Written for In the Bunch
Let’s face it, we are addicted to the Tour de France because we love a good story.
And what better cinema than gladiatorial athletes going head-to-head in the public domain?
These days the unravelling of the plot is beamed, streamed and broadcast to a worldwide audience who observe, analyse and criticise from the seats of what is now a virtual Colosseum.
The main storyline always revolves around the heroes and villains and their single-minded pursuit of the yellow jersey. But there are other, equally fascinating stories that need telling.
And although many of these are as unbelievable as they are inspirational, a handful have made their way into Tour folklore to awe and inspire yet another generation of cycling fans.
While the main characters in this year’s race were plotting and planning their way to Paris upfront, my interest was piqued by a story that was unfolding at the rear of the peloton.
Stone last for much of the three-week race, China’s debutant Ji Cheng had by default assumed the mantle of what the French call the “Lanterne Rouge”.
The phrase, coined from the red lamp that used to dangle from the last carriage of a train, traditionally describes the rider that occupies the same spot in the general classification.
With millions of Cheng’s overachieving countrymen reportedly glued to their tellies and tablets to watch the Tour for the first time, I wondered whether they were proud of his courage or cringing at the dishonour.
The Lanterne Rouge has a rich and colourful history – and for good reason. The sport is largely floated by sponsorship money and therefore the garnering of publicity is at the cornerstone of any team’s objectives.
The most obvious way of achieving this is to win, but, as we know, there can only be one of those. However, in an ironic twist, the rider finishing at the opposite side of the spectrum is also assured of some limelight.
The story of the poor soul who lags behind everyone else and who obviously doesn’t know when to call it quits always grabs the ordinary man’s imagination and is often one worth telling.
Apart from the publicity, the Lanterne Rouge is historically also a popular invitee to the lucrative post-Tour crits (Vincenzo Nibali raced in Belgium the day after winning) and therefore his market value increases overnight.
So with the incentives of residing in the Tour’s red light district quite obvious, the battle between the also-rans have spawned many tall and interesting tales.
I remember reading of an instance when a rider hid in the bushes next to the road to make sure he would be the last to Paris.
Then there is the 1978 Lanterne Rouge, Philippe Tesnière, who, in an effort to finish last again, missed the time cut in the final time-trial and was taken out of the race.
The organisers reportedly did not like the attention that the Lanterne Rouge was getting and in 1980 devised a rule that the last person on GC on stages 14 to 20 would be eliminated, making it near impossible to finish last on purpose.
Unperturbed by the inherent dangers of his strategy, Gerhard Schönbacher beat the odds to “win” for the second year running.
While watching Cheng being lapped by the field on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, a passage in Paul Kimmage’s book about doping in the peloton came to mind and I realised there was nothing deliberate about it.
Kimmage wrote that no one wanted to suffer the ignominy of being dropped on the Champs-Élysées and, with no doping controls after the final stage in those years, it was the perfect opportunity to do just that if you wanted to save face.
The Chinese rider was obviously not concerned about appearances; only about the task at hand. His job was to create opportunities for teammate Marcel Kittel and to do that he had to get his ass to Paris.
In the process, he earned the nickname “Breakaway Killer” from his teammates as he helped lay the platform for Kittel’s four sprint victories.
Even when a sore knee made it difficult for him to walk, he pushed on when others might have wimped out.
Eventually trailing by six long hours, his performance embodies what the Lanterne Rouge is all about for me.
Through his courage, Cheng has no doubt brought honour to his people and is assured of living on in our memories.
After all, nobody remembers who finishes second last.
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