In a race as grueling as the Tour de France, where do we draw the line between winning and losing? Writer and amateur cyclist Leonard challenges what it means to achieve greatness through the mythos of the sport’s underdogs.
The author provides little information about the competitors we recognize as champions of the sport, instead populating the narrative with a strange sort of idol worship. He resists the urge to discuss at length the exploits of well-known Tour de France personalities like Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Lance Armstrong; Leonard focuses on the tragicomic, unofficially recognized heel of the century-old competition, the lanterne rouge, the last rider to finish the race. Instead of Fausto Coppi and Hugo Koblet, the spotlight is on beautiful “losers” like Abdel-Kader Zaaf (among the first Algerians to compete in the race) and Tony Hoar. Leonard waxes philosophical between chapters titled like Jungian archetypes of Tour lore—e.g., “The Survivor,” “The Rebel,” “The Debutant,” “The Maverick,” “The Fall Guy.” In each of these chapters, the author highlights an episode (or episodes) in the unsung history of the lanterne rouge, filling the pages with romantic significance. The pace of his prose, like the Tour itself, can be a little fast and treacherous. For those new to the sport and its figures, there may be a lot of catching up to do. But there is much to learn from this book, which will prove amusing for cycling enthusiasts and interesting enough for sports buffs without a clue.
“Being lanterne rouge is about so many other things than being last it is barely about being last at all,” writes Leonard. “It’s about…doing what you can do to the best of your abilities and not giving up.” Indeed, it’s nice to know that there is a place in history for those whose great achievement is seeing it through to the end.