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My First Lanterne Rouge
The term lanterne rouge is a famous part of racing folklore. The rider who completes the race yet finishes in dead last on GC is awarded the title ‘lanterne rouge’ and in turn is lauded and celebrated for having the tenacity to hang on within the time limit and cross the finish line each day.
Wim Vansevenant held the coveted title for an astounding three years, finishing the Tour in last place in 2006, 2007 and 2008. He battled to hold on to the grupetto’s wheel in the mountain, and served as a trusty workhorse on the flat stages chasing down breaks all day to aid Robbie McEwan. Almost at the line, around 15km left he would allow himself to be shot out the back of the peloton, relishing the small losses he would accumulate to cement his lowly position on the classification.
Remember the passion and connection the fans felt with poor Kenny Van Hummel in the 2009 Tour? Each day we willed him onwards, empathised with his suffering and physical exertion to drag his crafted-for-sprinting physique up each tortuous mountain stage. Alas, Kenny didn’t make it to Paris. However, the adoration of the fans and the unprecedented exposure he secured for his sponsors Skil and Shimano would cushion his landing from those dizzy heights of Le Tour…
I lined up at the start of my first race. The raging headwind lashed the group as we compacted tightly and pulled away. The pace picked up as the first bend was negotiated. ‘Wow this pace is ok!’ I thought to myself, as I tussled and held third or fourth wheel.
The first lap came and went… a few of the stronger ladies held court at the front, pushing the tempo up and up. Yet the group stayed together fairly well, shielding themselves from less than ideal winds on a flat, exposed course.
Suddenly a blue and black figure shot out to the side and thundered on the pedals. “Lefffffft!” I heard a girl shout as the group galloped to pull back the escapee. Nice attack, definitely felt the burn on that one.
The laps came and went and I found, to my surprise, I was not struggling. A handful of girls attacked each lap, but once the race found its rhythm it was easy to anticipate the point at which someone would motor off the front.
As the race reached lap 7, I drifted about 7 wheels back, and hid at the left of the group. Right Gem, time to have a little dig as they say! I slid to the front of my perch, grabbed the drops and motored off to the left, powering through for about 10 seconds. I heard the same voice shout and sure enough, looked over my shoulder to see the posse snapping at my heels. I sat at the front of the group, and then lazily drifted back to fifth wheel. I sure as hell wasn’t going to be doing that again in this wind!
On lap ten, as the group trundled around, the same black and blue lady shot off the front at breakneck speed. Collyn again! She is attacking like mad today! In the spilt second that followed, I didn’t fix onto her wheel. Instead I made the decision to wait an extra two seconds or so and latch on further back, figuring I’d save a little energy and that the peloton would regroup. Here is where I made my fatal error. As I popped onto the last wheel, myself and the girl in front lost contact with the groups wheels and before I knew it the split had been made and we were spat out the back.
I couldn’t believe it! Only two more laps to go and it was all going so well! The wind raged against us as we made a valiant but futile attempt to click back on. We’d had it, every cyclist knows the game of numbers. Two bridging to a group of 15 just wasn’t going to happen. Game over.
I sat in the car, unusually quiet. I replayed the move I missed over and over in my head, berating myself for lazily catching the wrong wheel instead of sticking with the wheel in front. It felt so unfair that I ended up in last place when I had rode strong and near the front all race. The doubting words heckled me “you’re a loser! You’re slow! You’re a laughing stock!” I beat myself up, I had done all the wrong training…
Then I thought of Kenny and Wim. I thought about the fact that one of those girls lining up on the start line had to be last, it may not have been the slowest girl but it would be the girl who didn’t race smart. And that girl was me today.
Awarded the title lanterne rouge I tried to take comfort in the fact that I didn’t just peel off those last two laps and scurry off to the car for an early exit, but that I rode on through the wind, aided courageously by the other lady dropped, who I ensured to thank as we dragged ourselves to the finish line. But I dug deep and finished. So for now I’ll be content with that. However, as I’m assured by many, Lanterne Rouge is cool. But I’m not going to be aiming for it next race.
Gem Atkinson is the author of the Bianchista blog.
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