Lanterne rouge battle down to the wire
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While the yellow, green, white and polka dot jerseys have been all but won, one competition in this year’s Tour de France remained to be decided by last night’s final individual time trial.
Jimmy Engoulvent, a 32-year-old French rider from the Saur Sojasun team, had the honour of being the first down the starting ramp. Prior to the stage he sat in 153rd place on the general classification, out of 153 remaining riders.
If Engoulvent holds onto last place into Paris, he will win the unofficial ‘lanterne rouge’ (‘red lantern’) classification. The name derives from the old practice of hanging a red lantern off the end of a train to mark the train’s last carriage.
Decades ago, the lanterne rouge was a much sought-after prize. The winner received publicity for himself and his team that often resulted in invites to lucrative post-Tour criteriums. Some riders would take extreme measures in pursuit of the prize, such as waiting by the side of the road near the end of stages to lose time.
The classification has its own history and its own legends. One of the greats is Gerhard Schoenbacher. After winning the lanterne rouge in 1979, the Austrian actively sought to retain the honour in the 1980 Tour.
The problem was that race officials saw the increasing publicity associated with the race for the lanterne rouge as an embarrassment and sought to eliminate it from the Tour. They introduced a new rule in the middle of the Tour: after each stage, the last-placed rider would be eliminated from the race, frustrating the tactics of any riders deliberately seeking to lose time.
Schoenbacher rose to the challenge, running as close to last as possible before striking on the final stage and writing himself into lanterne rouge history. Naturally, the silly new rule didn’t last.
Today’s elimination rules are based on a time limit for each stage, calculated in a way that makes the Duckworth-Lewis system seem like primary school maths. Winning the lanterne rouge therefore requires both the endurance to survive three weeks of racing, and the ability to work out the time limit on tough stages and pace oneself to finish inside it.
Engoulvent had to hold off Jan Ghyselinck in the final time trial. Ghyselinck, a Belgian riding for Cofids, sits 41 seconds ‘behind’ the Frenchman, an unusually narrow margin for the lanterne rouge race at this stage of the Tour.
Both men were cautious in the time trial. Given the reverse order of the time trial, they were not able to know the time limit until hours after they completed the course. Riding the final time trial of the 1979 Tour de France and deliberately trying the win the lanterne rouge, Frenchman Philippe Tesnière misjudged his efforts and was disqualified for finishing outside the time limit, handing victory to the great Schoenbacher.
Ghyselinck’s chances of winning this year’s’ lanterne rouge were almost dashed by the time limit on the mountainous 16th stage into Bagnères-de-Luchon. He missed it by four seconds and was only permitted to remain in the race by generous Tour officials. That performance helped propel him into the lanterne rouge, until Engoulvent snatched it back on the 18th stage.
If Ghyselinck could have reclaimed the lanterne rouge last night, he would have joined a series of Belgian winners. The greatest Belgian in the classification was its only three-time champion, Wim Vansevenant, a rider who worked selflessly for his team before expertly expending only so much energy as was necessary to make the time limit on difficult stages.
No matter who wins this year’s lanterne rouge, both Engoulvent and Ghyselinck should be applauded. The lanterne rouge should not be seen as a joke or an insult to its winner, but recognition of the struggles of battling through one of the world’s toughest sporting events and the achievement of reaching the finish line.
For the record, Australia’s one and only lanterne rouge winner came in 1931, when Richard Lamb, team-mate of Hubert Opperman, finished 35th out of 35 riders.
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