/lantern rouge that made the decision to keep on riding. Equally, it was that lantern rouge, that when I realised I’d gone the wrong way(no map, no idea of where I was other than a road sign) made me do the opposite of Robot and immediately swallow my pride and phone the wife.

    Those storm clouds followed me all the way to the end, but they never dumped on me. The Lantern Rouge is a great motivator and sometimes it leaves you battered and bruised and sometimes it leaves you realising that you aren’t as crap as you think you are.

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