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Tour De France: Raise High The Red Lantern, Cyclists

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Officially, the Tour doesn't know where it is with the lanterne rouge. Technically, it's an honour which doesn't exist. But check out the Tour's Guide Historique and, each year, there he is, given his dues and singled out among the podium fillers and the jersey winners. The lanterne rouge. The last man home.

The lanterne rouge's status with the Société du Tour de France reached it's nadir in 1980. The previous year Philippe Tesnière and Gerhard Schönbacher had had a ding-dong battle to finish last. Tesnière was defending the lanterne rouge title he'd won in 1978, but Schönbacher was determined to see he didn't make it back-to-back victories at the bottom of the rankings. Paul Sherwen - a Fiat team-mate of Tesnière - explained what happened to David Walsh, for the Irish wolfhound's book about the 1993 race, Inside The Tour de France:

"They were a long way behind the third last rider and they both wanted to be last. On one stage Tesnière, I think, stopped for a pee and Schönbacher stopped with him. They were both left behind and they finished together fifteen or twenty minutes behind. On another day, one of them hid and let the bunch go by, only starting again when everybody else was out of sight. It ended badly for Tesnière as far as I remember. Near the end of the race there was a time trial and in trying to lose time he finished outside the time limit and was eliminated."

With TTs being run in reverse order, Tesnière and Schönbacher had to take a punt on what the winning time was likely to be. Tesnière's misfortune was to be gambling when Bernard Hinault was in full flow. The Badger won the time trial and Tesnière finished 14'39" behind him. Or, to put it another, blunter way, about fifty-three seconds outside the cut-off. Schönbacher had been that bit more conservative and was just forty-seven seconds or so inside the limit. Tesnière was out and the red lantern was Schönbacher's.

Félix Lévitan disliked the publicity accruing to the lanterne rouge, especially when it encouraged the sort of shenanigans Schönbacher and Tesnière had engaged in. Which is why, in 1980, he introduced a new rule, borrowed from track cycling. The borrowing was apt: the Tour itself had borrowed its original format from track cycling, the first Tour being a Six Day race around France spread over three weeks. To deal with the problem of riders deliberately trying to ride slower than one and other, Lévitan decided to borrow from one of track's most devious disciplines, the Devil Take The Hindmost, in which the last rider across the line on selected laps is eliminated. Sherwen to Walsh again:

"What he did was to eliminate the last rider on general classification. This was done from the fifth day to the third last day and was meant to discourage riders from being last. It was a brutal law and one that the Tour organisers would not get away with today. I remember a rider called Jacques Osmont was last at the start of one stage. He was desperate not to be eliminated and so broke away, gaining a lead of five minutes. He rode very well, stayed clear for most of the stage but was caught near the finish line and, at the end of the day, was still last. But seeing how bravely he had ridden Lévitan let him off that evening. He was eliminated after the next day's stage. It was like bringing a guy to the firing squad and telling him you weren't going to shoot him until the next day."

What was even worse for Lévitan was that the new rule failed to eliminate Schönbacher. If Lévitan was going to borrow from the Devil then Schönbacher was going to ride like he was riding a Devil. Each day he made sure he wasn't the hindmost rider while the elimination rule was in force. And only after it stopped dropped himself into last and won the lanterne rouge, finishing a good 11'12" ahead of the next-to-last rider, Roger Legeay. I wonder what ever became of him.

The Devil rule was dropped for subsequent Tours. It had actually been tried before, forty years earlier, back in 1939, when Jacques Goddet was just getting into his stride and tinkering with the formula. Then the idea had been to eliminate the last rider each day after the second stage. But on the eighth stage, the race's first maillot jaune wearer, Fournier, fell and fell down the GC, leaving him as the lanterne rouge. Goddet decided to scrap the rule rather than scrap Fournier.

Eventually the problem of the popularity of the lanterne rouge resolved itself. Part of the reason the being the last man home had been such a coveted honour was the post-Tour critérium circuit. Being the lanterne rouge guaranteed plenty of critérium invites. And that meant a lot of money. And when rider salaries were low, the critérium circuit was where you really earned your bread.

But as salaries in the sport rose throughout the eighties - on the back of the rise in salaries caused by riders like Francesco Moser, Greg LeMond and Phil Anderson and the FICP rankings putting a value on every rider - the post-Tour critérium circuit diminished in importance. Without the incentive of appearance fees on the circuit, the competition to be the last man diminished. Economic Darwinism achieved what eluded even Lévitan.

