An amiable history of a largely unsung hero pays respects to the last-place finisher of the Tour de France.
Even non-cycling fans recognize the Tour de France as the sport’s biggest annual event. Naturally, the attention of the press and the viewer is focused at the front of the race, where attacks, group sprints and winners are born. In Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, Max Leonard directs overdue consideration to a different segment of the Tour, where he finds a less fairytale-like but very sincere story.
Ever since the Tour was founded in 1903, as a struggling newspaper’s publicity stunt, someone necessarily has come in last place. Cycling’s term for that someone dates back almost as far: based on his research, Leonard argues that it must have been in use before World War I. The usage of lanterne rouge, or red lantern, is generally accepted as having come from the railroad, where a red lantern lit the last car, letting signalmen know the line behind was clear. Over the last century and more, the lanterne has been variously a joke, a dishonor, an achievement to be sought after and a source of controversy, conflict and myth.
Importantly, the lanterne rouge achieves the accomplishment of finishing the race. The Tour has always had a high rate of attrition. Many men withdraw from the race over weeks of mountain passes, long days and severe weather; some years, Tour staff have pulled trailing riders from the race as well. The lanterne is the man who finishes last–but finishes, a respectable feat.
Leonard makes his passion easily felt as he follows his underappreciated subject. In his prologue (a word not only for a book’s introduction but also a preliminary time-trial stage of the Tour), he attempts to ride a mountain stage of the Tour, but DNF’s (“did not finish”), and his failure will haunt him for the rest of his research and writing process. He then spends nearly two years meeting with surviving lanternes and those who remember them, and searching French libraries for scraps of information about the earliest ones. For example, he pursues the legends of the first lanterne rouge, Arsène Millocheau of 1903 (but did he really finish the race?), and of Abdel-Kader Zaaf of 1951, whose story involves wine, naps, religious difference and colonial racism. Leonard studies the lanterne (and, somewhat resignedly, the leading yellow jersey as well) exhaustively, throughout history and through the race’s evolutions and rule changes. A chapter on drug and doping scandals rounds out any analysis of the Tour, and yes, some lanternes were involved.
Lanterne Rouge is an engaging, exhaustive survey of the last man in the Tour de France, a history, a collection of appealing anecdotes and a psychological consideration of winning and losing. An obvious choice for serious cycling fans, Leonard’s approachable study will also please general sports fans, history enthusiasts and those who root for the underdog.
This review originally ran in the June 12, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.