Imagine training your whole life to enter the Tour de France, then come race day, the position you’re competing for is… last place?
Well, such is the nature of the Lanterne Rouge.
This is what the Lanterne Rouge refers to – the last-placed competitor in a cycling race.
To get you up to speed with this Tour de France tradition, we’ll be covering:
- What is the Meaning of the lanterne rouge?
- Iconic Lanterne Rouge Moments In Tour De France History
Ready for the lowdown on all things lanterne rouge?
Let’s get started!
What is the Meaning of the lanterne rouge?
“Lanterne Rouge” is French for “red lantern“.
The name stems from the red lamp that used to be placed on the back of the last carriage of a train so that signalmen could check the train hadn’t decoupled. If they could still see the red lantern, that meant the train was still together.
The Lanterne Rouge is not an official award, but it still carries meaning for Tour de France cyclists.
In the past, some riders have even competed with each other to finish in last place.
Aside from personal satisfaction, attaining the Lanterne Rouge could land a cyclist more publicity, meaning more money from sponsors and appearances. Therefore, you can undoubtedly see the appeal of finishing in last place and managing to get a bunch of sponsorship money and publicity because of it.
This tactic used to be much more popular in the past due to the fact that riders were not paid half as well as they are today, and often struggled to make ends meet. In fact, the Lanterne Rouge was often offered a contract as part of the post-tour publicity circuit across European cities.
However, as riders have become better paid, the appeal of being the Lanterne Rouge has decreased, and nowadays you are much less likely to see a rider proudly claiming to hold the title.
Having said this, finishing in last place in a race as difficult as the Tour de France is by no means a cop-out. A rider still has to race for 20 days straight and cycle over 2000 miles, all whilst averaging around 40 km/h, with 50 or more of the 198 participants riders failing to make it to the final stage on Paris’ Champs-Élysées each year.
It may seem strange to celebrate the person who comes in at the bottom of the pile, and who would perhaps be considered a failure by many. Yet, I’m sure nearly all of us have rooted for the underdog of a competition at some point or other in our lives!
The winner of the Tour de France is almost superhuman to the average person. On the other hand, the Lanterne Rouge is someone we can relate to, who has likely had to overcome some sort of adversity, injury, or technical problem just to finish the race, and who is certainly likely to get an extra big cheer as they pass by.
Iconic Lanterne Rouge Moments In The History of The Tour De France
Gerhard Schönbacher vs Philippe Tesnière, 1979/1980
One notorious instance of riders competing for the badge of the Lanterne Rouge occurred during the Tour de France of 1979, in which Gerhard Schönbacher and Philippe Tesnière were competing for last place.
In the end, Tesnière – who had received the Lanterne Rouge the previous year – failed to make the time cut on one stage (more than 20% slower than the leader) so was disqualified. Schönbacher made the cut by just 30 seconds.
At the end of the tour, Schönbacher was awarded the distinction of the Lanterne.
In fact, knowing the Lanterne was his, Schönbacher cheekily decided to get off and walk his bike for the final 100 meters of the last stage in Paris!
The following year, the race organizers attempted to discourage riders from competing for the Lanterne Rouge by removing riders from the race who finished in last place in the latter stages of the race.
However, Schönbacher – who had been promised extra money by his sponsor for finishing last place – still managed to attain the title of the Lanterne Rouge.
Unfortunately, after an argument with his team manager who hadn’t wanted him to finish last, Schönbacher was fired.
Wim Vansevenant, 2006/2007/2008
Since the days of Schönbacher, the significance of the Lanterne Rouge has somewhat declined.
However, there are still a few cyclists that certainly stand out from the crowd as notable Lanternes.
One of these is Wim Vansevenant, who in addition to being the only person to claim the dubious honor three times, managed to do it three times in a row.
Like many other Lanterne Rouges, Vansevenant was a domestique. This means that he was never competing for first place, but rather he was supporting a team leader who was going for the win by riding in a support role.
Because a domestique’s primary aim is to help their teammates, they tend to fall back in the race and conserve their energy when not doing this – a position which naturally lends itself to becoming the Lanterne Rouge.
Vansevenant confesses that the first two times he earned the title were accidental – but the third time was intentional!
Lawson Craddock, 2018
Another famous Lanterne Rouge story came at the 2018 Tour.
Lawson Craddock had an accident during the first stage, resulting in cuts to his face and a broken collarbone.
After announcing he would donate $100 for every stage he completed to help rebuild the hurricane-damaged velodrome in Houston where he first got his start in cycling, a go-fund-me was set up for others to donate.
Craddock ended up being the first ever rider to finish last on every stage of the Tour de France, earning over $250,000 for the go-fund-me along the way!