* * * * *

But stories of battles between the likes of Tesnière and Schönbacher are just one part of the magic of the story of the lanterne rouge. They're the comic relief, if you will. But the lanterne rouge is not a joke.

American cycling fans remember the eighth stage of the 1993 Tour de France. Verdun. But, as always in the Tour, there was another race going on at the back of the peloton that day. Edwig Van Hooydonck rolled home last, twenty-one minutes down on the day, having been shelled out the back with a hundred thirty kilometres still to ride. He was just forty seconds away from being eliminated. Later, on the road to Isola 2000 - where Laurent Fignon rode in a reverie as he realised his career was drawing to its conclusion - Van Hooydonck scraped home four minutes inside the limit, thirty-two minutes down on the day.

These were just two bad days in a race full of bad days for the Belgian. By the time it was all over Van Hooydonck was more than twenty minutes behind the next-to-last rider and three and a half hours behind the maillot jaune. The tail end Charlie.

Was Van Hooydonck a shit rider? Of course he wasn't. Anyone who thinks that being the lanterne rouge means you're a shit rider is missing the point. Forty-four riders failed to finish that 1993 Tour. Van Hooydonck could easily have been among them. All he had to do was stop. But he wouldn't stop. That is what we love about the lanterne rouge. He doesn't stop. Even as the sport was changing and some tried to suggest that simply finishing the Tour no longer mattered, Van Hooydonck was proving them wrong, sticking with it, hanging on, grinding out the kilometres. And that's why, despite the Tour organisers' ambivalence about the lanterne rouge, some of us think it's worth celebrating.

Here's something else you should know about Edwig van Hooydonck: he won the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Twice. 1989 and 1991. Shit riders do not win the Ronde. And shit riders do not finish the Tour. Even the guy bringing up the rear of the peloton is achieving something.

* * * * *

That's one way of looking at the history of the lanterne rouge. The other way is to look at stats. Having set you a lanterne rouge competition, some might find the following two tables helpful. The first is a stage-by-stage look at the race for the to be the tail-end Charlie in recent Tours, the second the complete list of all the red lanterns since 1903, along with a load of numbers to pad it out and make it look impressive. If nothing else they're a good cure for insomnia.

Stage 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005
0 Cardoso Lobato Lobato
1 Muravyev Hutarovich Kuschynski Kuschynski Di Luca Piepoli
2 Klier Hutarovich Soler Kuschynski Hernandez Piepoli
3 Sorensen Perez Lezaun Vansevenant Kuschynski Pozzato Piepoli
4 Bole Perez Lezaun Vansevenant Di Gregario Backstedt Flores
5 Bole Perez Lezaun Vansevenant LeQuatre Joly Tombak
6 Hernandez Van Hummel Vansevenant Degano Joly Zampieri
7 Hernandez Van Hummel Vansevenant Cavendish Joly Tombak
8 Murayev Van Hummel Vansevenant Vansevenant Joly Flores
9 Malori Van Hummel Vansevenant Vansevenant Joly Flores
10 Malori Van Hummel Vansevenant Vansevenant Joly Flores
11 Roux Van Hummel Vansevenant Vansevenant Vansevenant Flores
12 Roux Van Hummel Vansevenant Vansevenant Joly Flores
13 Roux Van Hummel Vansevenant Vansevenant Joly Flores
14 Roux Van Hummel Vansevenant Vansevenant Joly Flores
15 Grabsch Van Hummel Chavanel Vansevenant Vansevenant Flores
16 Grabsch Van Hummel Vansevenant Vansevenant Vansevenant Flores
17 Grabsch Hutarovich Vansevenant Vansevenant Vansevenant Flores
18 Grabsch Hutarovich Vansevenant Vansevenant Vansevenant Flores
19 Malori Hutarovich Eisel Vansevenant Vansevenant Flores
20 Malori Hutarovich Vansevenant Vansevenant Vansevenant Flores
21 Hutarovich Vansevenant Flores
Source: Tour de France Lanterne Rouge

