One rider told me it was a wild day to race in the Tyrone mountains. Another lad told me the event was fast and brutal from the start. What they both said wasn’t the result of the stage- I still don’t know who won the day. But the story that was told, relates to the aftermath of the race which takes place in an old, football hall changing rooms. No windows, graffiti, yellow broken floor tiles fixed with concrete. An open shower room with 8 shower heads. Each shower flushes out water at mountain river temperature, for all but the first 4 riders.
Men sit shivering on fixed wooden benches that surround the walls. After four hours in the rain, in the saddle, just trying to find the motivation to change is low. Moving is hard. Their tracksuits sit in sports bags at their feet. Sports wear which would look at home on the Soviet ’76 lifting team.
Some riders walked in who wouldn’t pull in the chase and it went quiet and then very noisy. Popularity isn’t guaranteed if you do your turn at the front of a bunch- but some who forever ignores a flicked elbow, will never be popular.
After most of the riders were washed and had left, a bedraggled soul walked slowly into the changing room. Sodden and broken. He sat down beside another rider who was motionless and stared into nothing.
“How’d you go today?”
“Awful. The worst day on a bike, I was dropped on the first hill 60 miles ago”
“Yep. So hard. but only one stage to go- eh”
A silence drifted over the two. Comrades in pain.
“Where are you lying overall in the GC (General classification)?”
“Awe -think I’m second last, 20 minutes down. But at least I’m not last place, I hear that lump is an hour down”
Joe turned to stare at the rider beside him. And then at the floor and then back at the 2nd last place man
The next line, both people who narrate the story tell it exact and concise:
“Well you’re last now ye prick- I’m in last place and I’m going home and not starting tomorrow !”
In a cycling stage race, The rider at the very bottom of the list is the Lanterne Rouge. The name comes from the red safety lantern that used to hang on the back of the last carriage of trains and is why all cars have red rear facing lights. The Lanterne Rouge almost certainly dates to the very first days of the Tour de France, before the First World War. Perhaps fans throughout the Tour’s history have cheered him on because they feel for the underdog, he is the most like them, the most human. The Lanterne Rouge title is sometimes laughed off as a booby prize, a wooden spoon for the heroic loser. More damningly, it is sometimes seen as perverse, as a celebration of failure. But all those fans down the years can’t be completely wrong.