Lanterne Rouge
by Ben Greenwood | 26/10/10

Alberto Contador, Carlos Sastre, Lance Armstrong are all riders you’ve heard of. Arnaud Coyot, Iker Flores and Wim Vansevenant are almost certainly riders you haven’t. In every race there can only be one winner and many losers. But of these losers, someone has to be bottom of the pile. The Lanterne Rouge.

For any rider coming last isn’t something you aim for, although in the Tour de France it can generate some publicity. Wim Vansevenant took great pride in his hat-trick of last place finishes between 2006 and 2008,and last year Kenny Van Hummel fought day after day to make the time limit. One expert called him the worst climber ever in the Tour de France, but that didn’t stop him winning the hearts of many fans. Before a crash finally ended his tour. But to become the laterne rouge, first you have to finish. Watching many of your competitors fall by the wayside as they decide to end the suffering and accept their fate to receive a DNF next to their name.

At some point in their cycling career every rider finds themselves at the back, be it due to ill health, bad luck, poor form, or just because they’re out of their depth. The back is a dark and painful place. A place where no one wants to be. A place where a look over your shoulder reveals a frightening sight. An open road that offers only solitude and failure. The only way to deal with this dark shadow is to look forward at the wheel in front, and make sure you never lose it. Sometimes you hear the shadow whispering into you ear, inviting you to join it. But you have to ignore it. The shadow isn’t your friend. He’s trying to trick you. If you can’t follow the riders ahead, then it’s just you and the shadow with an empty road ahead. As you’re left to your personal suffering. While up ahead the rider who moments ago was safe in the knowledge there was a rider behind him suddenly starts to hear the shadow calling his name.

As all good English teachers tell their pupils, every story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. So must every bike race. Although the paradox here is that for many riders, the beginning can also be the end. When you switch on your TV set to watch a pro race, the graphics might show 80km to go. There will probably be a breakaway followed at some distance by the bunch. The riders might be chatting. They might looked relaxed. It might look easy. Bike racing is boring you might think. Nothing happens until 20km to go you might think. But you’d be wrong. Unless you’re watching Tour of Poland, in which case your time would probably be better sleeping or alphabetising your DVD collection.

The start of the race is a tired riders worst nightmare. The fastest hour of the race is often the first. Attack follows attack. If it’s a day where the break is likely to stick then every man and his dog wants to be in it. They say a dog’s a man’s best friend. But if your legs are empty then he certainly isn’t. Not if he keeps attacking when it looks like the bunch might finally slow down. At this point of the race getting dropped is like a death sentence. The 10% time limit offers no comfort if you’re by yourself with 150km still to go. Even with Jason Derulo on continuous loop inside your head, the chances of making the time cut if you get dropped early is close to zero. The one and only solution to this predicament is, don’t get dropped. How you achieve this is up to you. Pray to God. Wear your lucky socks. Start at the front. Cheat.
It doesn’t matter how you… wait a minute! Did I say cheat?

Now as I’ve said, if like Mr Derulo you’re ‘riding solo’ too early, then you can look forward to a big fat HD next to your name at the finish. That’s means Hors Delai, which, rather than suggesting a large queue at a French brothel, is actually ‘out of time’ in French. This means you can’t start the next day. Unless you convinced the majority of the bunch to join you in your tardiness. In which case the judges will probably let you off with a stern warning and a letter home to your parents. It’s in these circumstances that some riders cheat. Possibly worried that their dad won’t be happy about having to miss the football on TV to go and have a chat with the chief commissaire about his sons persistent late arrivals at the finish. This can include holding onto cars, sitting on the bumper of cars, or in extreme cases getting into cars and jumping out a bit later. For a further insight on this read my ‘bending the rules‘ blog (unless you’re called Pete).

Next time you look at the results of a race. Don’t just look at the top of the page. They’ve already experienced the euphoria of winning. They don’t need your support. Looks for the names at the bottom of the list, just above the DNS, DNF and HD’s. The guys who are fighting day in and day out, working for their team-mates or suffering with illness and injury. The riders who make up the numbers. But who don’t give in while others fail around them. Wim Vansevenant we salute you.