Why you should care
If you can’t be first … be last? Apparently, that’s a money-making strategy when it comes to the Tour de France.
SportsSpeak Explained is an occasional series on unusual sports terms we need to know for the games we play — and watch.
The name of the game in the annual 21-stage Tour de France is winning the yellow jersey, which is awarded to the rider who finishes the general classification at the head of the pack (the peloton). But you may not know there’s another, unofficial honor for the rider at the very tail end of the action:
Lanterne rouge: The distinction given to the rider who finishes dead last in the Tour de France.
The French term — “red lantern” — is named for the red lanterns that hang on the last car of a train, typically the caboose. Max Leonard, author of Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, says he couldn’t quite determine the first use of the term, but “certainly by 1920 it was a known thing.”
Organized in 1903 as a publicity event for the newspaper L’Auto, the Tour de France has always been about publicity, with riders slashing their sponsors’ names across their chests, backs and bums. It didn’t take riders long to realize finishing in first place wasn’t the only way to net some positive attention. “The lanterne rouge became a cult hero popular with the fans,” says Leonard. He’s an “underdog,” a “plucky loser” — think The Little Red Caboose.
Riders were doing crazy things to stay near the back — like hiding behind bridges.
But don’t get it twisted. Even the last-place finisher in the tour has to work unbelievably hard. It’s a three-week grind composed of daily mini-races. Though the tour is won by a single rider, he is surrounded by a team. “It’s really a team sport that’s won by an individual,” Leonard explains.
Cyclists in the Tour de France serve different roles within the overall race, referred to as the general classification. Sprinters compete in the points classification for the green jersey; climbers compete in the mountains classification for the polka-dot jersey. There are also domestiques, the worker bees, who must finish within the daily time trials while distributing food and water to their teammates and creating a slipstream for trailing team members.
It is within this landscape of races within races the would-be lanternes rouges operate. Viewers see only the final 50 kilometers of a Tour de France stage; it’s in the first 100 kilometers that the riders who are most likely to finish near the back of the general classification shine. They put in a lot of work upfront so sprinters and others can draft behind them, and their priority is to be fresh the next day. “I don’t think you get to be a rider at that level without a real desire to win and without a real sense of sportsmanship and duty to your team,” Leonard says.
Cyclists cannot take a leisurely ride at the back of the pack (the autobus) and roll in at the end to claim the lanterne rouge title. In 1980, tour organizers decreed the cyclist bringing up the rear of the general classification between the 14th and 20th stages would be eliminated. The rule was necessary because riders were doing crazy things to stay near the back — like hiding behind bridges.
So aside from the unique distinction, why does finishing last mean more than, say, third from last? You guessed it — money and publicity. Lanternes rouges not only net massive amounts of exposure for their sponsors, but in the 1960s and ’70s, towns throughout Europe held criterium races to bring the stars of the tour to the locals, especially before TV and media coverage of the event became so extensive. The lanterne rouge was invited too. “In the month after the Tour de France, you could make double your salary just by getting these contracts,” Leonard explains.
Not too shabby … for a loser.
There’s a perception that trying for last place is unsportsmanlike, but the cyclists know the blood, sweat and tears it takes to get there. “Every stage he’s got to work for his team and then also manage this own little personal contest and not get eliminated,” Leonard says.
English pro BMX rider and racer Jamie Bestwick had the unique experience of seeing his nation bookend the 2017 tour, as Chris Froome won the general classification and Luke Rowe nabbed the lanterne rouge. “I think anybody who finishes the Tour de France deserves a medal,” says Bestwick. “Shout-out to [Rowe] — what a rider. It’s the world’s most brutal race, and they’re all amazing athletes.”