The rider who finishes in last place on the general classification at the Tour de France is given the title ‘Lanterne Rouge’. The name comes from the red safety light that would hang from the last carriage of trains in the early 1900s. While there is no actual prize awarded to the Lanterne Rouge on his arrival in Paris, the title is a badge of honour, a reminder of the suffering and perseverance needed just to finish a three week bike race, let alone win it.
Following the Second World War, the Giro d’Italia went one better than the Tour’s Lanterne Rouge and awarded a jersey to the last placed rider. The Malliot Nera, the black jersey, was first awarded in 1946. It was in part due to the postwar government’s efforts to promote a meritocratic philosophy, where hard work pays off. The public could watch the black jersey struggle on through the mountains knowing he would be rewarded for his efforts on his arrival at the finish.
The Giro’s black jersey grew in popularity over the years, to the point where riders would compete for the honour of being the last placed finisher. Each year there were stories of riders stopping for lunch in villages in order to lose time in the overall classification. One of the more famous tales involves a rider called Malabrocca who hid in a farmer’s water tank until he was sure his rivals had long finished, before cruising to the line hours behind the race. In 1951, when the organisers ran out of patience with the likes of Malabrocca’s time wasting antics, the black jersey competition was abolished. More recently however, the black jersey has returned to the U23 version of the Giro. But, with much tighter time cuts each stage, I doubt we’ll hear of any riders hiding in bushes or stopping in bars.
Earlier this month I learned that there is no such prize awarded to the guy who comes last at the Tour du Beaujolais.
This season was my second visit to Beaujolais with Eiser Hirumet. Just North of Lyon, the region best known for its wine is a solid ten hour drive from our base Durango. In both the 2018 and 2019 editions of the race, the Tour du Beaujolais has consisted of three stages. The first a hilly point-to-point stage of around 150km on the Saturday followed, the next day, by something that almost every rider hates: a double race day. This year the final day started off with an intense 55km of short hard climbs then, in the afternoon, a 100km race finishing at the top of the 1st category climb of Mt. Brouilly.
Last year’s edition of the Tour du Beaujolais was my housemate Hugo’s first race for the team. Being French, and having studied for six years in Lyon, he knew the roads well. The evening before the race I began quizzing him on the route. We’d been given a poorly printed map, with the climbs roughly marked but no profile of the stages. I wanted to know more about the terrain and where the race might split. I remember pointing to the map and asking Hugo how hard each climb would be. The trouble was that Hugo hadn’t spoken Spanish since his visit to the team camp 5 months before. So although he has since completed a master’s degree in his 2nd language, this time last year his Spanish wasn’t easy to make sense of. After a while I resorted to naming the climbs after French riders they’d best suit; a steady climb was a Chavanel, a longer, steeper one was more of a Bardet, and short hard climbs we referred to as Alaphilippes.
This year me and Hugo were far more prepared. We travelled a few days early, leaving Durango on the Monday before meeting up with the rest of the team when they arrived later that week. Our plan, first hatched on a long ride last winter, involved three different Airbnbs and two recon rides covering the three stages. After some high-level Tetris-style loading of our bags, bikes, training and race wheels into Hugo’s car, Mission Beaujolais was underway.
On the journey we went over our experiences of the race last year. Hugo had found some good form but I recalled a very tough weekend. The race came at the part of the season I was suffering most with breathing issues. I was called up at short notice. Then I managed to snap my gear cable the night before stage. The cable had got stuck in the internal guide. Luckily Hugo offered to take me to the bike shop before the race the following morning, a favour I’d repay later that weekend.
Last year I was not prepared for what was in store on Stage 1. The race was neutralized to the bottom of a long climb, it didn’t look much on the map so me and Hugo had it down as a Gallopin but it was very much a Pinot. I found myself in the last bunch on the road with 130km to go.
Going into the final stage of last year’s race Hugo was wearing the pink jersey (awarded to the best-placed on the general classification of the riders ranked in the French second category).
In France, both riders and teams are organised into categories. Depending on their annual budget, teams are ranked into divisions, division national (DN) 1, 2 and 3. Riders are ranked into categories according to their points, rather like in the E,1,2,3,4 system we are used to in the UK. The French system probably merits a “Rough guide to racing in France”, a post for another occasion…
As we navigated the chaotic traffic around Bordeaux, which marked the halfway point of day one of Mission Beaujolais, Hugo explained the French category system. He had tried to clarify it to me and the team several times when he was wearing the pink jersey in 2018. I remembered being left puzzled but had understood the following: Beaujolias is a high level race because there are 12 DN1 teams, but DN1 teams can have 2nd category riders hence the separate classification. As far as the team was concerned, a jersey meant a place on the podium, so worth defending.
