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Max Leonard is a cycling writer, blogger and longtime friend and collaborator with Rapha. He’s recently published Lanterne Rouge, a fascinating exploration of the stories behind the men who made it their mission to finish last at the Tour. We spoke to Max about his book.
How would you describe the genre of Lanterne Rouge?
I’d like to think it’s “proper” sports journalism and history – lots of original research and interviews – but it’s true there’s a bit of me in there too. In the age of blogging it’s difficult to get away from the ‘I’; but I also think the rules have changed a bit, and that it can still be “proper” even with that personal perspective and a touch of gonzo to it…
Was this the most challenging book you’ve written?
The other books I’ve written in my own name have been shorter, with far less research necessary and fewer creative opportunities. On the other hand, in terms of how I approached Lanterne Rouge I sort of did exactly what I wanted with the subject.
The idea of racing to come last goes against most common notions of sportsmanship…
Yes, but I don’t think there’s anything cynical in what the riders who raced to be last did. These were guys who were living a precarious, badly paid existence, who needed the money or who were under team orders to generate publicity for the sponsors. Crossing the line first is not the only objective in the Tour.
A lot of the riders in the book are kinds of anti-heroes, perhaps?
I think only one of them – Philippe Gaumont – could plausibly be described as a villain, although there are many conflicting opinions of his life and career. I think we like the lanternes rouges and elevate their achievement because of our feeling for the underdog. The French maybe understand it differently. If anything they’re bored of it now: it’s the newer cycling audiences who are now drawn to it as an idea.
I found the stuff about Zaaf very interesting, him being part of the first North African team in France and the mythology surrounding him.
Yeah, I always liked the Zaaf story about the Algerian Muslim drinking wine and then cycling back towards the start, but I was sure it was bullshit. Add to the implausibility of the tale the tricky colonial relationship and the spectre of the Algerian war of independence only a few years in the future, and I thought perhaps there was a discriminatory element in how he had been treated – by the race, the press and the fans. A chat with a guy called Christopher Thompson, who wrote a great book called The Tour de France: a Cultural History confirmed it might be worth investigating.
I’m pleased to have fleshed out a misunderstood rider’s legacy with some facts. But on the flipside, I love these myths that the Tour generates. In a way, with all these stories of derring do and romance in the Golden Age of cycling, it doesn’t bother me at all that it might not have happened.
Considering the state of the Tour’s ‘winners’ list the ‘Lanterne Rouge’ is perhaps a more honourable title?
Perhaps, but don’t think there weren’t intrigues, deceptions, betrayals and industrial quantities of drugs at the back of the race too…
Your portrait is taken outside the British Library, did you conduct a lot of research from here?
The French national library in Paris was better for research (it has all the old newspapers on microfilm) but I did a lot of the writing at the British Library. It’s like a drop-in centre for shiftless writers. The British national newspaper library was also helpful – for information about Tony Hoar’s ride as the second-ever British finisher of the Tour.
Your literacy in French must’ve proved useful for research too?
Yes. My love for cycling is inextricably bound up in my love for France. I studied French and lived there, and work there a lot now too. The Giro and the Vuelta and the Belgian Classics just don’t exert the same emotional pull as the Tour and Paris-Nice. So it wouldn’t and couldn’t have happened without my knowledge of France and French. But I think the Miroir-Sprint photo magazines and the French newspapers were actually the best sources when writing the book.
Out of all the riders’ stories, which one did you find most compelling?
I think I got most involved with those guys I met. The old time stories are fun to research, but the conversations were my favourite bit. Jacky Durand was the most compelling figure, and Philippe Gaumont the most challenging. I spent a lot of time talking with him on the phone and emailing, going to his bar and trying to arrange an interview. And when it didn’t finally happen – for reasons I won’t reveal here – it left me with a big hole emotionally and in terms of my understanding of him and his era. I struggle to make sense of his life, or how it should be understood for those of us who love pro cycling.
You’re posing in George’s picture with your Feather Cycles Continental bike, tell us about your involvement on that front?
I don’t normally ride that bike around town! But that day something was up with my hack bike. I am utterly undeserving of sitting astride this fine piece of Ricky’s handiwork, but I ride it with pleasure.
As for the Rapha Continental, I ride mainly on my own, or with one or two people these days, and what motivates me is to be in the middle of nowhere and to explore. I don’t train and I don’t race: riding is an extended form of thinking for me, so to ride with the Continental – where the trips are with friends and seem always to be based on ideas outside of cycling – is exactly the sort of thing I like doing. I felt honoured to be asked to join.
Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France by Max Leonard is published by Yellow Jersey