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.