Book of the Week: Lanterne Rouge - The Last Man in the Tour de France by Max Leonard

 

A book devoted to the slowest finishers in the Tour de France seems at first glance a slightly tricksy, possibly even cruel, concept, but Max Leonard reveals a story rather more complex than one might imagine. For a start, or perhaps that should be for a finish, the last man home is by no means the least successful racer, because many riders have abandoned long before the final stage.

As Tony Hoar, who in 1955 became the second-ever Briton to complete the Tour, explains: “It wasn’t so much me finishing further down, it was all the people behind me quitting. It was a French plot to keep a Brit in last place! I’d move up six places, then those six would disappear, keeping me in last.” He seems to have a valid point, as he finished 69th of 120 riders, the other 51 having abandoned.

Nevertheless, while the Tour has never officially recognised or awarded any prize to the lanterne rouge – named after the red light fixed to the back of a train – historically there has been money to be made. Once there were as many as 50 criteriums – short-course, city-centre races – in the weeks following the Tour which paid appearance money to that year’s stars, and the lanterne rouge was always a crowd-pleaser. So much so that some riders would deliberately scheme to earn that dubious accolade. One of these, Abdel-Kader Zaaf, claimed that in 1951 he made 35,000 francs at the criteriums, when his daily wage was less than 10 francs.

Is the lanterne rouge a booby prize or a badge of honour for having the guts to finish at all? Despite the occasional scallywag, this lively account of largely forgotten men comes down heavily in favour of the latter proposition. It’s not easy to come up with an original angle on Le Tour, but with this rear view Leonard has managed the feat in style.

Published in hardback by  Yellow Jersey, £16.99

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