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Lanterne Rouge

By August 18, 2015 No Comments

by Jeff Sajdak
Scott Hoezee is away today. We welcome and thank guest blogger, Jeff Sajdak.

My brother got me interested in watching the Tour de France. Neither of us are bicyclists in any meaningful sense of the word, but he became interested in the marvels seen on the broadcast of the race: the spectacular scenery of France, the tours through historic French towns, and the superhuman feats of speed, strength, and endurance displayed by the cyclists as they race up and down mountains for twenty-one stage races over twenty-four days.

When I visit my brother during the summer, we watch the race on television. I’m not an intense fan, but I’ve gotten enough of the bug to watch a bit of the race when I’m home, too. This summer it inspired me to pick up a new book on the Tour, focusing on the riders who carried the “red lantern,” the Lanterne Rouge, for finishing last.

The French term, Lanterne Rouge, comes from the railroad, where a red lantern was placed on the last car of a train, letting the conductor know that the train was complete, with no decoupling of cars. Max Leonard’s book, Lanterne Rouge (Pegasus, 2015), highlights the stories of a dozen of these riders who made the Tour complete when they crossed the finish line in last place. Some of the early riders finished as much as 100 hours behind the winner. Their stories include crashes and broken bones, flat tires and equipment failures.sajdak 2

My favorite Lanterne Rouge is Abdel-Kader Zaaf, an Algerian Muslim, whose story from 1950 is a bit foggy in the annals of history, but is nonetheless entertaining. The weather was extremely hot that year, and on one of the stages, Zaaf, along with another North African rider, broke away from the peloton, the large, main group of riders. The two established a lead of over twenty minutes. Depending on the version of events you read, Zaaf’s story involves him, near the end of the stage, zig-zagging down the road from heat and exhaustion; a gracious fan providing the observant (non-alcohol-drinking) Muslim a bottle, not of water but of wine; a long, drunken snooze under a tree; and a groggy Zaaf arising a couple hours later and riding the wrong way back toward the starting line.

Then there’s the maverick Frenchman Jacky Durand, who was known for aggressive racing, taking big leads over the peloton in a determined but more-often-than-not unsuccessful attempt to win the stage. In an early stage in 1999, Durand was involved in a crash in which he dislocated his shoulder and then had his leg run over by a car. Amazingly, he stayed in the race, and after a few days of slow riding, he recovered enough to return to riding aggressively. Although he finished as the Lanterne Rouge, he also stood on the podium to receive the award for being the most aggressive rider in the Tour!

Riders today are part of a team, and they work together in order to give their team’s top rider the best chance to win. Consequently the Lanterne Rouge is often an admirable chap who sacrifices himself to help a teammate win. This year’s Lanterne Rouge was Frenchman Sébastien Chavanel, who finished just shy of five hours after the winner, British rider Chris Froome. Chanavel finished last while riding in support of his French teammate, Thibaut Pinot, who won one of the twenty-one stages and finished sixteenth overall. Last year, German rider Marcel Kittel won four stages and finished fourth in the points competition, while being supported by his teammates. Among his teammates was the Lanterne Rouge, Chinese rider Ji Cheng.

Finishing the race is a remarkable accomplishment, no matter what place you take.

Our North American sports culture too easily dismisses the nobility in finishing, and finishing well. The late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt captured our cultural mentality when he said, “Second place is just the first place loser.” We are diminished when we are quick to dismiss those who aren’t first, who don’t win championships. Not everyone who begins finishes. There is honor when you have fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith; even if you finish last. All who persevere in following Christ are promised a reward, the crown of righteousness—the last shall be first.

I’d be content with a Lanterne Rouge.

Jeff Sajdak is the dean of students at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Jeff Sajdak

Jeff Sajdak has pastored congregations in Iowa and Michigan, and currently serves as Dean of Students at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He delights in his wife and family, including three grandkids, as well as the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team and the Arsenal and Minnesota United football clubs.

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