The Lanterne Rouge is the name for the competitor who finishes in last place in a cycling race such as the Tour de France. The phrase comes from the French, meaning "Red Lantern", and refers to the red tail lights attached to the last carriage or wagon of a railway train (as an indicator that no wagon has been lost).
In the Tour de France the rider who finishes the grueling three-week competition in last place overall, rather than dropping out along the way, is accorded a special distinction. Riders may often actually compete to come in the very last place rather than just near the back of the pack of riders that finish. Often the rider who comes in the absolute last place in the Tour General Classification is remembered, while those who finished a few places ahead of him are forgotten to history. Even though the rider may only be a domestique, he is rewarded with a great deal of prestige. The revenue that the rider will generate from his last place finish is much greater than had he finished in second to last place. Some riders intentionally try to put themselves in this position, some acquire the position while assisting their team leader in his own performance, while other riders resent finishing last and only do so because of some sickness or injury.****************************************************************************************
This past weekend, I competed in the Kern County Women's Stage Race in lovely Bakersfield, CA. This was my third time racing this grueling event but unlike 2004 and 2006, this time I hadn't planned to really compete. I was simply participating because I wanted to share this experience with my teammates. We had decided last winter that this would be a team race for us, and even though I haven't done much racing this season, I wanted to be there to bond, help my teammates, and get a good weekend of training under my wheels.
The format of the race is such that you race four events in three days. In order to move on to the next event, you have to complete each stage. Your overall placing (General Classification or GC) is the total of your time for each stage.
On Friday, Stage 1 is a flattish 10-mile time trial. On Saturday, you race two stages: a flattish circuit race with two small "hills" in the morning, followed by a serious 8.5 mile hill climb with almost 3,000 feet of climbing in the afternoon. And on Sunday, Stage 4 brings you the Iron Mountain Road Race -- a hilly 48-mile race with about 4,000 feet of climbing. Given my current level of fitness, stages 1 and 2 would be my favorites. The hillier stages would be throw-aways for me.
We tried to prepare ourselves mentally and physically for the heat in Bakersfield, but it was still pretty oppressive. Each day, we felt more dehydrated and sunburnt and bloated. Even at night, each time you went outside it felt like someone had opened an oven door. Not ideal racing conditions for a bunch of fog-dwellers, but we made the best of the situation and stayed as cool as possible.
Stage One -- Bena Time Trial (Friday Afternoon): I've always liked this stage. I'm a pretty good time trialist and I've consistently had good results on this stage. I haven't been riding my TT bike, so I decided to do it "old skool" on my road bike. In 2004 and 2006, my time for this stage was 30 minutes and change. I decided I would pace for 28 minutes. In the past, this had been a morning stage, but this year we would race at 1:00pm -- in the heat of the day! What I didn't count on was the effect of the heat along with a headwind on both the out & back sections of the course. Long story short, I left it all on the course for a 34-minute effort. Good enough for 15th place in our field of 23 women, but definitely not stellar.
Stage Two -- Walker Basin Circuit Race (Saturday Morning): I love this stage! It's flat and fast with three short power climbs. I've always had great success with this stage and I was looking forward to it this year as well. But I also knew I needed to help one of my teammates. This is her first race season and she was struggling with the mental aspect of the sport. Friday had been hard for her, and I was afraid she would pull herself out of the race, so I made the decision in advance that if she fell off the pack I would go with her and help her finish the race. Near the end of the first lap, that's exactly what happened, so I pulled myself out to help her. While it would've been fun to hang with the pack, it was more important to me to help my teammate. We worked together for a couple of laps and then chased up to another teammate who was working with a roaring mouse racer. The four of us worked together and had a little tactical fun to finish of the race. Good stuff.
Stage Three -- Havilah Hill Climb (Saturday Afternoon): This was a new stage for me. The old hill climb was 13 miles on the west side of the mountain. This "new & improved" hill climb was supposedly 10 miles of a steeper grade on the east side of the mountain. But there was some discrepancy in the exact distance -- some folks said 10 miles, the race bible and chief referee said 13 miles, racers from last year said 9 miles. It was a bit confusing. Anyways, with several hours to spare, we drove over to Havilah and tried to find some refuge from the sun. Try to visualize 81 hot, sweaty bike racing chicks lounging around a "town" of about 50 residents. We stayed cool in the historic school house and opted not to do a warm-up (we were just too hot).
