The Story of the Lanterne Rouge

By Martin Atanasov

Cycling is a cruel sport. Especially professional cycling. You can be one of the greatest domestiques in the sport, yet only few will remember you. All the focus goes to the winners, to those who split from the peloton and find glory in thrilling attacks or sprints. That’s why everyone knows Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar.

They are the stars, the show stoppers, the ones in the spotlight. And while the Tour de France is a celebration of cycling that undoubtedly raises these winners to legendary status, the King of all Races goes a step further. It honours more than just the fastest rider, the best sprinter, and the climber. It also honours the ones who didn’t give up. They celebrate the very last participant that finishes the Tour de France. This is what the Lanterne Rouge is all about: celebrating the unheralded cycling heroes.

The history of the Lanterne Rouge

The term Lanterne Rouge, which in French means “red lantern,” was inspired by the red lights that trains have at the end of their last car. It symbolises the end of the competition, which in the eyes of the organizers of the Tour de France, was just as important as the front. Thus, in 1903 they introduced the Lanterne Rouge to honour the last in the general classification who didn’t abandon the race.

The Lanterne Rouge has much more significance, however, as it gives those who are way back in the pack the courage to finish. It’s no secret that not everyone finishes the race, especially once they have no chance of being in the first few positions. After all, each one of these riders is a professional, and if they feel discomfort and have no chance of winning, it’s far better to abandon the race rather than risk missing the entire season.

On the other hand, in 2022 alone, more than 41 riders left the race before ever seeing Paris. That’s roughly about a quarter of all who started, and it was pretty disappointing for the spectators. Thus, the Lanterne Rouge is much more than a symbolic honourable mention. It’s a symbol of the rider’s love for the race. It’s a sign of bravery not to quit despite all. It’s an emblem of courage, dedication, and resilience. And while it sounds easy to obtain this honour, it’s definitely not.

How to get the Lanterne Rouge

Winning the Lanterne Rouge is almost as hard as winning the whole Tour de France. Before the 1980s, many riders started to abuse this honourable mention, intentionally dropping behind and struggling to finish last. The infamous 1978 Tour de France was a turning point for this metaphorical prize. Bernard Hinault won the Tour and the final stage, a time trial. He finished the 48.8km ride in 1:08:53. At that time, Gerhard Schonbacher and Philippe Tesniere were the last two riders, both of whom wanted the honorary title.

Luke Rowe
Luke Rowe in receipt of the red lantern (lantern rouge) during s

Why? Because it draws attention. This means more sponsorships and better payment. Schonbacher finished the same distance in 1:21:52. Tesniere did it in 1:23:32. They were the slowest of all racers and were obviously trying to be last. Tesniere, however, didn’t account for the time cut, as he was more than 20% slower than Hinault, so he got disqualified.

This forced the organisers to make a new rule, which would cut the last rider from each stage between 14-20. Despite this, Schonbacher still got the honorary title again in 1980. Thankfully, nowadays, rarely anyone would aim for the Lanterne Rouge on purpose. Today, this title symbolises resilience and an honourable mention for those who didn’t quit.

The Heroes of the Lanterne Rouge

Most of the people who earned the Lanterne Rouge truly deserved it. They were not trying to embezzle the system and, most often, were injured riders who managed to finish this arduous task despite their pain and suffering. The journey to become the Lanterne Rouge is filled with numerous challenges. Riders at the back of the peloton often endure brutal weather conditions, arduous climbs, and fatigue. They face immense pressure to stay within the race’s time limits and avoid elimination. However, despite these adversities, the Lanterne Rouge represents a triumph of spirit over results.

For many riders, finishing the Tour de France itself is an achievement. The Lanterne Rouge embodies the spirit of perseverance, representing the countless hours of training, the sacrifices made, and the mental and physical endurance required to complete the gruelling 21-stage race. The Irish Sprinter Sam Bennett is a prime example. He crashed and broke a finger at the opening stage of the 2016 Tour, yet despite the pain, he persevered, struggled to stay within the time limits, and finally finished all 21 stages. Four years later, the Irishman won the green jersey, showing that the Lanterne is not only an honourable mention but an inspiration to continue striving on.

In 2018 Lawson Craddock became the first rider who had the title throughout the entire race. After a devastating crash in the opening stage, he suffered facial lacerations and a fractured scapula. Determined to persevere, Craddock not only continued riding but also completed the stage, leaving an unforgettable image of his bloodied and grimacing face that quickly went viral, capturing the hearts and attention of the global cycling community.

In an inspiring display of selflessness and compassion, Craddock took the opportunity to use his Lanterne Rouge status for a greater cause. He took to social media to announce that he would donate $100 for every stage he completed to the Greater Houston Cycling Association to assist in rebuilding the Alkek Velodrome, which had suffered significant damage due to Hurricane Harvey. A dedicated GoFundMe page was established to facilitate contributions further, allowing individuals to contribute directly to the velodrome’s restoration efforts.

As Craddock persisted through each gruelling stage of the race, his unwavering determination and commitment to his charitable cause attracted substantial attention and support. His selfless act garnered significant media coverage, spotlighting fundraising endeavours and inspiring countless individuals to contribute. Ultimately, the combined efforts raised an astounding sum exceeding $250,000 to aid the restoration of the Alkek Velodrome.

The Lanterne Rouge is the spirit of the Tour

While the yellow jersey captures the imagination of the cycling world, the Lanterne Rouge stands as a symbol of unwavering determination and resilience. The riders who embrace this role may not receive the same recognition as the race winners, but their stories are equally inspiring and worthy of celebration. The Lanterne Rouge reminds us that success is not always measured by podium finishes but by the indomitable spirit to conquer challenges, overcome setbacks, and cross the finish line. So, while the yellow jersey has the glory of the Tour, the Lanterne Rouge definitely has its spirit.