A road in the Pyrenees. 1976. Hennie Kuiper is on the ground. He is holding his arm awkwardly and both the slump of his posture and the exaggerated care with which a man in shirtsleeves is putting his arms around Kuiper’s shoulders suggest that Hennie will not be getting on his bike again. His white jersey resplendent with the world champion’s stripes, pristine only a few kilometres earlier, now has a few spots of dirt upon it.
Ahead, there is the decisive battle of the 1976 Tour. Lucien Van Impe is attacking on the Portillon, Zoetemelk is cracking and Luis Ocaña, who is making his own bid for glory, will not last the course. It is all happening. With every minute the race moves further up the road, out of sight. Around Kuiper, his men. Standing waiting on the Tarmac, going down with their captain on this sinking ship. Ti-Raleigh is going nowhere.
Kuiper is heading a new squad at its debut Tour, under legendary DS Peter Post. He has won stage 4 and the team won the next day’s TTT, but one crash, a slight illness and a second fall meant that this stage, stage 14, would be his last. His team, beheaded, wait for him so long that it stumbles over the line after the time cut and Post has to argue with race officials to spare all his men from elimination. They remain in the race but they are in the mountains with a week to go until Paris and there is nothing left to play for.
What do you do when everything is lost?
For Aad van den Hoek, one of Kuiper’s lieutenants that day, the answer was to go for the lanterne rouge. He tells me this as we sit in a cafe in Vlissingen drinking coffee and coke. He has come armed with folders of cuttings and old magazines, souvenirs of a life as a domestique in the pro peloton; his soft voice is at times barely audible above the background noise of the coffee machine, clinking china and piped music.
He does not seem a likely candidate for cycling’s most notorious prize: the lanterne rouge is the name for the last-placed rider in the Tour de France. Named after the red lantern that used to hang on the last carriage of trains, the lanterne rouge has existed since the Tour’s earliest years, when founder Henri Desgrange devised horribly sadistic challenges for his riders – and then celebrated each and every survivor who crossed the finish line.
However, it’s never been an official prize, and it is bestowed as a badge of honour, rather than shame, by fans who love rooting for the underdog. “I think everyone has respect for every rider in the Tour de France who finishes in Paris,” Aad says. “They have respect. You have always to fight.”
Every year somewhere between 10 and 20% of riders drop out of the Tour because of injury, illness, planned withdrawal or simple bad luck, and back when the Tour was run without the modern team structure, on bad roads and with unreliable equipment, there could be many more. Out of 69 starters in 1919 there were eventually only 10 classified finishers – and Jules Nempon, the gutsy lanterne rouge, was the only ‘B’ category (unsupported) rider to make it. Desgrange was so pleased with his persistence that he applauded him from the race director’s car for most of the final stage from Dunkerque to Paris. Later, though, the Tour organisers would turn against the lanterne – an award that critics say is at best frivolous and at worst antithetical to the point of the race. Doesn’t it take attention away from the real business of trying to win? Isn’t it celebrating failure? And what if, in some sort of conquest of the useless, people actually raced to be last?
Peter Post, Aad’s DS was furious when Van den Hoek went for last. The pair argued and fell out over it. “He says you have always to go for the first place and not for the last,” Aad says. “But what did I have to lose?”
Aad is right. His job as a domestique was one of self-sacrifice and denial – it was not his job to win. (For some riders – think of Chris Froome holding himself back to support team leader Bradley Wiggins in 2012 – their job is specifically not to win.) But with his leader out, there was nothing to stop him shooting for his little piece of personal glory.
Winning last place took a bit of underhand action” “We were at the bottom of the GC, and there was one guy lower than me,” he explains. “One day I thought I would be last because it gets you more publicity. At some stage I was in the peloton and the other guy was last. So what I had to do a few kilometres before the finish I stopped and hid behind the cars. So he passed and I wait a few minutes and he passed and I got on my bike.”
Last place publicity for Aad guaranteed contracts at the post-Tour criteriums, the staged city-centre races that took place across Europe each year before ‘real’ racing resumed at the Clasica San Sebastian. And contracts meant cash: it was possible to make twice your annual salary or more in just three weeks. Aad was not alone: in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when life as a journeyman pro was precarious and badly paid, many riders joined the race for the bottom.
It was good publicity for the team, too, no matter how much Peter Post complained. But the king of the last-place showmen was an Austrian called Gerhard Schönbacher. Nicknamed ‘The Boxer’, Schönbacher went to the 1979 Tour a 25-year-old debutant with DAF Trucks, a small team with limited ambitions. “After the first rest day the sponsor arrived at the race, and he said, ‘Well, you’re doing a good job but I don’t see much on the TV or publicity going around,’” Gerhard says. “And there was an old Belgian journalist who said: ‘Why don’t you just try and come last every day? That’s publicity. The TV get tired of showing winners all the time, because they need other pictures, too.’”
The job fell to Gerhard, who battled it out at the bottom of the GC with a Frenchman, Philippe Tesnière.
Schönbacher continues: “Journalists kept coming up to me asking, ‘Is it true that you want to come last?’ and I kept saying, “Yes, I want to come last!” I kept dreaming up these stories about how I would do it: that I would hide 30 kilometres in behind a bridge, or whatever. I made up stories. Every day I was in the media. I just made things up. I was provocative when I was younger.’