Year Dist Lanterne Rouge Gap to Yellow % LR Avg Sp MJ Avg Sp Start Fin
7-Jul to 29-Jul 1903 2,428km Millocheau @64h47'22" (+68.52%) 15.24kph 25.68kph 60 21
2-Jul to 24-Jul 1904 2,428km Deflotière @101h36'0" (+105.72%) 12.28kph 25.27kph 88 27
9-Jul to 30-Jul 1905 2,994km Lacroix 27.11kph 60 24
4-Jul to 29-Jul 1906 4,637km Brochard 24.46kph 82 14
8-Jul to 4-Aug 1907 4,488km Chartier 28.27kph 93 33
13-Jul to 9-Aug 1908 4,488km Antoine 28.61kph 112 36
5-Jul to 1-Aug 1909 4,497km Devilly 28.64kph 150 55
3-Jul to 31-Jul 1910 4,734km Collet 29.10kph 110 41
2-Jul to 30-Jul 1911 5,343km Roquebert 27.31kph 84 28
30-Jun to 28-Jul 1912 5,289km Lartigue 27.76kph 131 41
29-Jun to 27-Jul 1913 5,287km Alavoine @63h12'17" (+31.94%) 20.25kph 26.72kph 140 25
28-Jun to 26-Jul 1914 5,380km Leclerc @99h4'45" (+49.42%) 17.96kph 26.84kph 145 54
29-Jun to 27-Jul 1919 5,560km Nempon @21h24'12" (+9.26%) 22.02kph 24.06kph 69 11
27-Jun to 25-Jul 1920 5,503km Raboisson @69h5'0" (+30.22%) 18.49kph 24.07kph 113 22
26-Jun to 24-Jul 1921 5,485km Catelan @63h19'57" (+28.55%) 19.23kph 24.72kph 123 38
25-Jun to 23-Jul 1922 5,375km Masson @65h53'41" (+29.66%) 18.66kph 24.20kph 120 38
24-Jun to 22-Jul 1923 5,386km Masson @48h31'7" (+21.93%) 19.96kph 24.34kph 139 48
22-Jun to 20-Jul 1924 5,425km Lafosse @45h12'5" (+19.97%) 19.98kph 23.97kph 157 60
21-Jun to 19-Jul 1925 5,440km Besnier @36h10'50" (+16.51%) 21.30kph 24.82kph 130 49
20-Jun to 18-Jul 1926 5,745km Drobecq @26h5'3" (+10.93%) 21.69kph 24.06kph 126 41
19-Jun to 17-Jul 1927 5,398km Pfister @31h3'51" (+15.67%) 23.54kph 27.22kph 142 39
17-Jun to 15-Jul 1928 5,476km Persin @26h56'19" (+13.97%) 24.92kph 28.40kph 162 41
30-Jun to 28-Jul 1929 5,286km Léger @31h37'54" (+16.95%) 24.22kph 28.32kph 155 60
2-Jul to 27-Jul 1930 4,822km Ilpide @15h10'18" (+8.81%) 25.73kph 28.00kph 100 59
30-Jun to 26-Jul 1931 5,091km Lamb @5h29'5" (+3.10%) 27.87kph 28.74kph 81 35
6-Jul to 31-Jul 1932 4,479km Risch @5h5'14" (+3.30%) 28.12kph 29.05kph 80 57
27-Jun to 23-Jul 1933 4,395km Neuhard @3h57'44" (+2.68%) 28.95kph 29.72kph 80 40
3-Jul to 29-Jul 1934 4,470km Folco @7h15'36" (+4.93%) 28.93kph 30.36kph 60 39
4-Jul to 28-Jul 1935 4,338km Kutschbach @7h40'39" (+5.42%) 29.07kph 30.65kph 93 46
7-Jul to 2-Aug 1936 4,442km Bertocco @4h49'7" (+3.37%) 30.09kph 31.11kph 90 43
30-Jun to 25-Jul 1937 4,415km Klensch @6h39'25" (+4.79%) 30.33kph 31.78kph 98 46
5-Jul to 31-Jul 1938 5,694km Hellemons @5h20'34" (+3.60%) 37.02kph 38.35kph 96 55
10-Jul to 30-Jul 1939 4,224km Le Moal @4h26'39" (+3.37%) 30.95kph 31.99kph 79 49
25-Jun to 20-Jul 1947 4,642km Tarchine @7h28'29" (+5.04%) 29.82kph 31.32kph 100 53
