The Big Feature: Max Leonard – Lanterne Rouge

At this time of the year there is much excitement (or massive disappointment) as riders receive confirmation that they’ve made their team’s Tour de France squads. But that’s only the first hurdle.

In Paris, only one rider will be crowned victor. Here at VeloVoices we salute all the finishers, no matter where they end up in the general classification. One guy will finish last. There’s no shame in that because he’ll probably have worked his socks off for his team leader. He might even have picked up an injury or illness. He didn’t plan to come last. Sheer bloody-mindedness alone ensured he reached Paris.

It’s this very grit and determination which Max Leonard celebrates in his book Lanterne Rouge. This approaches the Tour from a whole different angle. It’s very much a view from the back. It’s well researched, well written and throws much-needed light on the role of the individual team members whose job is often over before the television cameras start rolling.

lanterne-rouge-max-leonard-book cover

If you’re a Tour virgin, this book isn’t for you. Not yet. However, you should turn to it at some point to gain a broader appreciation and, more importantly, because it’s an entertaining read. I was fortunate enough to catch up with the author on one of his recent trips to France.

Sheree: How did this all come about?

Max: Do you remember people becoming excited about the lanterne rouge on the internet back in the 2009 Tour de France when, for the greater part of the race, it was Dutch sprinter Kenny van Hummel (Skil-Shimano) pretty much on his own at the back of the peloton.

Sheree: Yeah, I remember that!

Max: He was fighting hard every day to stay in the race and clearly wasn’t made for the Tour de France mountains. Nonetheless, he was giving it his best shot and he became something of a minor celebrity before he missed the time cut and was out on stage 17. That stuck in my mind and I recalled it when I abandoned L’Etape du Tour in 2011.

Sheree: My abiding memory from an earlier L’Etape was the sad faces of those in the broom wagons – dreams dashed.

Max: It was on the same 208km stage from Issoire to Saint Flour in the Massif Central where Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) fell and broke his leg and a television car hit Jonny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank). I think around 6,500 signed up to take part in L’Etape, 4,500 made it to start line and just over 1,000 completed it thanks to the horrendous weather conditions. A very dramatic stage for all concerned and it really got me thinking about why riders don’t just throw in the towel. I got off my bike but these guys don’t. So what is it that keeps them going, aside from it being their jobs?

In addition, post-race, we only hear what the winners have to say which can often be quite anodyne. I’ve been following the Tour circus for several years and I just knew there must be many more takes on the race. I wanted to tell the story of what’s happening beyond the maillot jaune. I started looking into a few of these stories in more detail and it turned that a lot of lanternes rouges were larger than life charactersEach chapter in the book tells the tale of the last-placed rider from one Tour de France, from 1903 to the current day.

Sheree: And what tales they are! I find the more you learn about cycling the more you appreciate that very few riders win races and even the winners lose more than they win. I loved your myth-busting early Tour tales but it must have been even better chatting to some of the riders about their experiences. Without giving too much away, who really sticks in your mind?

Max: I felt very privileged that everyone was willing to talk and share their stories. The oldest ex-rider I spoke to, now in his early eighties, was Tony Hoar (lanterne rouge in 1955) – only the second British rider to finish the Tour. He lives in Vancouver, makes trailers for a living and, until a few years ago, still raced.

Jacky Durand was another of my favourites. He’s such a character! I went to see at him at a race and it made me appreciate how central he is now to the French cycling scene.

Eurosport commentator Jacky Durand (image: G4)

Eurosport commentator Jacky Durand (Image: G4)

Serial lanterne rouge (2006-2008) Wim Vansevenant had some great stories to tell and one of the few in recent times who actually tried to come last. I met Basques Igor (2002) and Iker Flores (2005), the only brothers to both be lanternes rouges.

Sheree: That was one of my favourite chapters. I loved the quote from Igor:

I was the last because I wanted to be and Iker was the last because he couldn’t be better.

Turned out, Iker rode the Tour suffering from hepatitis.

Max: The brothers, like so many I spoke with, were welcoming and such nice, well-adjusted people who seemed really comfortable in their own skins. I met them in Tafella at the Miguel Indurain Sports Centre and afterwards, at his home, Igor showed me a picture of himself as a youngster with Indurain.

Sheree: Of course Miguel Indurain is still such a huge Spanish hero and no cycling event in the Basque country, where they love their cycling, is complete without him. l’m still in mourning for Euskaltel.

Max: Their demise was sad, particularly after Fernando Alonso appeared to throw them a lifeline. I think people admired the non-commercial aspect of the team and the heart-felt way they raced. When I spoke to Belgian Mathieu Hermans (1989), who rode for both Orbea and Caja Rural, he said he fell in love with the Basque country and its people. Once you were friends with them, you were friends for life.

Sheree: Okay, who else?

Max: Interestingly, Jimmy Caspar (2001 and 2004) informed me the commissaires have a fair amount of latitude in deciding whether to eliminate riders who’ve missed the time cut.

Sheree: I was on L’Alpe d’Huez in 2008 when Jimmy missed the time cut.

Max: I spoke to former Tour de France race director Jean François Pecheux, who feels the position lanterne rouge is now much less significant as riders earn more and don’t need the money from post-Tour criteriums. In fact, I found the French in general much less interested in the lanterne rouge while it seems to have sparked the imagination more in those countries that have recently embraced cycling.

Sheree: When the first Tour started, wasn’t the idea that maybe only one person might stay the course?

Max: True, and the reporting from that time tends to glorify the suffering with descriptions of riders covered in mud, with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks after 18 hours on the road without any support. It was all rather sadistic.

Max Leonard

Max Leonard

Sheree: Okay, enough about the book. Tell me a bit about yourself. Did you always want to be a writer?

Max: Yes, I’ve never really done anything else since leaving university. I’ve been a freelancer for the past ten years, partly from a desire not to get a proper job. I’m lucky that I’m living at a time when cycling is so popular. I’m writing about my passion and not just trying to pay the bills.

Sheree: Well I guess that’s something you have in common with pro cyclists; you’re both following your dreams. What’s your next project?

Max: I’m still trying to figure that out. I had such a fantastic time working with Yellow Jersey’s editor so if I could find another idea he’d like I’d be really pleased. I’d like to ghost another biography, so if you know any cyclists who want to tell their tale, just let me know. I’m also thinking maybe I’ll write something about riding uphill. In the meantime, I’m writing about riding on the Cote d’Azur.

Sheree: Like your City Cycling Guides for Rapha. I’m sure inspiration for your next project will strike while you’re riding around the Cote d’Azur. I get most of my best ideas while I’m in the saddle.

A big thank you Rapha’s Anton Blackie for the introduction and an even bigger thank you to Max for his time and a very enjoyable wide-ranging conversation about cycling.

If you live in London and want to hear more about the book, Max will be speaking at Stanfords Book Store on 30th July at 6:30pm.


Leave a Reply