In the final time trial two stages before the end, the two last-placed men were the first off the ramp. Each had to guess at how fast the race leader, Bernard Hinault, would go, and then measure his performance accordingly: too fast and he risked losing the lanterne rouge; too slow and he might be eliminated. Gerhard started slowly, then his nerve broke and he sped up. Tesnière had gone slower, so Gerhard got off his bike, showered and then watched the rest of the riders on TV. He was horrified to see Hinault setting a blistering pace to seal his second Tour de France win.
At the end, the agonising wait for the time cut to be calculated. Finally, it came: Schönbacher was 30 seconds safe; Tesnière was 53 seconds too slow. The Frenchman went home that night in tears, and the Austrian went on to Paris, to claim his last-place prize. But not without one more flourish: “100 metres before the finish I stopped. And I started walking. The journalists came up to me and started walking beside me. I walked to the line and kissed the finish line. And then I said, “Thank God I’m allowed to do this”, and the picture went all around the world.”
Schönbacher’s actions infuriated Félix Lévitan, the dictatorial race director, who felt he was making a mockery of the real race. In Lévitan, Gerhard had picked a formidable opponent, and Lévitan was determined to crush the worm. In 1980 he instituted a new rule: after a certain point in the race, each day the last man in the GC would be eliminated.
The riders in 1980 were outraged, arguing that in the first week it would unfairly penalise climbers and those who were caught in crashes. Lévitan was persuaded to delay its implementation but from Stage 14, however, each day the guillotine fell on the last man in the GC. But although Lévitan was eliminating the last man, he did not succeed in knocking out the Boxer. “I got really motivated and really prepared,’ Gerhard says. ‘My aim was to win last place again, but then win the last stage in Paris. It was to challenge him and his new regulations. So I tried to come second-last in most stages.”
Schönbacher danced above the death zone until stage 19, when he fell into last place – but that was the last elimination allowed for in the regulations, and Gerhard was safe. In Paris he collected his second ceremonial lantern, though this time he rode and did not walk across the line.
As for Lévitan, he had been outwitted. His rage was spent, and the rule was scrapped for 1981.
Whether Lévitan’s rage was justified or not, racing for last is, surely, a perversity. But then the story of the lanterne rouge is full of them – topsy-turvy tales that turn the race on its head and force us to re-evaluate what it is that happens in the Tour, and sometimes how we judge the very ideas of success and failure.
There’s the story of the rider who took performance-enhancing drugs and went slower, for example, or the man who drank a bottle of wine in a heatwave, collapsed, and then rode back towards the start.
But there are also stories of good riders – winners in other circumstances – who somehow end up last. Take Mathieu Hermans, for example. He was a sprinter, spending his best years at Basque teams, and so focused his efforts on the Vuelta a España (in those years held in April and May). Consequently, he would always arrive at the Tour de France knackered. “If you have to be good in the end of April and also in July that’s difficult. For me Spain was very important, that’s where I won my stages,” he says. He won nine stages in Spain, and placed fifth once in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, but he also won the lanterne rouge twice – in 1987 and 1989 – and managed to take a stage that same year, to be first and last at the same time.
Or take Jacky Durand. In 1999 the Frenchman, who was famed for his long solo breaks, was caught in a terrible crash in Stage 3: “Every year I’ve raced the Tour, I’ve always attacked,” Jacky told L’Équipe that year. ‘This year because of my fall at the start of the race I’ve attacked, but only backwards.’
As he healed up, Jacky kept attacking: “I’m not a revolutionary of any sort, but on the bike I’ve always refused to come out of a mould,” he said to L’Équipe again. “It astonishes me that most riders are followers, even sheep. A lot of them, the only people who know they’re in the Tour are their directeurs sportifs. I couldn’t do the job like that. They finish the Tour without having attacked once, maybe the whole of the season, even the whole of their career. I’d rather finish shattered and last having attacked 100 times than finish 25th without having tried.”
Jacky’s attacking didn’t lift him from the bottom of the GC – he had lost too much time – so in the final stages sat up and lost a few more minutes to claim the lanterne rouge. But his attacking did take him to the podium on the Champs-Élysées, where he was crowned the winner of the Prix de la Combativité, the prize for the most combative rider.
“The symbolism was just too good,” Jacky told me. “The guy climbing on to the Champs-Élysées podium like the winner is actually the last guy. Is it the last man? No, it’s not the last, it’s the most combative rider! For me, the ambiguity was too good. The first and last on the same podium.”
We’re often told that there’s more to life than winning and, if that’s true, that must be contained in the Tour, an event that each year encircles a country and remakes its myths afresh, that holds within itself a hundred men’s stories of joy and sorrow, gain and loss. The Tour is made up of people like Jacky, Gerhard, Aad and Mathieu, and these moments are the ones that make it special – men dancing to a different tune who achieve, just for a moment, something special and lasting.
So let the winners have their limelight – they deserve it – but next time you hear the yellow jersey in a press conference, talking platitudes about focus and determination, spare a thought for the lanterne rouge at the back.