30-Jun to 25-Jul 1948 4,992km Seghezzi @4h26'43" (+3.02%) 32.92kph 33.92kph 120 44
30-Jun to 24-Jul 1949 4,808km De Santi @6h7'21" (+4.09%) 30.86kph 32.12kph 120 55
13-Jul to 7-Aug 1950 4,773km Zbinden @4h6'47" (+2.82%) 31.87kph 32.77kph 116 51
4-Jul to 29-Jul 1951 4,690km Zaaf @4h58'18" (+3.49%) 31.84kph 32.95kph 123 66
25-Jun to 19-Jul 1952 4,898km Paret @7h15'6" (+4.79%) 30.86kph 32.34kph 122 78
3-Jul to 26-Jul 1953 4,476km Rouer @4h9'10" (+3.21%) 33.52kph 34.59kph 119 76
8-Jul to 1-Aug 1954 4,656km Dierkens @6h7'29" (+4.19%) 30.59kph 31.87kph 110 69
7-Jul to 30-Jul 1955 4,495km Hoar @6h6'0" (+4.67%) 32.91kph 34.45kph 130 69
5-Jul to 28-Jul 1956 4,498km Chaussabel @4h10'18" (+3.36%) 35.09kph 36.27kph 120 88
27-Jun to 20-Jul 1957 4,669km Million @4h41'11" (+3.45%) 33.25kph 34.40kph 120 56
26-Jun to 19-Jul 1958 4,319km Favre @3h49'28" (+3.27%) 35.75kph 36.92kph 120 78
25-Jun to 18-Jul 1959 4,358km Bisilliat @3h12'35" (+2.59%) 34.32kph 35.21kph 120 65
26-Jun to 17-Jul 1960 4,173km Berrendero @4h58'59" (+4.44%) 35.63kph 37.21kph 128 81
25-Jun to 16-Jul 1961 4,397km Geneste @4h13'56" (+3.47%) 34.83kph 36.03kph 132 72
24-Jun to 15-Jul 1962 4,274km Marcaletti @4h29'23" (+3.92%) 35.91kph 37.32kph 149 94
23-Jun to 14-Jul 1963 4,138km Derboven @2h45'10" (+2.43%) 35.59kph 36.46kph 130 76
22-Jun to 14-Jul 1964 4,504km Novak @3h19'2" (+2.61%) 34.52kph 35.42kph 132 81
22-Jun to 14-Jul 1965 4,188km Groussard @2h37'39" (+2.25%) 35.10kph 35.89kph 130 96
21-Jun to 14-Jul 1966 4,329km Manucci @2h5'26" (+1.78%) 36.18kph 36.82kph 130 82
29-Jun to 23-Jul 1967 4,779km Genet @2h21'0" (+1.72%) 34.32kph 34.91kph 130 88
27-Jun to 21-Jul 1968 4,492km Clarey @2h43'28" (+2.04%) 32.90kph 33.57kph 110 63
28-Jun to 20-Jul 1969 4,117km Wilhem @3h51'53" (+3.32%) 34.27kph 35.41kph 130 86
27-Jun to 19-Jul 1970 4,254km Hoogerhelde @3h52'12" (+3.24%) 34.47kph 35.59kph 150 100
26-Jun to 18-Jul 1971 3,608km Chappe @3h4'54" (+3.19%) 36.14kph 37.29kph 130 94
1-Jul to 23-Jul 1972 3,846km Bellouis @4h3'33" (+3.75%) 34.23kph 35.52kph 132 88
30-Jun to 22-Jul 1973 4,090km Hochart @4h51'9" (+3.96%) 32.14kph 33.42kph 132 87
27-Jun to 21-Jul 1974 4,098km Alaimo @3h55'46" (+3.38%) 34.09kph 35.24kph 130 105
26-Jun to 20-Jul 1975 4,000km Boulas @3h31'21" (+3.07%) 33.87kph 34.91kph 140 86
24-Jun to 18-Jul 1976 4,017km Van der Hoek @3h12'54" (+2.76%) 33.59kph 34.52kph 130 87
30-Jun to 24-Jul 1977 4,096km Loysch @2h24'8" (+2.08%) 34.70kph 35.42kph 100 53
29-Jun to 23-Jul 1978 3,908km Tesnière @3h52'26" (+3.58%) 34.84kph 36.08kph 110 78
