Leonard’s book is not a biography of the author of this occasional column (unfortunately) but an investigation into the ‘award’ given to the rider who finishes last in the Tour de France.
This prize used to be well-regarded and even fought over although nowadays it is not much respected. Before the days of high salaries many riders earned the bulk of their income by riding criteriums after the Tour was over and the Lanterne was usually invited and so had a chance to make a few francs. Leonard’s book recounts the stories of some of the various Lanterne Rouges over the years and puts their exploits into the context of each year’s Tour. And so there is a roll-call of largely unknown riders whose claim to fame this is – Arsene Millochau (the first in 1903), Englishman Tony Hoar in 1955, Gerhard Schonbacher (twice a ‘winner’ in 1979 and 1980), Wim Vansevenant (three times a holder), Spanish brothers Igor and Iker Flores in 2002 and 2005 and others. Some are now known for other exploits – for example Svein Tuft ‘won’ in 2013, although most are largely forgotten.
Leonard’s thesis (essentially) is that winning is not everything and there is a nobility and a place in heaven for those that come last and the stories of the losers are as deserving of re-telling as those of the winner’s. This may well be true and coming last is (probably) better than abandoning half-way through the Tour, but some riders became so desperate to be last that they resorted to cheating; hiding in bushes while the peloton passed or deliberately riding slowly. I see no nobility in this; cheating is cheating whether you do it to win or to lose. However, Leonard writes well and clearly loves his subject and his book casts a light on one of the more unusual aspects of our sport.
It seems all the rage now to regard losing as the new winning (see the Labour party at the recent election) so perhaps the Lanterne Rouge prize will be resurrected this year. After all, whether one likes it or not, where there’s a winner, there’s a loser and, like the child’s birthday party, maybe everyone deserves some sort of prize.