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Aérogramme 2016

Aérogramme: Red Lantern

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July 24, 2016 – The final day of the Tour de France up and down the Champs-Elysées in Paris is different things for different riders. For some, like race winner Christopher Froome, it is a day of unadulterated celebration, after capturing his third Tour de France victory in four years. For others, however, the sense of satisfaction can be more mitigated, as crashes, illness or the general duress of the three-week Tour did not allow them to ride to their full potential. For all finishers, however, there is sigh of relief. For they have simply finished the world’s toughest bike race.

Words & images: James Startt – European Associate to peloton

From: Paris, France

And such a sense of relief is never greater than for the Lantern Rouge, or Red Lantern, the honorary title given to the race’s last-place finisher. Since the start of the Tour de France in 1903, the race has honored the Red Lantern. No there is not jersey or trophy awarded. And they are not invited to stand on the podium. But they are there in the history books.

This year’s prize was awarded to an unlucky Irishman, Sam Bennett, who rides with the Bora team. Crashing hard all the way back on Stage 1 to Utah Beach, he has simply struggled throughout the three weeks.

Aérogramme presented by Giordana #GiordanaCycling

It is always impressive to look at the long list of established champions that have won this dubious prize, as it is often won by great sprinters or classics riders. Many are great riders in their own right, but they simply are not fit for the overall rigors of the three-week Tour. And Bennett, who is already won nine races in his first three seasons as a professional, could well fall into that category. An up-and-coming road sprinter he is at the bottom of the Tour’s standings with other sprinters and lead out riders like himself. There is Dan McLay, sprinter for the Fortuneo team, only four places higher in the standings, while Marcel Kittel, sprinter for the Etixx team is only seven places from the bottom.

There are of course exceptions, like the statuesque German sprinter Andre Greipel, who showed such utter disregard for the Red Lantern position, that he actually got in a breakaway on the mountain stage up to the Mont Ventoux, finishing just off the pace of the leaders. Such an unexpected move catapulted into a most-impressive 134th place.

Bennett instead occupies the more memorable last place, in this year’s Tour, 175th, five hours 17 minutes and 14 seconds from Froome’s yellow jersey.

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“Yes, I’ve been committed to it,” Bennett while warming up for the stage 18 time trial in Sallanches. “You know I’ve put in an attack off the back or two. Full gas you know!”

Bennett of course, did not choose to be last. And he would have preferred not to be. But like many riders in his position, he had little choice. The 25-year old came into this year’s race with good condition, but was caught up in the spectacular crash on stage 1 with the finish line just in sight.

“I was just behind Michael Markov when he when he went down,” Bennett recalls. “The last time I looked at my Garmin, we were at 40.2 mph. And we just came to a halt. At that speed you just need more time to react.”

Morkov, the Danish rider who rides for the Katusha team, was the race’s inaugural Red Lantern. But with a severe contusion on his right thigh, Morkov essentially could only pedal with one leg. The first rider dropped every day during the first week, he held out hope of recovering, but was no match for the mountains of the Pyrénées, and was eventually forced to abandon.

That left Bennett alone in the last-place position. And he has essentially had a lock on it ever since. Lars Bak, another Danish rider, is his closest competition, but at five hours one minute and 18 seconds behind Froome, he is still over 15 minutes in front of Bennett.

“At first I didn’t like it,” Bennett admits. “I was forced into the position last year because I was sick and again this year. But I’m just happy that I got through the first part of the Tour and that I’m still here. Last year I couldn’t finish (i.e. he abandoned on stage 17) so I’m really proud to finish the Tour this year. Every experience is an experience. You can learn from it.”

For the record, Bennett suffered a broken finger in his right hand. As a result he has not been able to grasp his handlebars or brake properly for the entire race. Riding in the pack at high speeds when you do not have full control of your bike is simply not possible. No, he is not in last place by choice and it does not reflect his condition.

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“I still don’t know what I think about being the Red Lantern,” Bennett says. “I don’t like it, but somebody has to be it, so I just try to embrace it. I think if I was fit and healthy, was say was three places higher in the standings and then chose to be there, that would be one thing. But to be forced into it is hard.”

Nevertheless, Bennett has always had a dream—to finish the Tour de France in on the historic Champs-Elysées. “It’s going to be a proud moment,” Bennett says. “When you finish the Tour de France, you’re a real bike rider!”

Check back daily as Startt brings a different personality to Aérogramme.