27-Jun to 22-Jul 1979 3,765km Schombacher @4h19'21" (+4.19%) 35.05kph 36.52kph 150 90
26-Jun to 21-Jul 1980 3,842km Schombacher @2h10'52" (+2.00%) 34.46kph 35.14kph 130 85
25-Jun to 19-Jul 1981 3,753km Cuelli @4h29'54" (+4.91%) 39.07kph 40.98kph 150 121
2-Jul to 25-Jul 1982 3,507km Devos @3h4'44" (+3.34%) 36.83kph 38.06kph 169 125
1-Jul to 24-Jul 1983 2,809km Laurens @4h2'46" (+3.85%) 25.73kph 26.72kph 140 88
29-Jun to 22-Jul 1984 4,021km Glaus @4h1'17" (+3.59%) 34.64kph 35.88kph 170 124
28-Jun to 21-Jul 1985 4,109km Ronchiato @4h13'48" (+3.73%) 34.93kph 36.23kph 180 144
4-Jul to 27-Jul 1986 4,094km Salvador @2h55'51" (+2.65%) 36.06kph 37.02kph 210 132
1-Jul to 26-Jul 1987 4,231km Hermans @4h23'30" (+3.80%) 35.30kph 36.64kph 207 135
4-Jul to 24-Jul 1988 3,286km Wayenberg @3h28'41" (+4.12%) 37.37kph 38.90kph 198 151
1-Jul to 23-Jul 1989 3,285km Hermans @3h4'1" (+3.50%) 36.21kph 37.48kph 198 138
30-Jun to 22-Jul 1990 3,504km Massi @3h16'26" (+3.61%) 37.28kph 38.62kph 198 156
6-Jul to 28-Jul 1991 3,914km Harmeling @3h25'51" (+3.37%) 37.22kph 38.48kph 198 158
4-Jul to 26-Jul 1992 3,983km Quevado @4h12'11" (+4.17%) 37.92kph 39.50kph 198 130
3-Jul to 25-Jul 1993 3,714km Van Hooydonck @3h30'1" (+3.65%) 37.34kph 38.71kph 180 136
2-Jul to 24-Jul 1994 3,978km Talen @3h39'3" (+3.52%) 37.08kph 38.38kph 189 117
1-Jul to 23-Jul 1995 3,635km Cornillet @3h36'26" (+3.89%) 37.72kph 39.19kph 189 115
29-Jun to 21-Jul 1996 3,907km Masdupuy @3h49'52" (+3.99%) 39.15kph 40.72kph 198 129
5-Jul to 27-Jul 1997 3,950km Gaumont @4h26'9" (+4.41%) 37.64kph 39.30kph 198 139
11-Jul to 2-Aug 1998 3,875km Nazon @3h12'51" (+3.46%) 40.35kph 41.74kph 189 96
3-Jul to 25-Jul 1999 3,870km Durand @3h19'9" (+3.63%) 40.80kph 42.28kph 180 141
1-Jul to 23-Jul 2000 3,662km Perraudeau @3h46'37" (+4.08%) 38.02kph 39.57kph 177 128
7-Jul to 29-Jul 2001 3,458km Casper @3h52'17" (+4.49%) 38.35kph 40.07kph 189 144
6-Jul to 28-Jul 2002 3,227km Flores @3h35'52" (+4.38%) 37.66kph 39.31kph 198 153
5-Jul to 27-Jul 2003 3,350km De Clerq @4h48'35" (+5.75%) 37.85kph 40.03kph 198 147
3-Jul to 25-Jul 2004 3,391km Casper @3h55'49" (+4.56%) 37.60kph 39.32kph 189 147
2-Jul to 24-Jul 2005 3,391km Flores @4h20'24" (+5.19%) 38.56kph 40.56kph 189 155
1-Jul to 23-Jul 2006 3,657km Vansevenant @4h2'1" (+4.50%) 39.03kph 40.79kph 189 139
7-Jul to 29-Jul 2007 3,570km Vansevenant @3h52'54" (+4.27%) 37.62kph 39.23kph 189 140
5-Jul to 27-Jul 2008 3,559km Vansevenant @3h55'45" (+4.47%) 38.76kph 40.50kph 180 145
4-Jul to 26-Jul 2009 3,445 km Hutarovich @4h16'27" (+4.98%) 38.24kph 40.15kph 180 156
3-Jul to 25-Jul 2010 3,642km Malori @4h27'3" (+4.84%) 37.77kph 39.6kph 198 170