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Tour seen from the Red Light

The Tour de France finished in Paris today, greeted by the cheers of the multitudes that waited for hours on the majestic Champs-Elysées. After the finish, a specially designed victory podium rolled out to welcome the laureats. Christopher Froome stepped up to pull a final yellow jersey over his shoulder as well as the polka-dot jersey awarded to the best overall climber. Peter Sagan took the green points jersey, while Nairo Quintana wore white and the entire Movistar team rejoiced, when they received the overall team prize.

Words & images: James Startt
From: Avenue des Champs-Élysées, France

One rider, received another prize, but he was not invited to the podium. Frenchman Sébastien Chavanel, finished the Tour as the honorary Lanterne Rouge, or red lantern, the dubious prized award to the last-place finisher of the race.

Recorded since the very first Tour de France in 1903, the Lanterne Rouge is at times a coveted prize. Many respected riders, and occasional winners, often finished last in the Tour de France. Belgian Edwin Van Hooydonck, two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders, finished last in 1994, while popular French rider, Jacky Durand, managed to capture the prize while also winning the Most-Combative prize the same year.

And then, of course, there was the historic duel between Frenchman Jimmy Casper and Belgian Wim Vansevenant in 2008. Both, two-time winners of the prize, waged an epic fight to become the first three-time winner. But when Casper finished out of the time delay on the Alpe d’Huez, Vansevenant had a clear run into Paris. But to make certain that his triple crown would remain in tact, he dogged the final time trial to enter into the annals of cycling in his own unique way.

French Arsène Millocheau opened the rankings in the inaugural 1903 Tour de France when he finished 21st and last, 64 hours 57 minute 8 seconds behind Maurice Garin, the Tour’s first winner. Relatively speaking, Chavanel rode impressively this year, finishing 4 hours 56 minutes 59 seconds behind this year’s winner, Christopher Froome. His toughest competition came from Svein Tuft, the defending Lantern Rouge champion. But Tuft was nearly nine minutes ahead of Chavenel when they rolled into Paris.

“I’m dealing with it well,” Chavanel said inside his FDJ team bus, while preparing for stage 19 in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. “It is something you have to work at every day. Hey, in the Tour de France, you have to have a first place and a last place. Somebody has to be last. And this year it is me!”

Chavenel, the brother to Sylvain Chavanel, one of the leaders of the Swiss I Am team, was a middling sprinter before becoming a key support rider on FDJ. In this year’s Tour, Chavanel’s jobs starts and stops on the flat stages as his job responsibilities included protecting the team’s climber Thibaut Pinot on the flat windy stages before leading out team sprinter Arnaud Demare.

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“Being the Lantern Rouge means one thing, that you finished in Paris. And here at this year’s Tour there are a lot of riders that can’t say this. This is my third Tour de France, and by far my hardest. And I think everyone here will say that this was a very, very hard Tour. There are a lot of riders that would like to be in my place.”

This year’s Tour was uncharacteristically mountainous, and on the mountain stages Chavanel was simply in survival mode.

“Today is going to be really hard for him,” said his wife, Sophie Chavanel-Frenette, a physical therapist on the FDJ team, before stage 19 from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire, the penultimate stage in the Alps. “This is probably the hardest mountain stage in the Alps. It’s short with a lot of climbs and its going to be hard to finish in the time limit.”

Chavanel admitted that he was worried about the final stages in the Alps. “I hope that the grupetto is going to be solidary,” he said. “Today is going to be hard, the hardest for me. I just have to try to remain in contact with the bunch as long as possible. I need to stay with Cavendish. Mark is very experienced. He knows how to pace himself. In addition, he will have a bunch of teammates with him to make sure he finishes in the time cut. So he is the guy to watch.”

Attacks started from the gun on the on the Col de Chaussy as riders vied for the early break. And they continued on the Croix de Fer, when defending champion Vincenzo Nibali launched an attack in search of a stage win, in a race that has otherwise been frustrating for him. And while the Sicilian succeeded, Chavanel weathered his own version of Dante’s Inferno, struggling simply to survive. At the finish, his face was void of emotion, void of life, as he struggled to pedal across the finish line. But he managed to retain contact with the grupetto. Finishing the Tour de France remained a reality.

And while the stage up the Alpe d’Huez was equally grueling, Chavanel knew that the hardest was behind him, and he had little trouble making the cut.

The classic finish on the Champs-Elysées offered him a final objective as he focused on carrying Demare, the team sprinter, into position for the final sprint of the Tour. Fullfulling his duties, Chavanel helped Demare hold position down the Rue de Rivoli before the pack curved around the Place de la Concorde and raced towards the finish. Demare managed to finish a respectable fifth behind the day’s winner Andre Greipel.

It was an honorable finish, but ultimately one that will be less memorable than Chavanel’s Lanterne Rouge.