Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France by Max Leonard, book review

Why finishing last can be a winning move

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The Independent Culture

In the 1999 Tour de France, the Frenchman Jacky Durand won the award for the 'most combative rider', presented to the man who had ridden the race in the most aggressive, attacking style. A man with the panache that cycling fans crave.

He also finished flat last in the overall standings. Indeed, on one of the last road stages, after a series of attacks had come to nothing, he backed off and almost stopped. He let the race vanish up the road, and deliberately eased himself down the ranking to the very bottom.

Cycling is a sport that thrives on stories rather than on statistics. The problem for its historians is that the supply of new stories is in much less lavish supply than they would like. This is especially so when it comes to the Tour de France, which has been almost mined out.

Hence the brilliant simplicity of Max Leonard's Lanterne Rouge. It's a history of those who finished last, the lanternes rouges who took their name from the red lamp that used to swing on the last carriage of a train.

Their stories are rarely about anything as simple as failure. Only a handful of Tour riders are there to try to win. The rest are there to do other things – to help their team leaders, to chase individual stage wins, and above all to gain publicity for their sponsors. A man who ended up at the back of the race could be assured of the latter, as well as increasing his market value in the post-Tour exhibition races.

There was nothing but logic, then, in Durand's riding. He was a hero to French fans for his all-or-nothing style, and how better to underline it than with nothing?

Other lanternes rouges have been less willing. In the 1997 Tour, at the very height of doping in professional cycling, another Frenchman, Philippe Gaumont, tried an experimental drugs regime. It was a disaster. He gained a great deal of weight, lost a great deal of strength, and spent three weeks clinging on to the coat tails of the race.

The stories of the lanternes rouges that Leonard picks out have real value, because the race's rear view can tell you much more than the angle we're all familiar with. Most fans have heard all about Eddy Merckx's 1969 Tour – the record-winning margin, the glorious Alpine attacks, the unprecedented and unrepeated royal flush of overall, points and climbers' classifications. But if you want to see to the depths of Merckx's competitive drive, you need to know about his fury when that year's lanterne rouge beat him on just one stage of the race.

Leonard is quite right when he says: 'There's more to sport than winning and losing.' He might have added that if you want to properly understand either, you have to understand both. And this very enjoyable book will help you do just that.

Michael Hutchinson's new book, 'Faster: the Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World's Fastest Cyclists', is published by Bloomsbury, £12.99