Max Leonard’s Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France is a deeply researched, well-written volume that you should read if you have any interest in bike racing, the Tour de France or even the sometimes complex motivations cyclists of all stripes summon when just getting off the bike would be easier. In fact, the real magic trick of Lanterne Rouge is that it finds a way to help us relate to pro cyclists as the humans they are, rather than the freaks they appear to be. I enjoyed this book thoroughly.
More than a simple history of last place TdF finishers, Leonard tells a series of stories beginning with a personal anecdote about not being able to complete a single Etape du Tour stage due to inclement weather, and the guilt/regret that lingers after not finishing. From there we get a recasting of the classic TdF tale, but back to front, an imaginative way to parse the race’s rich history, including its technical advances, commercialization and doping.
Lanterne Rouge asks the questions: What does it take to finish last? Why would you want to? Is there real nobility in futile persistence? And, how can we, as normal humans, relate to the last placed rider in the biggest race on earth?
As it turns out, the confluence of events that might put a rider in last place in the Tour has changed drastically over the century-plus the race has been run. Early iterations were more like survival events, and so there was always something worthwhile in just finishing. In later years, as it became a team event, riders would often just find themselves in last as all those around them abandoned or missed the time cut off. Last place was, in some sense, like a game of musical chairs. Who is left when the music stops?
In some cases, holding on to finish last, was a true exercise in persistence. In others, it was simply a publicity grab on the part of an opportunistic racer with no other way to put the sponsor’s logo on TV.
Leonard doesn’t put every Lanterne Rouge into his book, but he’s done a great job of picking the right examples to tell the whole story. The book comes alive with personal interviews and the meta-story of chasing down so many Lanterne Rouges, either deep in libraries or in their homes in the Basque countryside.
Out now from Yellow Jersey, Lanterne Rouge is the best cycling book I’ve read in years and among the best written.