When the race began at 3:00, I knew that two of my teammates were hurting. Again, I had decided that I would ride with whomever needed me, at their pace, just to help her finish. When my first teammate popped early in the race, we began the long, mentally challenging climb (still of unknown distance). I wasn't quite sure how I could help her or what I could say, but I babbled on and tried to encourage her and keep her moving forward. Half a dozen times she told me she was done and I somehow encouraged her to keep going. At one point, we stopped in the shade, took a breather, re-grouped, and I convinced her to get back on the bike. As other racers passed us, they all shouted encouragement. I kept thinking of the irony of the situation -- this particular teammate is a much better climber than me under normal circumstances, but here I was helping her up the hill. My legs felt great and it was a bit challenging for me not to push it, but I wanted to help her.
About three miles from the top the broom wagon came up behind us. I could see our other teammate sitting in the passenger seat. She had abandoned the race. I felt very, very sad, but tried to keep my emotions in check so I could help my teammate who was still climbing. At two miles from the top there were boys with bottles of cold water followed by nurse Katherine with baggies of ice -- thank you! A mile from the top, Robert Leibold (the race promoter), was playing the Woody Woodpecker theme on his clarinet. It wasn't until this point that I knew my teammate would make it and I'm not even sure she was convinced of that. As we rolled up to the finish line, the last racers on the course, all the other racers who were already there, gave us a big round of applause. I felt a bit embarrassed (I shouldn't have been last), but then I realized it didn't matter. This wasn't about me. This was about helping my teammates and that's what I did.
Stage 4 -- Iron Mountain Road Race (Sunday Morning): Sunday morning was low-energy for all four of us on the team. The thought of one more day on the bike in the extreme heat was a bit daunting. The heat had taken it's toll. For one of my teammates, the effort of the day before, along with some bad recovery drink, left her unable to eat for almost 24 hours. With mixed emotion, after succeeding with the first three stages, she made the wise decision to abandon the race.
My other teammate, although she didn't finish the hill climb, was allowed to start Sunday's race with the understanding that she wouldn't be placed in GC (general classification -- the overall standings for the four races combined). But I knew the day would be a struggle for her. She doesn't do well with the heat and the hilliness of the course would be a challenge. So, in my mind, I again made the decision to work with a teammate rather than race for myself.
So, for almost 48 miles, we pacelined, TTed, giggled, rode hard, sweat, and basically just preservered over a hot and hilly course. Again, my legs felt great and I knew I could go much harder, but I held back to help my teammate. There were times I didn't think she'd finish, but she did. This was a big accomplishment for her -- beating her nemesis -- the hot & hilly road race. It wasn't pretty, but she succeeded and I feel we both learned a lot about each other during those four hours.
General Classification: At some point, I realized I would earn the coveted Lanterne Rouge. I was really excited about this. Yeah, part of me wondered what others would think about me. Did they think I was weak? Or slow? Or fat? Or old? Did they judge me? But the other part of me realized that it didn't matter what anyone else thought. I made the choice to sacrifice my own races so I could help my teammates. And it was the most fun I've ever had at Kern. Maybe next year I'll come back and actually "race" it. But this year was about giving myself to others and that sure felt great!
There's No Shame in Being Last!
Just yesterday, I was performing a bike fit on a woman who is training for AIDS LifeCycle. In our two hours together, we chatted about a lot of stuff, most of it surrounding the experience of ALC. This was her first ALC and I've done it four times, along with a bunch of touring, so she was picking my brain. At one point, she said "I don't care how fast I ride, but I don't want to be last," at which point, I pulled out my Red Lantern from this weekend and shared my story with her.
Since I began coaching, I can't tell you how many times women (racers and non-racers) have shared that thought with me -- they don't want to be last. There's some stigma in the athletic world at being last.
Let me tell you, there's no shame in being last. I've been last plenty of times. And I've been first a few times, too. And most often, I'm somewhere in between. There's no shame in being last and I've got a pretty red lantern to prove it! This weekend was just about the most fun I've had on the bike. I spent more hours than any other rider out there. I had the "best" time of the weekend -- because I was able to let go of my ego and be a good coach, teammate, and friend.
I'm pretty proud of being last! I hope you'll find some wisdom and self-love in my story as well.