With 60km to go on the final stage Hugo lost grip on a sandy corner and went down. I didn’t see the crash but I looked behind to see him getting back on his bike. I sat up, dropping back through the bunch then through the convoy of cars till I was alone. Eventually Hugo caught me. We had roughly 30km on relatively flat roads followed by a 7km climb then a descent into the town of Beaujeu to finish. I wasn’t going to be of much help to Hugo on the climb so I rode as hard as I could for the flat section with him on my wheel. With me pacing him on the flat then Hugo’s efforts to make it back to a group of riders on the climb meant we managed to defend his pink jersey.
After a week in France getting familiar with the three stages, we came to the business end of Mission Beaujolais. Hugo and I took the pre-race team talk. We’d reduced the race down to one important point. Stage 1 started with a long gradual climb, perhaps a Calmejane. Then we’d take a right-hand hairpin turn to join a far steeper narrower climb, definitely more of a Barguil. After the top of this first Calemjan-Barguil climb we’d start a narrow technical section of about 35km, generally downhill. With the bunch already stretched by the climb, this section would suit a breakaway so we needed to be well positioned for the tight right turn.
5 minutes into the stage the heavens opened. We’d been warned rain was forecasted but it in the 30 degree heat it on the startline was hard to believe. We spent the first hour in a tropical storm, the heaviest rain I’ve ever raced in, but as a team we remained focused on our plan. I had made a note of the last village on the long climb before the crucial right hand turn. As soon as we went through St.Just-d’Avray I made a big effort to move to the front with two of my teammates on my wheel.
In the final kilometre of the climb I was struggling, hanging on to the back of the front group. With the rain coming down hard, the convoy of cars were just as nervous as the riders. The team directors were beeping their horns and closing the gap on the judges car, which leads the convoy. This is normal: teams put pressure on the judges to pass the dropped riders before the top of the climb so they can be nearer to their riders in the bunch on the descent. The nearer the cars are to their riders the more likely they are to be able to help in case of a puncture or crash.
With the top of the climb in sight, the rider in front of me let a bike length open up and two cars squeezed past us. Before I knew it I was descending in traffic. Sometimes it is an advantage to descend in the race convoy because you can draft, but when there are tight bends bikes go faster than cars. At each corner I was having to brake hard to avoid going through the rear window and joining the mechanic in the back of the team car ahead of me. On corners which I wasn’t having to avoid the cars, I could push it, once or twice I heard what sounded like velcro straps undoing themselves as my tyres skidded on loose gravel.
I was passing riders who were resorting to unclip one foot and hang their leg out sideways to keep balance. It was chaos and it went on for what felt like hours. Each time a group formed guys would lose contact on the corners while others would grab hold of team cars and speed off.
Eventually, with 65km to go, a large gruppetto formed and we began working together to make it to the finish. I was disappointed but, with 25km to go, I reasoned with myself. There were over 40 of us in the gruppetto, perhaps more than in the front group. We were going to lose time but we’d all start the next day and perhaps get on better, having not suffered as much as the guys racing for the win. Then I punctured. We had no support cars with us. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what to do. For a few moments throwing my bike off a nearby bridge felt like the best option.
Luckily for my bike, I saw a big yellow race sign in the distance, 1km to the intermediate sprint. I began pushing my bike and made my way towards it. The intermediate sprint was where we’d start the 20km finish circuit, where our team van was parked. I began to run, I had come this far, I had to make it to the finish inside the time cut.
Clattering along in my cleats as people cheered ironically, I ran into the carpark and grabbed a wheel from my team. Then I soloed 20km to finish, 40 minutes down on the winner. Inside the time limit, just.
As soon as we started stage 2 on Sunday morning, I knew I was going to have to suffer just to finish. I hadn’t recovered from my four and a half hour duathlon. Some people call it gym legs, more scientifically it is referred to as DOMS (delayed onset muscle fatigue). All cyclists know the feeling. It’s how a rider feels the morning after the first few gym sessions in the winter or if you try and run or play football having only ridden a bike all season.
After two stages of pain, at the hilltop finish of Mont Brouilly, me and Hugo reflected on the weekend. The team managed a respectable tour. The guys had been active in the late attacks on stages 2 and 3, with my teammate Franklin Archibold of Panama going particularly well.
I was pleased to have finished. Honoured to have won the Lanterne Rouge with a convincing margin of 7 minutes without having to hide in a bar or water tank.
My week in France marked the midpoint of my season, I went back to London for a week’s break from training and racing. Looking back at my year so far, I haven’t reached the level I was racing at a few seasons ago but I am confident I am on the right track to find some form this summer.
For those who like power data; I normalized 350w for the first hour of stage one of Beaujolais, just over 5 watts per kilo for me, a 2019 personal best. I have managed better numbers in previous seasons so hopefully I can make the best of the next 3 months of racing.
Thanks as always to the Dave Rayner Fund.
Tour Du Beaujolais FB