Tour de France
Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The ‘lanterne rouge’: an enduring celebration of surviving the toughest race of the year

The 'lanterne rouge' - the last-placed rider in the Tour - used to be a lucrative and sought-after prize. Although riders no longer seek to be the last man on GC, the 'red lantern' is still an important symbol in the Tour.

PARIS (VN) – As the French began picking up the pieces from their shattered dream of celebrating their first Tour de France winner in thirty-four years, unfolding at the other end of the race relatively unnoticed was another French set-back.

That was the loss by Frenchman Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Gobert) of the ‘lanterne rouge,’ the title that once came with a prize but is now only recognized unofficially in name for the last-placed rider in the overall classification. The rider who took it from him was Dutchman Sebastian Langeveld (EF-Education First) who rode the last 33.4km climb to the finish of Val Thorens on Saturday’s 20th stage much slower.

On the shorted 59km stage, Offredo, 22, finished 105th at 16:14 to Italian winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). But then Langeveld, 32, labored to finish in 146th place from 155 finishers at 20:50 – another 4:36 behind Offredo.

That saw Offredo and Langeveld switch places overall – Offredo up one place to 154th overall at 4:29.50 to Bernal, while Langeveld dropped one place to 155th at 4:34:23.

Offredo’s demise was not met with the outpouring of sorrow as shown by the French media and public that came with the falling fortunes of their marquee stars on whom so much hope hinged before and soon after the start in Brussels.

Offredo became lanterne rouge on stage 5 and held the title nearly all the way to Paris. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

It was a roll call of lament for the French. It began with Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) falling out of the overall classification but he later salvaged his Tour by winning the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey. Then came the demise of Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) who looked the goods to threaten for a Tour win after his stage 14 victory on the Tourmalet in the Pyrénees, until his abandon due to injury in Friday’s shortened stage 19 in the Alps.

And then we saw the unraveling fortune of Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) who stunned all with his aggressive racing from the start that saw him win stage three to Épernay and the stage 13 time trial in Pau. He also spent 14 days in the yellow jersey (in two spells of three and 11 days) until losing it to the Colombian Tour winner Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) on Friday. Add to that, Alaphilippe then lost his podium place on Saturday’s shortened stage 20 in the Alps when he crumbled on the final 33.4km climb to the Val Thorens finish and dropped from second at 0:48 to fifth overall at 3:45.

But in a Tour where it once looked like the French would have so much to celebrate by its finish in Paris on Sunday – mainly, that they would celebrate their first Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985 – Offredo’s surrender of the lanterne rouge after holding it since stage 5, only added to French lament for a Tour that ended with so many ‘what ifs.’

Offredo’s journey to Paris does little to shed light on what state the top end of French racing is at. Again, the lanterne rouge is an unofficial title; and at best it recognizes the virtue of all those who finish the Tour, rather than just one among them.

It is not as if Offredo passed totally unnoticed in the Tour either. He won the most combative award on stage 7. He also tipped Alaphilippe to win the stage 14 time trial in Pau. He was also so ‘fancied’ to become the celebrated lanterne rouge that L’Equipe published a two-page feature on him in Sunday’s edition that was full of French post mortems. The feature on him would have been planned before he moved up a place to second last, and no doubt would have celebrated his status as lanterne rouge, rather than as ‘longtemps’ [for a long time] lanterne rouge of the Tour.

Offredo to his credit, took the ‘disappointment’ well.  “It was an objective to bring the lantern home,” he told Eurosport light-heartedly on Saturday. “There was a hot place for it by the chimney. I know Val Thorens very well. I knew the climb.

“I never got too excited on it, I knew there was a way to go to the end. We are so close to Paris and so far at the same time. If you have one moment of weakness, hunger flat, you can find yourself by the side of the road and not even see Paris.”

Langeveld took the dubious honor of becoming lanterne rouge on stage 20 (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Langeveld, meanwhile, hardly celebrated his ‘success’ either.

“I have no idea where I am now,” Langeveld, 34, told Sporza in Val Thorens, adding when told of his lanterne rouge ‘victory’: “I didn’t go for it. I fell hard on my elbow two days before the time trial and had a lot of problems with that.”

For Langeveld, the Tour was all about suffering and just getting through the race without missing the time limit.

“In the mountains I saved some energy, but I do not just ease up in the Tour,” he said. “I’ve not been pre-occupied by the red lantern. I am just glad I’m going to get to Paris. I’m tired after a tough Tour, with the extreme heat and steep climbs in the last week. And it could have been even harder without that shortening [of stages 19 and 20 due to conditions.]”

Once upon a time, the lanterne rouge – a phrase that refers to the red lantern hung at the end of a train – was a celebrated figure in the Tour. Whoever won the title often earned financial bonuses from their team sponsors because of the publicity the title would attract. The lanterne rouge would also secure lucrative post-Tour criterium contracts, unlike those who finished near him but further up the ladder.

The Tour was once rich with classic and entertaining duels between riders vying to be the last finisher. A case-in-point was the 1979 Tour when Austrian Gerhard Schönbacher and Frenchman Philippe Tesnière were holding the last two spots in the general classification and were also separated by less than a minute going into the final stage, a time trial.

Tesnière was experienced in the lanterne rouge caper, having won it in 1978. He knew of the financial benefits too. So, in the final 48km time trial of 1979, won by Hinault in 1:08.53, Tesnière raced slowly. Schönbacher clocked 1:21:52 seconds, while Tesniere’s time was 1:23:32. However, Tesnière’s time was so slow, it saw him miss the time limit of 20 percent of the stage winning time by Hinault, so he was taken out from the Tour. So Schönbacher became the winner for the first time.

Tour organizers then began an offensive to dissuade riders from going for the lanterne rouge, annoyed with the publicity that the last-placed rider would get. So, organizers added to the race rules for the 1980 Tour to make it difficult for a rider to finish last. It was a rule introduced to eliminate the last-placed rider between stages 14 and 20, hoping this would stop riders from deliberately slowing, but race harder.

But this did not stop Schönbacher … he still finished last under the incentive of a sponsor’s inducement for doing so.

In more contemporary times as the Tour has become more international, so too has the list of the feted lanterne rouge’.

The first non-European lanterne rouge was Australian Richard ‘Fatty Lamb’ in 1931 when he rode as a teammate of the legendary Australian star Sir Hubert Opperman. The next was in 1955 when Great Britain’s Tony Hoare took the title.

But only in recent years have non-Europeans consistently been in the frame for it: Canadian Svein Tuft in 2013, China’s Ji Cheng in 2014, Ireland’s Sam Bennett in 2016, Wales’ Luke Rowe in 2017, and American Lawson Craddock last year.

Lanterne rouge may not be an official title any rider aims for when the Tour starts. But win it, and it’s almost certain that rider will be a talking point. A look at those who have done so also puts them in some quality – if not interesting – company. Official or not, the lanterne rouge is an important element of the Tour.