Winning Is For Losers: The Great Stories Of The Guys Who Finish Last Author Max Leonard says that, when it comes to the Tour de France, the riders in the back often have far more interesting stories than the riders in the front. His new book is called Lanterne Rouge.
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Winning Is For Losers: The Great Stories Of The Guys Who Finish Last

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Winning Is For Losers: The Great Stories Of The Guys Who Finish Last

Winning Is For Losers: The Great Stories Of The Guys Who Finish Last

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Cyclists competing in the Tour de France enter the eighth stage of the race today. They'll face some short but steep climbs as they ride west through Brittany. At the end, cheering crowds will gather around the finish line. The stage winners will be feted and the yellow jersey presented to the overall leader. British rider Chris Froome has earned that honor for now, but what about the man at the very end of the peloton? How and why does he keep going? Those are the questions Max Leonard answers in his new book "Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man In The Tour De France." Max Leonard joins us from the BBC in London. Welcome, Max.

MAX LEONARD: Hi there.

GOODWYN: Explain the term lanterne rouge. What's the origin?

LEONARD: It means red lantern in French, and it refers to the railways and to the red lantern that used to hang on the last carriage of trains. It used to be put there so that the signalmen and the station masters knew that the train was complete and there hadn't been any decouplings along the way, and so the line was free for another train. And I kind of like the idea of the lanterne rouge in that sense because, you know, he makes the race complete. You know, he may be coming up at the back, but he's almost, in some ways, as important as the first guy.

GOODWYN: Those early decades of the tour, that part of the book, I found very interesting - the heavy bikes, the unpaved roads, and then the difference in finishing times is so remarkable. In 1904, the last man to finish - the lanterne rouge - finished more than 100 hours behind the winner. That's days and days.

LEONARD: That's right and he was actually doing exactly the same course as Arsene Millocheau. He raced the year before. Arsene came in 65 hours late, and the newspapers don't actually pay all that much attention to the last guy so we don't really know what went wrong - you know, if he had crashes, if his bike broke, you know, if he just went to sleep in the ditch at some point. But Arsene was so late that some days his name didn't appear in the official results, purely because he arrived after the paper had gone to press.

GOODWYN: The book caused me to ruminate some on America's obsession with winners. If you're not a winner, you're really not worth our consideration. In the book, you talk about winners as among the least interesting of competitors. Tell us more about that.

LEONARD: You know, a star rider in the Tour de France is looked after by a team of eight other riders and, you know, they will fetch his water bottles, they will protect them from the wind, they will pace him up the climbs, they will stop other teams from attacking so that he doesn't waste his energy. And, actually, I think an ideal race for a winner would be, you know, you just see the few guys around you and the empty road in front of you; whereas the lanterne rouge, who spends a lot more time on the road and who is becoming last for all sorts of different reasons - be that, you know, the teamwork he's doing, injury, bad luck, crashes - these kind of things. You know, I think he sees a lot more of the race and there's a lot of rich stories there to tell.

GOODWYN: So, you know, early in your book - and I've begun to think, as the lanterne rouge is, among the most noble of riders, someone who rides not for the chance of glory or money but for the sport itself. Until I start to read further and learn that lanterne rouge winners were sometimes making as much money as the winners and the scheming to be last was just as intense.

LEONARD: Absolutely. I mean, in the tour, there are a lot of different competitions. There's the climber's jersey, the sprint jersey, the yellow jersey. And the lanterne rouge, although it was never an official classification, it was always a fans favorite. It was the kind of the name the fans gave to the last guy on the tour. And he became so popular, in fact, that the lanterne rouge would get invited, many years, to the races after the tour, which took place all around France and Belgium and Holland. And he would get a lot of quite lucrative contracts for these races, you know, for an unknown lowly-paid professional rider, and in those days they - you know, they could be paid very little indeed. It could be very, very worthwhile for this guy to come last and, you know, make double his salary in a couple of weeks. So people would hide behind cars, they'd hide behind bridges, they'd do all sorts of things just lose a few seconds and, you know, take last place.

GOODWYN: Sleeping in barns and haystacks while the peloton passed them by.

LEONARD: Yeah, I did - I read that story actually about the last-placed rider in the Giro d'Italia, the national tour of Italy, and that rider was awarded a black jersey for a few years after the war. And one particularly famous winner of it - he repeatedly also slashed his tires in order to lose more time and cause himself an obstacle.

GOODWYN: Who were some of your favorite lanterne rouge riders?

LEONARD: Well, I interviewed guys all the way back to 1955. One of my favorites from that kind of era was a guy called Abdel-Kader Zaaf, who is long dead unfortunately. But he had a very funny story where he was involved in a breakaway with another North African colleague. He was an Algerian rider, and it was a big heat wave on the tour. And him and his other team rider - they took about 20 minutes lead over the peloton. But right towards the end of the stage, he started zigzagging across the road. He looked really dehydrated, maybe he had sunstroke. And so he reached out to take a bottle from a spectator, wanting to quench his thirst, and actually the bottle wasn't full of water. It was full of wine. For poor Zaaf, who was apparently an observant Muslim who didn't drink alcohol, this was an absolute disaster. And so he was laid out under a tree to sleep it off, and when he got up again a couple of hours later to continue the race, he actually rode back towards the start line and was eliminated.

GOODWYN: (Laughter) Max Leonard. His new book is "Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man In The Tour De France." Max, I enjoyed it.

LEONARD: Thank you very much.

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