In 1919, 130 cyclists registered to race in the Tour de France. Only 69 turned up at the start line: the war had made rubber scarce, and many couldn’t find tyres. Riders were instructed to bring their passports with them as they’d be travelling through contested territory, and there wasn’t enough sugar around for the organisers to keep them properly fed. By the time the peloton arrived at the foot of the Pyrenees, only 25 riders were left in the race. Ten made it to the finish line. The last rider to complete the race, Jules Nempon, limped home 21 hours after the winner, Firmin Lambot. Géo Lefèvre, the tour’s originator and its most breathless early chronicler, called it ‘the most beautiful Tour de France I have ever seen’.
In its early years, the race was designed to be a tour of attrition. Men raced alone and, if they broke their machines, had to repair them on their own too. During the 1913 tour, Eugène Christophe broke his forks as he descended the Tourmalet, walked to a blacksmith’s and fixed them himself. He was penalised for allowing a boy to work the bellows for him. Henri Desgrange, the owner of L’Auto, the newspaper that first organised the Tour de France, said that the ideal race ‘would be one in which a single rider succeeded in completing the challenge’. In the early days it wasn’t unusual for half the field to give up along the route.
Max Leonard has written a history of the men who finished last, and it makes for oddly inspiring reading. There is an art to losing, Leonard shows: on a stage race it can go on for days. You finish a stage last, you eat, drink and go to bed last, you wake up last and carry on riding, last, for another day. The rider who finishes the race last in the general classification is given the Lanterne Rouge. The prize, first awarded in 1903, is named for the red light hung on the last carriage of a railway train.
Many Lanternes Rouge have gone on to make fairly good money from the position, and competition to come last rather than in the middle of the pack can be fierce. The winner of the Lanterne Rouge was often invited to race in the lucrative post-tour criterions, one-day exhibition races held in towns not visited by the main race.
Over the years the tour organisers have tried to distance themselves from celebrating losing. The broom wagon, which brings up the rear of the race, sweeping up riders who won’t finish the stage in the allotted time, was introduced in 1910. In 1939, the race director Jacques Goddet introduced individual time trials and decreed that the riders who came last in the first 14 stages would be eliminated.
These days the time difference between winners and lanternes rouges is incredibly small – the question of a couple of kilometres per hour over three weeks of racing. Winning the tour is a communal endeavour, even though only one rider gets to wear the yellow jersey. Domestiques, team riders whose job is to guide their leader up the cols and protect him from the wind on the flats, go into the race knowing they won’t win. ‘For many riders,’ Leonard writes, ‘their job is self-sacrifice and denial, and the harsh law is that they must work for another’s success. It is simply not their job to win. And for some it is specifically their job not to win.’